Denny Zeitlin and David Friesen are giants of jazz. Never heard of ‘em, you say? If you need convincing, just take a peak at some of Zeitlin’s many accomplishments: he’s received three NEA Performance Grants and a smattering of five-star reviews in Down Beat, Through the Listening Glass was voted one of the 10 best jazz albums of the ‘70s, and Four to Go was picked as one of the five best jazz CDs for 1996 by the Jazz Times. Even given these awards and accolades (and many others), Zeitlin hasn’t garnered an ounce of the critical praise that he deserves. David Freisen finds himself in much the same boat. On the basis of one disc, the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD describes him as a “bitty and inconsistent player.” It’s an unfair and undeserved comment for a musician who has played professionally for over three decades (with such luminaries as Joe Henderson, Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon), compiling an impressive discography in the process.
Zeitlin has produced some of his best music in duos (including the memorable Time Remembers Time Once with Charlie Haden—my first exposure to Zeitlin) and some of his finest recordings in this format have been done with Freisen. They have had a rich and productive fifteen year association and continue to play together: hot on the heels of last year’s Live at the Jazz Bakery there is already another Zeitlin/Freisen disc out on the market—In Concert, a record of standards. Their 1999 collaboration, Live at the Jazz Bakery is a solid album sprinkled with inspired patches of playing. The first two tracks are standouts. On John Coltrane’s “Equinox,” Zeitlin displays exceptional command of the piano, shifting from a relaxed tempo to energetic moments of attack at precisely the right time. Freisen stays out of the way here, but his controlled bass playing is a perfect compliment to Zeitlin’s savvy tickling. Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti” is given a much more compelling reading than the version on Mark Turner’s Ballad Session that I reviewed last week. For one thing, it seems to be played almost twice as fast, more dissonantly, yet with greater purpose. When the melodic bridge erupts out of a sustained frenzy of piano and bass, it comes both as a relief and a revelation of the juice of life that Shorter has squeezed into this ever-popular composition.
In comparison to the two opening tracks, the others—three original compositions by Freisen, two by Zeitlin and one by Ray Noble—come as somewhat of a disappointment. The enthusiasm displayed at the beginning seems to lag over the rest of the disc. Almost none of the 16 plus minutes of Zeitlin’s “Triptych” are particularly compelling, and the same can be said of “Epiphany” as well. Things don’t pick up again until “Upon the Swing,” which displays a great deal more speed and energy than the droning tracks that follow the Shorter piece. I was listening to this live, this is when I’d go to refresh my drinks or pick out a couple of cream puffs (it’s a Jazz Bakery, right?) For anyone unfamiliar with Freisen and Zeitlin, Live at the Jazz Bakery makes for a good introduction to their work. It doesn’t have any of the problems usually associated with a live recording—the sound, for instance, is very good. And while it’s not a flat-out success, the disc sparkles enough here and there that it’s worthwhile to check it out. I’ve certainly been listening to it more than my rating might suggest.
P.S. I’ve never been to the Jazz Bakery in L.A., but I had kinda hoped that it would live up to its billing. A real Jazz Bakery should be pumping out olive loaves and donuts, long silvers of French bread and fat-topped carrot muffins. I can’t really see it: it doesn’t seem all that cool to be tearing off chunks of bread to stuff in your mouth while soaking up some jazz. Still, one could exploit the jazz connection in order to rechristen some of the baked goods: the Cannonball rum balls, Grappelli croissants, etc. I’m sorry to report that my research suggests that there are only four bakery items to choose from at the Jazz Bakery—carrot cake, lemon bundt cake, cappuccino mousse cake, and cookies—and that you can’t take any of them into the performance area. I bet they’re not even baked there. Freisen and Zeitlen will be back at the Bakery from Aug 23-26.