Denny Zeitlin: Stairway to the Stars

Explorations for jazz trio — traditional and yet now quite so, which is where this artist lives.
Denny Zeitlin
Stairway to the Stars

I first heard pianist (and psychiatrist) Denny Zeitlin during my days as a high school jazz DJ. One of his daring fusion explorations of the 1970s found its way into our LP library, filed very nearly at the very-very end of the jazz section. Fender Rhodes, acoustic piano, some synthesizer, and a sense of genuine adventure were there in the black vinyl grooves, and I played the record often. My dad was a psychiatrist too, but he didn’t improvise like a man searching for himself in the future somewhere. This guy “Zeitlin”, man, he was far out.

The years have done nothing to tame Dr. Zeitlin’s interest in exploration, but they have brought him home to the songs that have inspired so many jazz musicians along the path. The latest release from the doc (still practicing, by the way, as well as playing) is a set of eight sturdy standards (six from Tin Pan Alley and two modern jazz classics) and one easygoing original, played by a trio featuring the redoubtable and melodic Buster Williams on bass and drummer Matt Wilson.

Recent playing by Zeitlin has been squarely in the modern jazz mainstream — beautiful, varied, harmonically sophisticated. Comparisons tend to run toward Bill Evans, what with Zeitlin’s penchant for ballad playing and intriguing harmonies, but for me he is more reminiscent of Ahmad Jamal: a pianist who thinks like an orchestra and tends to find ways to structure his performances around a particularly memorable figure, lick, or chord sequence. When he gets going with both hands in sync, Zeitlin is a big pianist who takes up plenty of sonic space and interest.

Zeitlin has a grand time with Wayne Shorter’s classic “Deluge”, finding room for a stairstep-descending bass figure with his left hand that recurs throughout — not only as a clever part of the arrangement but also as a motif that Zeitlin uses as he improvises. His solo builds to a two-handed climax using a jagged unison that evolves from the bass figure and keeps the whole endeavor unified before handing things over to Williams for a bass solo. He even finishes the performance with a contrasting spin on the bass figure, shifting interest up the highest range of his instrument with a clattering fugue-like figure that slowly fades away.

Similarly, Zeitlin’s arrangement of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” uses a subtle Latin feel and develops several interesting motifs that almost become countermelodies. One of them is worked out more fully in the tag at the end of the performance, ending the rendition quietly with that melodic bit played in a fading repetition.

As a ballad player, Zeitlin is exceptional and resourceful. “I Could Have Told You” is a rarely-heard Jimmy Van Heusen tune, and the trio assays it with beautiful swells of volume and intensity, Zeitlin arpeggiating the harmonies with almost baroque complexity particularly on the unaccompanied ending to the song. There are no “solos” here in the usual sense, just several statements of the melody with different connecting elements. “Stairway to the Stars” is more familiar, and the trio approaches it traditionally. Wilson is exceptional here on brushes, giving Buster Williams plenty of room to move in and out of the space of the song but never himself getting buried. The result is a long piano solo that seems ever to be a conversation. This is where the group most calls to mind those terrific Bill Evans records of the 1960s and 1970s.

Like Evans, Zeitlin can cook at fast tempos when he chooses, and the vehicle for that on this record is “Oleo”, with the melody coming as a two-handed act of aggression, first in the higher register and then in a low, rumbling repetition. On his solo, Zeitlin starts with sharp, rippling runs, but soon the band allows things to break up a bit. Zeitlin abstracts his solo into jagged, repeating patterns, and what was a fast bebop tune becomes something more “out” and interesting. The crowd loves it — the entire album was recorded live at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City almost 13 years ago (and who knows why it stayed in the can for so long).

As a composer, the leader is under-represented here, preferring to focus mainly on tender, melancholy love songs. The only original here is a gentle, easy, well-named swinger, “Out for a Stroll”. It could be a throwaway kind of performance at the end of a night, but Zeitlin, Williams, and Wilson aren’t that kind of band. The rhythm section works like a rubbery magic carpet, steady but rich with push-and-pull, and the pianist plays a coy, sly solo, with melodic lines tailing off then circling back, repeated note motifs turning him into a drummer of sorts. Williams’ solo is exceptional as well, turning into a bit of a game of cat-and-mouse with Zeitlin’s accompaniment. Things wrap up with another quiet tag, the pianist going up high with his right hand to let the evening tail away beautifully.

If you’re hearing Denny Zeitlin for the first time, Stairway to the Stars is a solid and witty example of how the art of the jazz trio can create much more than background music. There are no gimmicks here other than the theme of the songs’ lyrics. But by varying things in subtle ways and by arranging each song with intelligence, Zeitlin demonstrates why so many of us have been following him carefully through the years, though he still splits his time between music and psychiatry and doesn’t get away from the west coast often.

He’s still doing things a little differently, exploring the horizon, bringing his own touch to everything.

RATING 7 / 10