Denny Zeitlin: Live at Mezzrow

Dan McClenaghan By

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Denny Zeitlin: Live at Mezzrow
Pianist Denny Zeitlin appeared on his first recording in 1963, flautist Jeremy Steigs' Flute Fever (Columbia Records). He was in his third year at Johns Hopkins Medical School at the time, on a path to dual careers in psychiatry and eventually the teaching of that profession—vocations he continues with to this day.

Add a third career, jazz pianist. And Denny Zeitlin doesn't dabble. His music is a third career, equal in personal importance to his more conventional occupations. He recorded four more albums under his own name for Columbia between 1964 and 1966. From there Zeitlin moved to smaller labels, maintaining a consistent album release schedule, including an early foray into electronic music—when the means for operating in the genre were relatively rudimentary—and recording a marvelous electro-orchestral soundtrack to the 1978 movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Zeitlin's relationship with Sunnyside Records, beginning in 2009, was and continues to be a fortuitous and fruitful one. The first album in the pianist's Sunnyside relationship documenting the Denny Zeitlin/Buster Williams/Matt Wilson trio was Denny Zeitlin In Concert, Featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson (2009)—the first having been Slickrock (MAXJAZZ, 2004). He then moved into an album a year schedule at the label that continues to this day, with solo, trio and electro-acoustic offerings of the highest caliber.

Which brings us to Live At Mezzrow, featuring, once again, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Matt Wilson (the trio has five Sunnyside albums under its belt at this writing). Zeitlin and company open the show with a restructured, reharmonized version of George and Ira Gershwin's "The Man I Love," an eleven-plus-minute high velocity workout which pushes the boundaries between straight ahead and free jazz—a mode that continues throughout the set. The songs are familiar; the trio takes them into unfamiliar territory and back again with a modernistic verve.

A Billy Strayhorn theme emerges. The trio covers three of Strayhorn's compositions, "Star-Crossed Lovers," "Ishfahan" and "Intimacy of the Blues." Crafting vehicles for the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Strayhorn made the loveliest of music. Zeitlin paints the first two introspective stories with gorgeous colorations, while the last plays out as a percussive, full throttle romp, the trio locked into a joyous groove.

Zeitlin's own "Echo Of A Kiss," and "10 Bar Tune" hold the same allure as the best of the Great American Songbook tunes, and Thelonious Monk's "I Mean You" caroms and banks around the table until Zeitlin takes it into freer territory inside the bouncing Williams/Wilson groove.

The trio closes with Wayne Shorters "Paraphernalia," that originally appeared on Miles Davis' Miles In The Sky (Columbia, 1968). Zeitlin offered up his take on the tune on his 2018 solo set, Early Wayne: Explorations of Classic Wayne Shorter Compositions (Sunnyside Records). In this reprise, Zeitlin and his trio mates stretch out for twelve-plus minutes of propulsive agitation that shifts to dreamy rumination and pianistic exploration and beauty, to close perhaps the finest of his ongoing album releases for Sunnyside Records.

Track Listing

The Man I Love; Echo of a Kiss; I Mean You; The Star-Crossed Lovers; 10 Bar Tune; Dancing In The Dark; Isfahan; Intimacy of The Blues; Paraphernalia.


Denny Zeitlin: piano; Buster Williams: bass; Matt Wilson: drums.

Album information

Title: Live at Mezzrow | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Sunnyside Records

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