Pianist Denny Zeitlin recently turned 80 years old, but who’s counting? The good doctor (he is also a practicing psychiatrist) was ahead of the curve back in the 1960s, having put together influences from Bill Evans to Paul Bley and working through a series of electronic keyboard experiments and soundtrack music (Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1978—yup, that one) before returning to more traditional acoustic music in the late 1970s. Zeitlin would probably be more prominent in jazz had he not stuck to his medical career in the San Francisco Bay Area while also playing steadily. But the music has never suffered, even if his fame has.
Zeitlin’s most recent recording is a live solo concert of songs associated with Miles Davis. As ever, Zeitlin takes a thoughtful approach with a wide view, tackling tunes that go back to Davis’s career from the 1940s, through his classic 1950s recordings, and on to his “comeback period” in the 1980s. Beyond this range of sources, though, the pianist varies his approach to the Davis material, feeling free to play outside the recognizable melodies, to take harmonic liberties with the tunes, even to play them delicately or abstractly or barely.
The tune from 1947, “Milestones”, is a bebop theme by pianist John Lewis written for Miles when he was playing in Charlie Parker’s quintet but was making his recording as a leader. It is full of harmonic hairpin turns, and Zeitlin plays it at a gentle tempo, making it sound slightly older, with a hint of stride piano around the edges. He passes the melody between left and right hands with aplomb, making the tricky tune sound like a lark from another era. Which, perhaps, is just what it is.
Of course, material from the 1950s dominates the set, given what a lush period that was for Davis. “Weirdo” is a lick-based blues from 1954 (a cousin of the more-often played Davis tune “Walkin'”) that Zeitlin wisely plays with humor at first before turning it into a more contemplative forum for improvising freely across several styles, not staying within a simple 12-bar blues. “Stablemates”, composed by Benny Golson, was recorded in 1955 by the first great Davis quintet with John Coltrane. Zeitlin approaches the interesting melody with his right hand as a single-note line in the middle register while simultaneously playing a busy single-note counterpoint with his left hand. This rumbling lower melody, improvised, becomes foreground rather than an accompaniment. After stating the theme, Zeitlin launches into a two-handed improvisation that, while still punctuated by garrulous left-hand runs, moves excitedly in and out of strict tempo, rising into upper register clusters before moving back to a swinging low bass line again.
“Lament” is a composition by trombonist J.J. Johnson that Miles recorded on his first large band record with Gil Evans, 1957’s Miles Ahead. The version here is delicate and lush in harmony, with Zeitlin’s left hand moving in a continual flow of chords and lines as his right hand plays thoughtful improvised melodic phrases that are usually chordal or arpeggiated as well. Sensual rather than sad. “Dear Old Stockholm” (a traditional tune arranged by Stan Getz and released on the 1958 ‘Round About Midnight for Columbia Records) was a mid-tempo swinger for Miles’s muted trumpet sound, and Zeitlin takes it a bit slower and creates an improvisation that does not just spin a new melody above the chord changes but more completely reimagines the texture and feeling of the original performance, with time suspended for long stretches and some riskier sections where the tune’s form seems to be temporarily abandoned in favor of a more interesting direction.
Up to this point in the Davis chronology, Remembering Miles might pass as a fine and creative solo piano set, but one your ears are quite used to hearing. But things get increasingly interesting with the more modern tunes. The second tune titled “Milestones” (this one from the 1958 album of the same name) uses the tune’s famous rising and falling modal motif as part of a cascade of the piano. Zeitlin turns this inspiration into a fantasia of playing: splashes of patterns, some swinging, some furiously busy and in tempo, some moving freely through unrelated harmonies, some craggy statements and some rhythmic patterns over a simple left-hand pedal point.
Gentler but no less creative is “Flamenco Sketches” from 1959’s Kind of Blue, the concert’s longest performance. The composition moves through a series of modes, and Zeitlin is faithful to the beauty of the original, but he is freer in working creatively within each mode and shifting at his whim. He seems to strum the piano strings like the instrument was a guitar, creating pillows of rippling sound. At other times, his two hands achieve brilliant independence, spinning high and low melody lines at the same time that weave and spin through the modal structure. The freedom of musical imagination here is stunning as you follow Zeitlin’s mind through this one musical journey.
Tunes associated with Davis’s 1960s “second” quintet (with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Ron Carter) are given more elliptical treatments. “So Near, So Far” is played with a gentle sharing of the burden between left and right hand, the harmonies seeming transparent and sunlit at once. “Circle” is a theme written by Davis, and it has a vague tonal center, a mysterious feeling. Zeitlin handles it with an appropriate sense of ambiguity, his harmonies shifting and never seeming to resolve. It sounds like the world’s longest sidelong glance from a beautiful woman.
The tension increases for Zeitlin’s takes on 1980s Miles Davis. “Tomass”, from the late-career Tutu, is built around a repeated funk bass line and a short theme that enters briefly three minutes and five minutes into the seven-minute performance. Before and after these statements, the pianist uses all the elements of his instrument to create fascinating texture and tension. Zeitlin reaches into the body of the piano to pull at the strings with his fingers, he plays outside the harmony, he uses call and response between his two hands and—mainly—he draws on the blues, broadly defined, to growl and sing his way to something marvelous.
More intriguing but similar is a very abstract take on “Time After Time”, the Cyndi Lauper hit that Miles repurposed in the 1980s. This very effective pop tune has a memorable melody with a classic verse/chorus structure, and Miles played it relatively straight but ingeniously removed many of the notes of the melody to make the tune purer. Zeitlin begins with a repeated ostinato bass note figure and improvises over that with only the faintest hints at the verse. Without the title to help them, I doubt that audience members knew what tune he was playing for most of the performance. But that, of course, is the fun and the art of it, as the fragments cohere into something new and then—bam—you recognize it as well. Zeitlin gets the balance just right.
For plain old virtuosity, there is “The Theme”, which Davis used to close so many shows over the years. It was a familiar, tossed-off figure that told audiences that things were done, but Zeitlin turns it into a workout here for his dexterity, playing long, swinging lines that spiral and twist, sometimes over a low pedal point, sometimes over a swinging left hand. There is a splash of gospel playing, some mid-tempo swing, and then a quick resolution.
By the end of Zeitlin’s recital, it is fair to marvel at the range of Davis’s music, of course, but also at the versatility of this pianist, a master of so many styles and approaches who, decades after he seemed most in the spotlight, can hold his own with so many modern masters. Denny Zeitlin is a musician who never got stuck in one way of approaching the art. Maybe that has kept us from knowing him better—as a stylist of one kind or another—but it can thrill an audience any night of the week.