Recent Listening: Zeitlin Remembers Davis

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Denny Zeitlin Solo Piano: Remembering Miles

For the most recent of his annual solo concerts at the Piedmont Piano Company in Oakland, California, pianist Denny Zeitlin’s subject was Miles Davis. The recital before the Piedmont’s customary audience of close listeners covered several eras of the trumpeter’s career. Davis composed few major jazz standards, and he had collaborators for some of those. In the recording, Zeitlin’s repertoire begins with one of the most famous pieces attributed to Davis. “Solar” was in fact written in 1947 by guitarist Chuck Wayne as “Sonny” and named for trumpeter Sonny Berman. It is one of Davis’s most famous appropriations. Zeitlin eases into it, but soon employs his formidable left hand to fill out the sound and roll into minor-key explorations.

Some of the pieces that Davis wrote, collaborated on or borrowed have become jazz standards and remain bulwarks of his fame. Among them are two pieces titled “Milestones,” the one that pianist John Lewis wrote in 1947, well before Lewis’s Modern Jazz Quartet years, and Davis’s own “Milestones,” which in 1958 became the title tune of his first Columbia album with the sextet that included John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. Zeitlin’s fleetness, forward motion and modalities are irresistible in in the ’58 version. His speed and light-heartedness as he addresses the Lewis “Milestones” make it one of highlights of the album. It is all but certain that Bill Evans was a major contributor to the composition of “Flamenco Sketches,” a modal masterpiece that was a highlight among highlights in Davis’s amazingly successful Kind Of Blue, which remains one of the best-selling jazz albums ever. Zeitlin is relaxed and harmonically subtle throughout this piece, which is welcome as one of the albums longer tracks. Other aspects worth mentioning include Zeitlin’s approach to Cindy Lauper’s “Time After Time,” which became a staple of Davis’s latterday repertoire. In Zeitlin’s hands, it is both playful and thoughtful. “Tomaas,” a Davis collaboration with bassist Marcus Miller, finds Zeitlin at first reaching inside the piano taking advantage of its harp-like qualities, then modulating into series of commentaries that come in fragments of left-hand flourishes and, ultimately, in final thoughts that incorporate a stunning decrescendo.

Finally, I must mention that Zeitlin concludes with a pair of performances based in the heart and lifeblood of jazz: first, the energy that he applies to the “I Got Rhythm” changes of Davis’s “The Theme;” second, the drive, pzazz and humor with which he invests the good old b-flat blues, in this case a piece that Davis recorded in 1954 and titled “Weirdo.” Zeitlin wraps it up in keeping with the title. The ending is ever so slightly weird.

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This story appears courtesy of Rifftides by Doug Ramsey.
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