Friday, July 25, 2014

Piano Trio, Substantive Sounds

Dr. Denny Zeitlin has 2 careers, one as a practicing psychiatrist and medical school teacher plus a parallel life as a working musician.  His interest in music came at an early age and he began classical training at the age of 7. His teacher introduced him to Ravel and Bartok but it was George Shearing and, subsequently Art Tatum, who really caught his ears and mind.  During his high school years, he became attracted to the mid-1950s (pre-Columbia Records) Miles Davis groups, especially the bass & drums work of Paul Chambers and Philly Jo Jones.  He moved on to look into the work of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.  During his medical school time at Johns Hopkins, he gigged with musicians such as saxophonist Gary Bartz and drummer Billy Hart. During his Fellowship at Columbia in New York City, he met and informally studied with composer/theorist George Russell. At around the same time, his friend reed-player Paul Winter introduced Zeitlin to producer John Hammond at CBS Records who signed him. Among his recordings for that label is 1965's "Live At The Trident", a Trio date featuring bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Jerry Granelli. (Much of the above biographical information came from an excellent April 2014 blog post from Ted Panken's "Today Is The Question" - read the entire article here).

"Stairway To The Stars" (Sunnyside Records) features Zeitlin's 21st Century Trio of Buster Williams (bass) and Matt Wilson (drums).  Although this is the ensemble's 3rd recording (2nd on Sunnyside with 2004's "Slick Rock" on MaxJazz), this November 2001 recording does from the first time they played together (either on-stage or in rehearsal.)   If you are one who believes in serendipity, Messrs. Zeitlin, Williams and Wilson sound as if they were made to play together (and had been doing so for years.)  The majority of the material comes from the "Great American Songbook" plus a smashing reading of Wayne Shorter's "Deluge" and Zeitlin's "Out for a Stroll", a medium-tempo blues that closes the recording. From the opening seconds of the first track, "There Will Never Be Another You", one can sense Dr. Zeitlin's comfort and pleasure with musical partners (he had recorded with Williams in the past), so, after he states the theme. the pianist goes on an extended romp.  Playing with thematic fragments, extended single-note runs, full-throated chords and more, the solo has "real" swing. The pianist's interactions with the bassist are wonderfully melodic throughout the program but none mores than on "You Don't Know What Love Is."  Wilson never intrudes on their dialogues; instead, he offers them a soft percussion cushion and steady tempo. That doesn't mean he's the third wheel. He locks into an exciting groove with Williams on the fiery reading  of Sonny Rollins' "Oleo" while his brushes work on the title track (taken from Billy Wilder's 1959 movie "Some Like It Hot") has the sound of a spring rain.

As for the pianist, he plays with such "freedom", not so much "out" as just allowing his mind and fingers to ramble where they may.  Because he has extra-wide melodic streak, the resulting music never seems forced or phony.  And, because he is so comfortable with the rhythm section and the material, one can close his or her eyes and luxuriate in these sounds. Therefore, "Stairway To The Stars" is an apropos name for this highly enjoyable recording.

Still active in his various professions, Dr. Denny Zeitlin creates music that is timeless yet of his time.  Chances are very good his music will resonate for decades to come.  For more information, go to

Here's a good dollop of "Oleo":

Denny Zeitlin and I are scheduled to conduct an interview in the next week and I will post a link when it is complete.  In the meantime, Marc Myers has a 4-part interview with the Doctor on his website, JazzWax.  The link to Part 1 is here.

Pianist/composer J.J. Wright, while much younger than Denny Zeitlin (at least, 40 years), has varied interests, especially in music. He studied jazz improvisation at The New School for Jazz in New York City and is currently Director of Sacred Music at Sacred Heart  Parish at the University of Notre Dame. He has performed with the US Naval Academy Band and with vibraphonist David Samuels.  Wright also composed and performed with the quartet Turn Around Normaninitially based in the Baltimore, MD-area.

For his debut as a leader "Inward Looking Outward" (Ropeadope Records), Wright works and plays with Nate Wood (drums) and Ike Sturm (bass) on a 9-song program consisting of 6 originals and 1 tune each by Sufjan Stevens ("Little Person"), Jon Brion ("The Tranfigurations") and Phil Collins ("Take Me Home"). The first impression this listener had is just how upfront Wood's drums are in the mix.  One might make a connection to the sonic quality of The Bad Plus (Wood is as active a drummer as TBP's Dave King) but Wright has a different touch and attack than Ethan Iverson. Still, there are moments such as on the Brion tune where, in the piano-bass duet part of the song, the pianist's left hand work has the flavor of EI's.  Wright brings in one tune from his "..Norman" days, the funky "Consolations."  Sturm's thick tone and buoyant bass lines mesh well with Wood's active and dancing drums.  The pianist rides with and atop the beat, creating a hypnotic feel.

The 5-section "JTC", separate compositions spread through the program, ranges from the hard-edged "II" that opens the CD to the classically flavored "I" that follows. The latter track takes its time to develop, going through different tempos and melodic ideas before Wright's solo hits its stride. "III" is a soulful gospel-tinged, ballad (not unlike a Randy Newman ballad); un-rushed, the piece takes its time but is a highly satisfying journey. There's more than a hint of Bud Powell and Chick Corea in the rhythm and melodic movement on "IV" (Wood flat-out "swings" while Sturm "walks" or offers strong counterpoint.  "V" also is a gospel-infused ballad , this time leaning more to sound and feel of Richard Manuel of The Band.

Wood sets the pace on the Phil Collins song, a beat that neither wavers nor flags.  Wright presents the melody without flash or false sentiments.  The Trio does an admirable job of raising the intensity as they move to the final choruses and emotional climax, leaving the drummer to take the song "home."

J.J. Wright makes a powerful, musical, debut on "Inward Looking Outward" (also an apropos title for a recording) - his interactions with Nate Wood and Ike Sturm seem natural not forced and one can tell he felt comfortable to be himself (letting the rhythm section do what they do best.) For more information, go to

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