Monday, July 24, 2023

George, By Denny!


Dr. Dennis Zeitlin, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California/San Francisco and practicing Psychiatrist, is also Denny Zeitlin, pianist, composer, arranger, and improvisor––the latter has been playing and recording since the early 1960s when he was a Graduate Student at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, MD.  He continued his career and began teaching after moving to the West Coast.  The pianist recorded four LPs for Columbia from 1963-67, the first in a trio with bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Freddie Waits; other ensembles featured bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Jerry Granelli. In 1969, he met percussionist George Marsh (who, like Dr. Zeitlin, was born in Chicago) forming a trio with bassist Mel Graves. Together, they recorded two albums, one ("The Name of This Terrain") recorded in 1969 that was issued in 2022, and the other ("Expansion") issued in 1973––Dr. Zeitlin had added electronic keyboards and synthesizers to his repertoire and the musical results still sound fascinating.  In 1978, he composed the soundtrack to the first remake of "Invasion of the Body-Snatchers"; that immersive electronic experiment sent him back to the acoustic piano.

In the late-2000s, after issuing on labels such as Windham Hill, Palo Alto Jazz, Concord, and one smashing Trio session on the Japanese Venus label, Dr. Zeitlin began his association with Sunnyside Records. Since that time, he has released four Trio albums (featuring bassist Buster Williams and drummer Matt Wilson), three totally-improvised electronics-laden albums with George Marsh, and six solo piano albums (one of which, 2013's "Both/And", features electronics as well).  Album #14 for Sunnyside is "Crazy Rhythms: Exploring George Gershwin" (the Doctor's seventh solo album and third recorded at the Piedmont Piano Company in Oakland, CA).  The package includes 11 Gershwin works that range from "standards" to show tunes to one fascinating find (the lovely waltz "By Strauss").  Dr. Zeitlin chose these pieces several months before the December 2018 concert, playing through and with them. He then sat in the concert space in front of the audience and proceeded to play through the program following no set format and improvising, in his estimation, 95% of the concert.

What a treat this album is.  From the opening zither-like sound of "Summertime" to the playful "I Was Doing All Right" that closes the album, the music goes in many directions. In conversation with Dr. Zeitlin, I compared the improvisor to a person diving into the water, going deep down and coming back up to touch on the melody.  Right from the start, the music does not move the way one might expect; instead, these performances are an open door into the musician's creativity. While you sing along to "How Long Has This Been Going On?", the pianist changes the tempo now and then, creating a joyful solo. "Fascinating Rhythm" bounces forward yet there are moments when the two-handed approach sounds like a JS Bach exercise before swinging away on the power of right-hand single note runs.  Listen below to "The Man I Love"–is the opening a bow to fellow pianist McCoy Tyner's use of modal chords before the music dances away?

The three pieces from "Porgy and Bess"––"Bess You Is My Woman Now", "It Ain't Necessarily So", and "My Man's Gone Now"––could be an album on its own.  The pianistic explorations on each piece not only honor the melody but the "heart and soul" in each tune.  "Bess" is just gorgeous, emotionally rich and rewarding in numerous ways.  "It Ain't...." moves far from its melodic home for a powerful journey inside the questions at the heart of faith and beliefs, not settling for a laugh.  At nearly 13 minutes, "My Man's Gone Now" is, at times, an elegy, a celebration, and a angry fist waving at the heavens, a journey inward and out again with a renewed resilience. 

That's my take. "Crazy Rhythms: Exploring George Gershwin", if you are willing to give the music the time it deserves, is quite an album. Denny Zeitlin makes George Gershwin come alive, illuminating the universality of the composer's music as well as the joy (try and sit still listening to "S'Wonderful"). Pay attention and get lost; let this music take you away from the mundane, from the troubles, for the rewards are many!

For more information and to purchase the album, go to  To learn more about Dr. Denny Zeitlin, go to

Listen to "The Man I Love":

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