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Slickrock by Denny Zeitlin

Denny Zeitlin describes the strength of his music in his own words: "a chance for players and listeners to lose themselves in delicious moments of discovery." And that is what happens when Zeitlin plays piano. He never fails to surprise listeners with unique approaches to songs that they’ve heard countless times. After all, how many jazz musicians have recorded "Body And Soul" after Coleman Hawkins made it a rite of passage for jazz musicians? But Zeitlin’s trio on Slickrock tackles the "Body And Soul" challenge fearlessly, after his extended piano introduction, primarily because they approach the song with the same sense of adventure that they perceive in all of the others, and thus they unlock even more of its harmonic possibilities without reference to previous versions of other musicians. Zeitlin realizes his own vision in reshaping the music through a combination of detailed arrangements that paradoxically free the musicians to improvise with structured abandon. While no doubt Zeitlin values the financial security of his career as a psychiatrist in the San Francisco Bay area, it has limited his musical output, even though he has released more than thirty recordings over the last forty years. Each of Zeitlin’s albums has created a cause for close-listening appreciation, as his levels of artistic expression have remained of the highest value, from his early Live At The Trident recording with Charlie Haden to his tour de force Maybeck Recital Hall album (volume 27).... and now, his first release in the MaxJazz Piano Series.

Joined this time by Buster Williams and Matt Wilson, Zeitlin almost evenly divides Slickrock between original compositions and reworked standards. Opening the CD with "You And The Night And The Music," Zeitlin spends little more than half a chorus referring to the melody before he veers into self-generated counterpoints and then various detours that eventually merge at the end into the melody again, like the flow of a herringbone chart. Beyond the exquisite piano playing, though, which brings out the music with Zeitlin’s sure sense of touch and coruscating command of the entire keyboard, it becomes apparent that Williams and Wilson are entirely engaged in the music. Williams’ bass lines are solid with buoyancy that sustains the motion. Wilson spontaneously captures the textures of Zeitlin’s music and heightens them through the sensitive extension of tones with lightly shimmering cymbal work or driving malleting, ever conscious of the need to help fulfill the thoughts of Zeitlin rather than rolling over them. In other words, the trio plays as a cohesive unit as Zeitlin’s virtuosity spurs Williams and Wilson to a state of intense focus.

The next tune, Zeitlin’s "Wishing On The Moon," proceeds in a more leisurely fashion, with a subdued Latin feel which features Williams’ bass work, at equal or higher volume than Zeitlin’s, freeing him to play in the middle and upper registers. On the other hand, "Every Which Way" sets up a stomp interrupted by loping piano and bass lines as the speed of the performance ratchets up several notches. The trio does the same thing with Wayne Shorter’s "E.S.P." by taking it at several times the accustomed speed, converting the lurk of the original version into a forceful, and seemingly effortless, spillway of notes. "Sweet Georgia Brown" attains reconsideration as well as Zeitlin stretches the melody and applies 6/8 time to it, developing discreet elements of the phrasing into full-blown elaboration consisting of sparkling tremolos, catch-you-unawares accents and freshly conceived modulations.

The capstone of the CD is Zeitlin’s rather brief four-part "Slickrock" suite, which describes in impressionistic terms the thrill of mountain biking, inspired by one of Zeitlin’s adventures in Moab, Utah where he witnessed breathtaking feats of daring that he thought not possible. Starting the first movement, "Dawn: Gathering" (only two and a half minutes in length), with free improvisation evoking the start of a day of biking, Zeitlin’s trio moves through three more movements suggesting the motion of the bikes as they pick up speed, climb, descend, turn, explore and decelerate. Obviously awed by the sights of his mountain biking locations and the rarely appreciated beauty of the sport, Zeitlin, imaginative as ever, concludes Slickrock with his freest and most visual improvisation on the entire CD.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Denny Zeitlin
  • CD Title: Slickrock
  • Genre: Straight-Ahead / Classic
  • Year Released: 2004
  • Record Label: MaxJazz
  • Tracks: You And The Night And The Music, Wishing On The Moon, Every Which Way, Put Your Little Foot Right Out, It Could Happen To You, Body And Soul, Sweet Georgia Brown, E.S.P., Just Passing By. Slickrock: Dawn, Gathering; On The Trail; Recovery; On The Trail Again
  • Musicians: Denny Zeitlin (piano); Buster Williams (bass); Matt Wilson (drums)
  • Rating: Five Stars
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