Denny Zeitlin – Crazy Rhythm: Exploring George Gershwin – Sunnyside

by | Jul 24, 2023 | Jazz CD Reviews | 0 comments

Gershwin galore.

Denny Zeitlin (solo piano) – Crazy Rhythm: Exploring George Gershwin – [TrackList follows] – Sunnyside SSC 1693, 68:34 [6/30/23] ****:

Northern California-based pianist Denny Zeitlin is no stranger to covering other people’s music. Like many jazz performers, he interprets music written by jazz musicians; has recorded material from the Great American Songbook; and has played compositions from other sources. Zeitlin has also recorded and/or presented concerts where he focused on a particular musician. Examples include Early Wayne — Explorations of Classic Wayne Shorter Compositions (Sunnyside, 2016), from Zeitlin’s 2014 annual Piedmont Piano Company show in Oakland, California. Another is 2019’s Remembering Miles (also Sunnyside Records), from a 2016 appearance at the same location, when Zeitlin concentrated on Miles Davis. Zeitlin’s latest live tribute project—Crazy Rhythm: Exploring George Gershwin (also Sunnyside)—was taped at Zeitlin’s 2018 Piedmont Piano Company show. Through Gershwin’s brief career—he died of a brain tumor at 38 years old—he wrote orchestral and operatic works; composed for theatre and cinema; and created songs which are now pop and jazz standards. Crazy Rhythm is available as a trifold, six-panel digipak CD as well as high-quality digital download files. This review refers to the digital files but also cites information from the CD.

The 11-track, 68-minute album contains familiar Gershwin and one lesser-known title. Zeitlin covers four selections from Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess. Zeitlin starts with a stimulating, nearly nine-minute adaptation of “Summertime,” where Zeitlin commences with an open and improvised introduction which gradually switches into the tune’s famous foundational theme and from there Zeitlin recontextualizes “Summertime” via reharmonizing. It’s a wonderful way to launch the set since it reveals Zeitlin’s love for Gershwin as well as Zeitlin’s intention to mix expected moments along with Zeitlin’s unique approach to Gershwin. Zeitlin provides an emotional reading of “Bess You Is My Woman Now,” originally sung as a duet between Porgy and Bess. It’s often offered as an elegant, melancholy ballad. Zeitlin deftly shifts from joyful instances to darker declinations. As he states in the CD liner notes, “I wanted to both express their love and foreshadow the trouble ahead.” Zeitlin showcases an explorative edge on “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Here, Zeitlin is wide-ranging and freer during his soloing, although he sustains a defined, 5/4 time signature which grounds his liberating delivery. The lengthiest piece is an almost 13-minute rendering of “My Man’s Gone Now,” concerning a woman mourning her murdered husband. Zeitlin’s progressive variation—with snatches of avant-garde sounds—is flexible and stretches the melody and harmony while examining the song’s feelings of bereavement and anger.

Probably the least recognizable track is “By Strauss.” It was initially a tribute to the notable father and son classical composers as well as a self-mocking song which disparaged Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and other likeminded 1930s songwriters. Most listeners might identify it from 1951’s musical/comedy film An American in Paris. Zeitlin redoes “By Strauss” as a gentle, affectionate waltz. Zeitlin puts a bewitching and relaxed bossa nova spin on “I’ve Got A Crush On You” and instills a time-modifying arrangement to the swinging “Fascinating Rhythm.” Zeitlin closes with a mostly unambiguous rendition of “I Was Doing All Right,” which flits just enough to echo the song’s lyrics about how love can sometimes befuddle and confuse those hit by Cupid’s arrow. 

The album’s audio quality is superb. The Piedmont Piano Company is a venue which supports solo piano undertakings. Zeitlin has his pick of excellent pianos; the location’s intimacy is aurally attractive with impeccable acoustics; and the compactness suits an attentive and listening audience. Hopefully, Zeitlin can continue to issue other Piedmont Piano Company appearances. They are a fine display of Zeitlin’s solo piano prowess and are memorable homages to other musicians.

—Doug Simpson

Denny Zeitlin – Crazy Rhythm: Exploring George Gershwin

How Long Has This Been Going On?
Bess You Is My Woman Now
It Ain’t Necessarily So
By Strauss
The Man I Love
My Man’s Gone Now
I’ve Got A Crush On You
Fascinating Rhythm
I Was Doing All Right

More information through Sunnyside Records

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Album Cover for Denny Zeitlin -- Crazy Rhythm

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