The composition cum compilation of the suite which this set takes its name from had unusual origins. It was a very, very personal communication, prepared with very specific functions or meanings in mind. As to Zeitlin’s concern whether that music ought to have had a wide audience, rather than a single address to its dedicatee, I’d say some parts survive well, others leap a little too much into the infinite or transcendent to get beyond the jazz pianist’s attempted communication to one specific individual in his immediate situation.
I don’t want to criticise Zeitlin’s issuing music conceived initially and recorded as a message beyond words to a friend who was dying of cancer. The music which survives the context here isn’t so much to be thought better than the other parts of the suite, as saying different things belonging strictly to another and very specific context. The pianist wouldn’t be doing anything wrong by saying “I love you” to Mrs. Zeitlin, or saying something similar with allusions only she could catch. He just wouldn’t be talking to anybody else when he was doing that—unlike the different case of the composer who brought a little ensemble to outside his wife’s bedroom door to play something he’d composed for her birthday. Both cases seem to me to apply here, each to different parts of the suite.
The tradition of jazz pianists involves not writing everything out, and with only a few singularly gifted exceptions—even more gifted than Dr. Zeitlin, who could play anybody offstage if the mood took him—of not writing everything. The interpretation of other composers’ music is a statement of relation to them, just as is the incorporation of influence in sounding at times like that or this other and usually older pianist. The biggest achievement is a sort of empathic re-composition, which is what he has here in Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” with harmonic expansion. At times the Zeitlin combination of walking left hand and voyaging right bring the two together into a rhythmic interrelationship not so far from the stride piano rarely remote from Monk. Wayne Shorter’s “Miyako” has at times great delicacy, complex and dreamy with such refinement of left hand touch and flow as to suggest there’s a secret bassist. The rhythmic impulse is never lost, nor fullness of sound.
For more from other composers we have to wait until the title suite. From the tracks left before we get there, Zeitlin’s own “Cascade” is described as a suite in eight parts, maybe a curious description for a piece of music not quite nine minutes long? The left hand performs at various ambulatory paces, breaking into a trot, pausing, getting about a lot. Then after an exercise at McCoy Tyner’s level of virtuosity, but more contained and with a different pianist’s voice, there’s a lyrical passage. And then there’s another more playful one, and the guy’s hands can presumably dart very rapidly indeed, since he manages a little go in the piano strings: suddenly a strum. He seems to leave jazz behind for the extensively pedalled but as ever contained though assertive end section.
His most celebrated composition may be “Quiet Now”, which Bill Evans celebrated nine times on record (the number nine was provided by Zeitlin, the rhetoric is your reviewer’s). The opening of this 12-minutes-plus performance by the composer seems to owe more to Chopin than to jazz tradition, but the theme (now forty years old!) eventually emerges in exemplary jazz ballad manner, drawn out beautifully. This is amazing, it seems ungracious to suggest that a performance which gets to where this at times does might be overall a little too long.
Zeitlin came up in the 1960s amid ‘free’ and ‘new thing’ explosions, but where “Walking, Prancing, Marching, Dancing” is called a free improvisation and was apparently titled after the act it’s shapely, structured and ordered as maybe the long “Quiet Now” here isn’t, as a whole. It’s an exercise in counterpoint that takes a life of its own.
“Prelude” is another free improvisation, a couple of minutes with the synthesizer—used elsewhere in the suite—coming in rather too ethereally in accompaniment. The same electronic instrument performs an orchestral agitato, churning away while the free hand executes lines on Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way”. The old ballad “I Should Care” has the same balance, but it’s so slow as to be practically a re-composition, and the synthesizer underlines and perhaps for general listeners overdoes the meditative side. There are I think private meanings here.
The music isn’t so extremely engrossed on “Interlude 1”, another ‘free improvisation’ but on solo piano, firm though meditative, troubled and then meditative again. The segue into J.J. Johnson’s “Lament” has synthesizer, but that performance is not talking to me. The second improvised “Interlude” has the sound of a familiar ballad, and more of the playing which distinguishes “Quiet Now”, nothing difficult. This is a lovely performance.
On the closing “Moving Parts” 1 & 2, the synthesizer is used as a melodic instrument, a sort of melodica with flute intonation. If I didn’t know what this music was, I’d still be fascinated and arrested. Presumably this was an overdub, or maybe under-dub, since the piano seems to follow the dancing sometimes drifting (like a tongued flute) lightness. The second part begins with a low register melodica solo line over even fuller but sensitive though not constrained accompaniment from both hands on the piano. The left hand is righteous down below, and sensitive to the tremulous, but dancing line above it. The melodic improvisation on imitation horn, and the piano part, combine into something quite striking; Gospel music a la Aaron Copland? The sense of liberty and simplicity, bluesiness on an un-bluesy instrument, I find captivating, right to the pedal note on neo-melodica, with which the music ends. It has something which I have missed in Denny Zeitlin’s on occasional excessively preoccupied performances. A beautiful item from a bag which has to be described as very mixed.