Denny Zeitlin – Stairway To The Stars – Sunnyside

Denny Zeitlin – Stairway To The Stars – Sunnyside Communications SSC1380, 66:14 ****: 

(Denny Zeitlin – piano; Buster Williams – bass; Matt Wilson – drums)

In Marc Myers jazz blog Jazz Wax dated October 5, 2009, Denny Zeitlin offers the following comment on his playing: “When I play, I’m always searching for the joyful experience I first had as a child playing music. In that kind of ecstatic space I lose the positional state of myself”. (Zeitlin has color-synesthesia.) The release of  Stairway To The Stars which was originally recorded in November 2001 at The Jazz Bakery in Culver City California, gives Zeitlin aficionados another opportunity to marvel at the subtlety and inquisitiveness of this enigmatic pianist. He won first place in both 1965 and 1974 in Down Beat’s International Jazz Critics Poll, and is also a professor of psychiatry.

In the liner notes wrriten by the pianist, he offers some comments on both the origin of the compositions which are standards of the American songbook and that deal with love lost or found. There are also some musings with regard to the musical context of the pieces. Showing that he had respect for the songs’ lyrics, Zeitlin ensured their melodic rigour and harmonic integrity throughout his interpretation of the material.

Opening the session with “There Will Never Be Another You” bassist Williams and Zeitlin play off each other before the tune settles into a medium-tempo groove which is both sparkling and confident. About half-way through Williams delivers a self-assured solo before Zeitlin repeats the melody to take the tune out. In 1953 Frank Sinatra recorded “ I Could Have Told You” but for some reason it was never released until 1959. With music by Jimmy van Heusen and soulful lyrics by Carl Sigman it opens with the following lines: I could have told you/she’d hurt you/she’d love you a while/then desert you/if only you asked/I could have told you so. Zeitlin’s rendition picks up all the pathos and languor of these lyrics giving them an emotional coloration.

When George Gershwin wrote “I Got Rhythm” in 1930, he would have never imagined that the chord changes would form the basis of numerous jazz compositions including the Sonny Rollins number “Oleo”. Zeitlin and the trio dive into the tune in bristling up-tempo fashion with plenty of polyrhythms. The title track “Stairway To The Stars” had its original incarnation in 1935 under the title of “Park Avenue Fantasy”. It was not until May 1939, when the tune was recorded by the Glenn Miller Orchestra and vocalist Ray Eberle in its current iteration, that it became a number 1 hit and spent thirteen weeks on the charts. Although several versions of the tune have been played at a slightly up-tempo mode, Zeitlin and the band have decided to give it a beautiful ballad exposition. The result is a resolutely graceful rendition with some forceful bass provided by Buster Williams. The set closes with a  minor sixteen bar blues and is a Zeitlin number entitled “Out For A Stroll”. It is a slick piece from an exploratory pianist.

If the name Denny Zeitlin is new to you, check out this offering as you will be in for pleasant  surprise.

TrackList: There Will Never Be Another You; You Don’t Know What Love Is; I Could Have Told You; Oleo; Stairway To The Stars; I’ll Take Romance; Bass Prelude To Deluge; Deluge; Spring Is Here; Out For A Stroll

—Pierre Giroux

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