Denny Zeitlin, solo piano – Labyrinth: Live Solo Piano – Sunnyside

by | Jul 16, 2011 | Jazz CD Reviews | 0 comments

Denny Zeitlin, solo piano – Labyrinth: Live Solo Piano – Sunnyside SSC1283, 72:06 ****:

Pianist Denny Zeitlin’s latest, Labyrinth: Live Solo Piano, comes on the heels of two previous Sunnyside label live releases, Precipice: Solo Piano Concert (2010) and In Concert featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson (2009). Like those concert documents, Labyrinth is a mix of standards, compositions by Zeitlin’s jazz influences and his own originals.

While Zeitlin has played many larger venues, as he states in his liner notes, he also cherishes “the unique intimacy created in smaller settings” where the “boundaries between player, instrument, room and audience can dissolve.” That’s the essence of Labyrinth. The ten tracks were recorded in 2008 and 2010 at two Ernie Shelton’s House Concerts in Sebastopol, California and listeners are directly pulled into Zeitlin’s deeply personal musical universe.

Zeitlin’s interpretative skills are recognized by his fans. He pinpoints that aspect on the opener, a bold adaptation of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints.” Those familiar with the tune will know the theme, but Zeitlin rearranges the music with a fresh approach by working with the melody in a loose way, utilizing the piece’s first eight bars in the solo section and then segueing into the next four bars with a new four-bar extension, creating an eight-bar motif improvised in 6/8 time before Zeitlin returns to the main theme. Zeitlin does something similar with Tom Harrell’s willowy bossa nova number, “Sail Away,” although Zeitlin spends more time lingering over the beautiful, lyrical melody. Coltrane’s “Lazy Bird” also gets a short but fiery workout: it’s an exciting sprint which must be amazing to witness in person.

Musicals continue to inspire Zeitlin. The pianist explores Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful” (from “Annie Get Your Gun”). He opens with an unrestricted introduction, and then a rubato statement of Berlin’s melodic theme, slows down the tempo in a few suitable places, manipulates the charming melody without any overt discourteousness, and ends by restating the famous theme. Richard Rodgers’ “People Will Say We’re In Love” (from “Oklahoma”) is another reassuring investigation of a well-known piece, where Zeitlin reharmonizes and deconstructs the material and also shifts both tempo and mood. Despite the complex journey, Zeitlin’s improvisational maneuvers don’t lose sight of what makes the composition so pleasing. Arthur Schwartz’s “Dancing in the Dark” (from “The Band Wagon”) also has a freeform direction. Zeitlin broadly reharmonizes the tune and eventually focuses on a contrapuntal revision.

Zeitlin’s originals are also definite highlights. The title track is from the sixties when Zeitlin did trio recordings for the Columbia label (the initial studio cut was reissued on CD in 2009 on the boxed set Mosaic Select: Denny Zeitlin). Zeitlin’s solo reading – complete with percussive effects where he strikes the piano strings with fingers and objects – captures the madness, mystery, frustration and wearisome repetition of being stuck inside a physical or mental puzzle. Zeitlin’s angular “Slipstream” is another number from Zeitlin’s Columbia tenure. He begins with a spontaneous improvisation which uses a four-note motif, then advances an altered 12-bar blues demonstration which is at times propulsive and lightly dissonant, particularly when he zings fingers across the strings to craft a harp-like sound. Zeitlin has redone “Brazilian Street Dance” in solo, trio and duo settings and here he comes full circle with a rambunctious solo version where his fingers fly over the keyboard, zooming from lower bass tones to the higher keys while maintaining an energetic flow which buzzes with verve.
1. Footprints
2. Sail Away
3. They Say It’s Wonderful
4. Lazy Bird
5. As Long As There’s Music
6. Labyrinth
7. People Will Say We’re In Love
8. Brazilian Street Dance
9. Dancing in the Dark
10. Slipstream

— Doug Simpson

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