There are those who contend that the only way to have a serious career in music is to make it a full-time profession: a calling if you like. Pianist Denny Zeitlin who, for most of his adult life, has split his professional time between music and a psychiatric practice, is as good an argument as any against that philosophy. While he may not record as frequently as some, his career has been marked by an uncompromising devotion to his craft and its evolution. And the relative infrequency of recordings simply makes each new one all the more an event. Slickrock , recorded with bassist Buster Williams and drummer Matt Wilson, is just such an occasion, and proof that while music may not be his full-time occupation, it is a full-time obsession.
There are also those who contend that one’s personality comes out in the music, and in that regard they would be correct. Coming from the Bill Evans school of impressionism, Zeitlin nevertheless displays a sense of optimism, even on tender tunes like “Body and Soul”; an avid mountain biker, there is an energy and positivism permeating his music that can only come from someone who is in fine physical, mental and emotional condition.
And Zeitlin has picked his bandmates well. Williams’ resonant tone and elasticity of approach make him a fine foil. Wilson’s similarly pliable style and enthusiastic empathy create some of the more exciting moments on the record; the piano/drums duo in the middle of Zeitlin’s “Every Which Way” bristles with ideas and simpatico interplay.
The programme covers a lot of ground. Zeitlin contributes half the material, ranging from the romantic “Wishing on the Moon” to the lighthearted and joyful “Just Passing By.” The title track, which closes the album, traverses free territory, highly structured terrain and passages that are mere roadmaps to navigate the landscape, much like the Utah Canyonlands that were inspiration for the four-movement suite.
Through it all Zeitlin, Williams and Wilson perform with ease. Whether it is the up-tempo version of Wayne Shorter’s “E.S.P.” or “Sweet Georgia Brown,” taken as a slow 6/8 and so reharmonized as to be nearly unrecognizable, the trio demonstrates contrasting power and subtlety, strength and elegance, always with a strong commitment.
It has been seven years since Zeitlin’s last recording, nine if one considers recordings available in North America; but if anything he continues to get stronger. He has always shown a remarkable focus, but in Slickrock he has created one of his strongest efforts to date. While one could wish for more frequent releases from Zeitlin, if this is the result of such a lengthy hiatus, maybe things should stay just the way they are.
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Personnel: Denny Zeitlin: piano; Buster Williams: bass; Matt Wilson: drums.