Denny Zeitlin: Labyrinth


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With pianist Denny Zeitlin, you sense that he isn't quite sure where he wants to end up on any given song. The truth is he isn't. Which is part of what makes him so special and engaging as an artist. Denny courageously rushes out on limbs. But instead of inching back to safety when he hears creaking, he simply hurls himself into space, confident that somewhere along the way he will find another limb and grab hold. And invariably he does. A prime example of Denny's fearless piano style is exhibited on Labyrinth, his latest release.

Labyrinth was recorded live in 2008 and 2010 at two Ernie Shelton's House Concerts in Sebastopol, Calif. Particularly noteworthy here are Denny's song choices. Labyrinth opens with a brazen interpretation of Wayne Shorter's Footprints. Denny coyly nibbles around the edges of the song, providing fragments of the explosive theme but never lingers too long. You know it's Footprints because Denny provides just enough of the melody. But what sounds familiar is merely an intersection for Denny, enabling him to scoot off in different directions as he figures out a range of ways to reinvent the song.

Tom Harrell's bossa Sail Away is given a similar exciting treatment. But on this one,Denny falls a bit more in love with the song's elegant design and spends more time on the compelling theme.

Denny deconstructs Irving Berlin's They Say It's Wonderful without ever being disrespectful, giving the tune from Annie Get Your Gun a gentle, near-romantic cascade. He slows up in just the right places, teasing out the melody's sweetness and sighing moments.

Lazy Bird should convince anyone on the fence about Denny that his technique is extraordinary. If tickets were issued for speeding on the keyboard, Denny would be in lockup. Dig how fast he rolls through John Coltrane's tour de force. His left and right hands are so detached creatively from each other you start to think there are two pianists at work.

For those who enjoy hearing Denny perform oragami with chord voicings, Arthur Schwartz's Dancing in the Dark lets you hear his range of inventiveness. Swells of surging reinterpretations follow the theme as Denny runs down to the dark bottom of the piano and all the way up to the bright top, changing keys several times. As a result, the standard is transformed into a Debussian-expressionist hybrid. 

Denny's playing is often mischaracterized as Bill Evans [pictured] if the pianist had lived beyond 1980 and continued to develop artistically. This is unfair to both artists. Denny in many ways is way more sophisticated and inspirational than Evans, who tightly controlled his executions and adhered slavishly to a small clique of standards he recorded repeatedly in his later years.

My comment here isn't meant to devalue or debase Evans or even compare the two pianists. It's just a rebuttal to those who mistakenly view Denny and Evans as stylistically linked. The only similarity I hear is that both have poetry in their hearts and know a thing or two about taking songs apart and reassembling them as improved, complex creations.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find Denny Zeitlin's Labyrinth  (Sunnyside) at iTunes or here.

JazzWax notes: For my four-part interview with Denny, go here... Mosaic Records issued a terrific three-CD box set of Denny's three early studio albums for Columbia several years ago. The set is still available here.

JazzWax clip: Here's a clip of Denny that will give you a feel for the pianist and how he drifts between what sounds familiar and what's purely experimental...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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