Sunday, June 14, 2020

Many Stories of the Past & Present

Pianist and composer Denny Zeitlin has been playing music all his life and professionally for the better part of six decades.  The 82-year old native of Chicago, IL, has lived on the West Coast since 1964 when he moved to study at University of California/ San Francisco and do his internship – yes, Dr. Zeitlin is also a clinical Professor of Psychiatry and also has a private practice. He's scored movies (the 1978 remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"), developed an interest in synthesizers and electronic music, and, while he does not tour much these days, he's maintained his current trio of Buster Williams (bass) and Matt Wilson (drums) since 2001. When you listen to them play, it's easy to hear why the association has lasted over the years – Dr. Zeitlin is a pianist with great facility, loves melody, and creates long, flowing, solos that are poetic and powerful whereas the rhythm section is just as musical and exploratory as its leader. One just knows they never play a song the same way twice.

"Denny Zeitlin: Live at Mezzrow" (Sunnyside Records) was recorded in May 2019 when the good Doctor was back East, a rare occurrence these days.  The nine-song program stretches out over 72 minutes, a collection of seven standards and two originals, and there's not a dull moment throughout. By this time of his career, one knows what to expect from a Denny Zeitlin performance and album; impeccable musicianship, intelligent choice of repertoire, and the delight of interacting with his fellow musicians.  Even his "electronic" duos with drummer/ percussionist George Marsh have those same qualities.  Mr. Williams and Mr. Wilson both come to these performances armed with their love of melody, joy of improvising, and in creating musical conversations with Dr. Zeitlin that are emotionally rich and musically powerful.

As I wrote above, one knows what to expect from this Trio yet we always listen because these albums are creative music at its best. Denny Zeitlin never cheats the listener, never relies on cliches or drastic rearrangements or deconstructions. His career-long adherence to playing the melody then taking those notes and chords so the audience can hear them grow as he (and, in many cases, his cohorts) explores all facets of the song is what the true fan revels in.  The finest pianists do that. People such as Fred Hersch, Geri Allen, Vijay Iyer, Keith Jarrett on back to Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Art Tatum, Fats Waller, and Earl Hines always keep or kept digging throughout each song and each performance.  Sit back, listen, and luxuriate in the splendid "Live at Mezzrow".

For more information, go to To purchase the album, go to

Here's a piece from the pen of Billy Strayhorn:

Photo: Heather Sten
Vocalist and composer Sara Serpa creates music that is intimate, personal, and exploratory, reaching into the listener's heart and mind to create a connection.  Her partnership with pianist Ran Blake has been an ongoing investigation of standards (with a mix of improvisatory magic) while her work with husband André Matos (guitar) has been a splendid mix of folk material and often gentle sonic explorations.  Ms. Serpa often uses her voice as another instrument in the mix, her wordless vocals evoking emotions that words cannot explain.  One of her more intriguing collaborations is her work with the vocalist quartet Mycale who perform music created by John Zora. She's part of the four-person a capella ensemble (along with Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, Sofia Rei, and Malika Zarra) for its second Tzadik release "Gomory: The Book of Angels Vol. 25" (2015).

For her debut on Biophilia Records, "Recognition", Ms. Serpa created a multi-media presentation based around the family movies her father took when he worked in the Portuguese territory of Angola. The music not only serves as her soundtrack to the silent films – when you purchase the album (see below) you receive a link to the presentation – but also tells the story of European colonialism  in its dying days. Images of planes dropping bombs (open practice runs, one believes), armies marching down the Main thoroughfare with the jarring juxtaposition of Caucasian Generals and Majors leading their troops (nearly all dark-skinned Africans and their cartoon-like white gloves) are manipulated by Ms. Serpa to create a dream-like atmosphere.

Photo: Carlos Ramos
Performing the music is a formidable trio; Zeena Parkins (harp, tuning forks), Mark Turner (tenor saxophone), and David Virelles (piano).  With Ms. Serpa's often over-dubbed wordless vocals, the music holds a mystery all its own. The composition are not in the head-solo-head mode; instead, the quartet creates a mood for each piece. For instance, insistent repeated melodic fragments roil beneath and besides the voices on "Free Labour" giving the piece the feel of a Steve Reich piece. "Beautiful Gardens" uses the words of José Luandino Vieira, an Angolan novelist, from his 1961 novel "A Vida Verdadeira de Domingos Xavier (The Real Life of Domingos Xavier)", with a story line that speaks to the cruelty of the police towards the Black Angolans.  The section that one hears tells about the difference between conditions of the native laborers, the White workers, and the management.  It's not a pretty and the music does not pretend to make it sound better.

"Queen Nzinga" tells quite another story.  The piece, adapted from an excerpt of "Njinga of Angola – Africa's Warrior Queen" (2017), a book by Linda Heywood, celebrates the life of the 17th Century Queen, leader of the Mbundu people, who defied Portuguese rule by opposing slavery throughout her 37-year reign, even leading her people into battle.  After you listen to the story, go back and listen to the brilliant music the trio creates (it's a group improvisation as the other track discussed above), an important role in helping to tell the story.

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The mixture of the voices on "Absolute Confidence" blends with the crashing piano chords and plucked harp notes while Turner serves as a counterpoint to the singer. There's a classical feel to the intertwine lines from piano, sax, and voice on "Propaganda" and, as the piece moved forward, Virelles steps away and into a solo filled with rippling phrases. The album closes with "Unity and Struggle" with words from from Amílcar Cabral, an agricultural engineer, poet, essayist, and an anti-colonial leader who was assassinated in 1973.  The accompanying music is fascinating as Ms.Serpa creates the melody from reciting Cabral's forceful words. Turner shadows the voice here as well while Ms. Parkins has her own melody line and a short solo.  Turner and Virelles then trade with harpist as the piece and album fade don.

If you are someone who enjoys the voice and music of Sara Serpa, "Recognition" might seem a bit stark and shocking first time through.  Go back, listen to how the voice, the words, the music, all these elements together tell a story of slavery, subjugation, tradition, transition, and more.  Disturbing story and music? Yes. Do artists still need to tell these stories?  Yes.  Do you need to listen? Now more than ever.

For more information, go to  To purchase the album, go to

Here's one of the fascinating tracks:

Photo: David Crow
Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophonist, composer, and educator, not only possesses great technique but also quite a curious mind. Over the course of his career (now spanning nearly a quarter of a century), he has worked with artists such as Vijay Iyer, Jack DeJohnette, Bunky Green, Steve Lehman, Danilo Pérez,and many others. He's led or co-led numerous sized-ensembles with forays in Carnatic Music, fusion, and through-composed music. He also has a sweet tone, can easily and rapidly move through into his instrument's higher ranges; there are times on his recordings when his saxophone sounds straddle the worlds of jazz and South Indian music.

His latest musical adventure, "Hero Trio" (Whirlwind Recordings), is a loving and often hard-driving tribute to his musical inspirations. With the high-energy rhythm section of bassist François Moutin (bass) and Rudy Royston (drums), Mahanthappa dances, dips, dives, roars, and purrs through a program that differs from anything he's done before – he did not compose any of the music.  Nevertheless, the trio tackle music by Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Stevie Wonder, Keith Jarrett, Ira Gershwin-Vernon Duke ("I Can't Get Started"), Gene de Paul ("I'll Remember April"), and Johnny Cash.  Yes, Johnny Cash! The Trio dances through "Ring of Fire" (a tune that June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore and was first recorded by June's sister Anita in 1962 and was a big hit for June's husband Johnny the following year), paying tribute to the original tempo in the beginning and continually toy with it throughout.  Moutin never loses the groove and Mahanthappa dances atop it with glee.

Photo: David Crow
There is plenty of joy in this music. From the rumbling volcano of Parker's "Red Cross" (listen below) to the trio's dancing take of Bird's "Barbados" which is paired with Coltrane's "26-2" to Jarrett's romping "The Windup" (notice that Moutin takes the role of the composer's left hand), one can just imagine the energy in the stdio as the band played. "...April" is initially deconstructed then the alto and bass dive into the melody as Royston creates a percussive storm beneath them. They move back-and-forth to the melody until Mahanthappa uncorks a dazzling solo building off the energy of the drummer.

Photo: David Crow
The music slows down for a pair of tracks,  the down-tempo version of "I Can't Get Started" and Coleman's "Sadness."  Moutin's excellent bow work is displayed on the latter as he and the leader share the melody and improvisation. The piece is performed rubato therefore Royston's role is to dramatically "color" around his colleagues.  On the former, the saxophonist introduces the handsome Vernon Duke melody but note how the tempo is parsed, a martial beat that evokes a darker quality to the piece.  The album closes with a rousing take of Parker's "Dewey Square" with Mahanthappa playing around, through, and in and out of the melody. The rhythm section feeds off of the leader's energy, pulling the music forward in a spirited rush of sound.

2015's "Bird Calls" (ACT Music) was Rudresh Mahanthappa's tribute to one of his musical mentors, using the same rhythm section and adding the musical voices of Matt Mitchell (piano) and Adam O'Farrill (trumpet). "Hero Trio", in its way, "flips the script", taking the original music the saxophonist exposed in his younger days and making it feel new, fresh, invigorated by the sheer joy of playing.  The avid listener will marvel at the delightful sounds created by Messrs. Mahanthappa, Moutin, and Royston – play this music loud and often!

For more information, go to Go to to hear more and purchase the album.

Here's the opening track (one of the three tunes composed by Charlie Parker):

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