Denny Zeitlin: Slickrock

Robert R. Calder

Denny Zeitlin


Label: MaxJazz
US Release Date: 2004-05-25
UK Release Date: 2004-06-28

Slickrock is apparently a classification of naturally occurring stone. Its surface is said to afford various exciting advantages for mountainbikers, two of whom seem to be Mrs. & Dr. Zeitlin. The latter of these is also a psychiatrist, and -- to the point here -- a veteran pianist of no small musical ambition. You don't play this without being able to give a conservatory lesson.

Like most pianists of like quality, he doesn't need a medical career to keep himself out of the public eye. That just happens anyway, though the practice of psychiatry presumably has challenges and satisfactions beyond those of, say, driving a cab -- or having so draining a routine elsewhere in music (alternative: starvation) that there's no energy to do better music justice.

The St. Louis company MaxJazz plainly don't take excessive artistic risks with a list including Jessica Williams, Messrs Miller (M), Keezer, and the above-noted Zeitlin. The surefire musical achievement here leans strongly on the impressive Buster Williams, whose bass shares the front line much of the time. Each man is in himself a combination of sophistication and gusto. This isn't to belittle Matt Wilson's drumming, which is unostentatious in discharge of the considerable duties the drummer has behind this sort of duo in the trio business.

There's a lot of attention to dynamics, and other detail of expression. Williams can chase Zeitlin up the keyboard and then find that the pianist has gone off chasing himself. Next thing, Williams finds the pianist's chasing him. It's just as well Zeitlin's left hand knows what his right hand is doing, as each set of digits seems to have a mind of its own -- enough to discharge the responsibilities delegated to each by the ever-monitoring Zeitlin. A performance of "You and the Night and the Music" that prompts such remarks can't be dull.

A remarkable amount of this music is ensemble improvisation, which was a byword when the blackbearded, bulky young Dr. Zeitlin appeared in a late 1960s DownBeat photo with Willie 'The Lion' Smith. Time has silvered and cycling svelte-ified, and while these were happening the man they were happening to included composition among his different forms of the care of souls. "Wishing on the Moon" is maybe based on an old song, and even our composer-pianist here can't be definite on that one. There's almost 10 minutes of this ballad, sometimes with the bassist prompting and quite a lot of the time the two melodious veterans contributing about equally. The drummer is very attentive and knows when to lay out. Perhaps this was just nine minutes forty-three seconds of jamming, because if they had planned an ending, either they didn't use it or it amounted to stopping very suddenly -- but remarkably together.

"Every Which Way" might be a motto for how they go about their swinging, tuneful attention to playing. This peppy performance -- Zeitlin turning from his duet with the bassist to duet with the drummer in the middle of it -- might just go on a little too long at nearly seven minutes. The gentle waltz of the pretty, nearly kiddie tune "Put Your Little Foot Right Out" was well advised. Like the opener, it has a very distinct melodic line. The melodic line of "It Could Happen to You" is hardly there at all till well into a performance of shifting lines. Capable of delicacy and a singing line, Dr. Zeitlin keeps implying the melody of this one, stretching it out and perking up again into tempo. He keeps the drummer busy.

In "Body and Soul" there's no shortage of expressive rubato -- the pianist draws his line out with the bassist and drummer keeping silent. It's caressingly emotional, romantic. If the theme ever thought it ought to have been in some work by a late nineteenth century Russian symphonist, it nearly gets its wish during some portions of this performance. The take on "Sweet Georgia Brown" uses the original melody in many, many ways. The 6/8 tempo sounds like a compressed or maybe repressed sort of waltz. I like the way the melodic material comes to be recycled in the sublimatory conclusion.

Wayne Shorter's "E.S.P." gets a style of performance somewhere between towering and powering. The pianist gets to improvise something like a concerto coda in the middle, and concise workouts are allowed first the bassist and then the drummer.

It's honest of the pianist in his notes to call "Just Passing By" a country/gospel influenced theme. It's a pretty little tune with a nice bass solo, a long way from the (for me) nightmare muddle of Nashville and sub-African sub-Baptist into which some compositions fall. It's a nice expression of affection, a good encore.

The last four numbers on the CD are movements of the suite from which the CD is titled. The beginning has some clatter involving drumming equipment and piano innards, pleasant enough and winding up in a lower register line on the piano. This is succeeded by the athleticism of "On the Trail", which begins with the pianist strumming piano strings for long enough to get things going, and thereafter he's out and about on the keys, driving and leading or supporting the bassist, with the drummer giving it what action music should have. Phew!

No wonder the next movement is entitled "Recovery". It's somewhat Bartokian with the pianist's left hand heavy on the keys then active in the strings, and Buster Williams doing amazing things with his double bass. Did the poor instrument have to rest in a darkened room for a while?

Oh, and the pianist can, it seems, pluck strings while engaged at either end of the piano. Maybe the end of "Recovery" is a dream of having been on the trail? The concluding movement is called "On the Trail Again". Off he goes, the bold boy! Off they all go. It's so exciting. Take the drums outside to help them cool! Maybe there's room on the couch beside the resting bass, I need to lie down.





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