Friday, August 18, 2017

On "Expedition" with Denny Zeitlin and George Marsh

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Our goal has been to approach the music without a score or any preconception; to be as fully present as possible, "riding the moment," and allowing the music to go where it wants — without any constraint of genre, or fixed harmonic, rhythmic, or melodic structure. We hope that what emerges are spontaneous compositions that have freshness, beauty, excitement, internal logic, new sounds, and a sense of journey — an "expedition."”
- Denny Zeitlin

This piece gets it title from the recently released Sunnyside CD Expedition [SSC 1487] that features keyboard artist Denny Zeitlin and percussionist George Marsh, which is a follow-up, or perhaps a better way to phrase it would be a follow-on to their critically acclaimed Riding the Moment which was issued by Sunnyside in 2015.

The common element in both of these recordings is spontaneous improvisation [or what Denny refers to as “spontaneous compositions”] by Denny and George in a quest for new sounds, what Stan Kenton termed “neophonic” music some years ago. Of course, the entire history of Jazz could be considered the ultimate neophonic musical progression as the sound of the music was constantly in flux due to the changing styles in which it is played.

The same holds true today and alterations in Jazz are even more dramatic now that it has assumed international proportions.

But while Kenton’s neophonic Jazz was predicated on arranged and written out compositions that select soloists used as a point of departure for their improvisation, Denny and George have opted for a more immediately responsive, almost reactive, basis for their improvisation by essentially interacting with one another while playing their instruments over a span of time or what Denny refers to as “real time.”

There are compositions on Expedition, thirteen of them, in fact, but I suspect that their real purpose is to basically set the mood for what is referred to as the duo electro-acoustic improvisations.

This is mind-centered music, which is not as redundant or obvious a description as it might seem, in that all musical performance requires a mental preparedness to execute along with trained muscle memory and breathing techniques depending on what instrument is being played.

Heard in the mind or intellectual music seems to be the central orientation of the music on Expedition which makes it no less interesting than that which is generated from the heart or the emotions.

This emphasis on the mental process of what author -journalist Arthur Koestler termed “the Act of Creation” is not coincidental because paralleling Denny Zeitlin’s career as a Jazz musician has been his professional life as a former Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at University of California at San Francisco and currently as clinical psychiatrist in private practice.

The Process of Creation is one that Denny has taken part in personally and professionally so he is on intimate terms with Koestler’s axiom that
creative activity can be described as a type of learning process where teacher and pupil are located in the same individual.

He and percussionist par excellence George Marsh continue to explore the dynamics of creation at an exciting level of interaction on Expedition. And what’s more, while doing so, they heed bassist Bill Crow’s admonition about the purpose of Jazz - they have fun. You can sense the thrill of adventure in the music they are making as the music is alive; boundless; unpredictable - just they way it should be at this stage of their long careers in music.

You know they know the rules, the conventions, the patterns associated with making Jazz, and the follow them to some extent to keep their bearings in the musical journey that they are undertaking together. But what you don’t know is where the music is going because you’ve never heard music that sounds like this before.

The luxury of being able to create unfettered music in this manner is as it should be at this point in their respective careers: these men have paid their dues; they have become accomplished musicians; the least we can do is accord them the privilege of listening to their not inconsiderable, yet unconventional, musical musings.

Interestingly, I found that of the thirteen tracks on the CD, I could listen to them as self contained units or as a suite in 13 parts; in other words, individually or as a continuum. These are not melodically memorable pieces but they do evoke moods some of which are almost introspective and meditative.

Track sequencing is a matter of taste so while I deferred to the manner in which the music is arranged on the CD during my first listening, I subsequently tried listening to it using the Random feature on my disc changer and this revealed further surprises in the music.

While listening to the music on Expedition, I became aware of the level of technical mastery that Denny and George have on keyboards and percussion which allows them to maintain an inner core of discipline in order to keep such freely created music from becoming a train wreck.

There is a constant balancing going on in the music - a tension and release - that requires Denny and George to come together at times, pull apart at other times and also parallel one another at other times as the music evolves through spontaneous improvisation.

Denny offers more insights into the “how and why” the music on Expedition came together in the following insert notes to the recording.

A Note From Denny Zeitlin... In the two years since Sunnyside's 2015 release of Riding The Moment, George and I have continued our expedition into new territories of spontaneous composition, and this CD chronicles what has been an exciting and enriching evolution. For listeners having a first contact with our duo, I'll repeat my remarks from our first album, since the set and setting remain the same.

This album, like Riding The Moment, has roots going back to the late sixties, when I began a decade of exploring the electro-acoustic integration of jazz, classical, funk, rock, and free-form music. My trio included Mel Graves or Ratso Harris on bass, and throughout, the incredible drummer/percussionist George Marsh. We recorded and toured the West Coast, concluding this period with my electro-acoustic-symphonic score for the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

I then returned to a focus on acoustic solo, duo, and trio music for a couple of decades, and George went on to numerous other projects. With the passage of the millennium, synthesizer and recording technological advances lured me back into a major and ongoing studio upgrade.

Both/And(Sunnyside 2013) was devoted to the electro-acoustic domain as a soloist. And since 2013, George and I have musically re-united, and have been exploring the potential of duo electro-acoustic free improvisations — the co-creation of what we often refer to as "sound paintings."

Our goal has been to approach the music without a score or any preconception; to be as fully present as possible, "riding the moment," and allowing the music to go where it wants — without any constraint of genre, or fixed harmonic, rhythmic, or melodic structure. We hope that what emerges are spontaneous compositions that have freshness, beauty, excitement, internal logic, new sounds, and a sense of journey — an "expedition."

Over 95% of this music was recorded in "real time" with one pass. On those occasions where I didn't have enough hands to play what I was hearing, I over-dubbed some orchestration or a solo voice. And in those instances, I typically went with the first take, to preserve the spontaneity of the project.

I believe you will hear in our interaction that George is a full partner in the co-creation of this album. To preserve acoustic separation during recording we were unable to see each other; we were carried by our shared musical vision, trust, and a rapport that seems telepathic. We often feel like we are some kind of galactic orchestra.”

And Bret Sjerven at Sunnyside sent along the following media release about Denny, George and Expedition:

“For longtime collaborators Denny Zeitlin and George Marsh much of their enthusiasm for music lies in exploration of new terrain. Their recording Expedition finds them continuing their journey into the worlds of sound and spontaneous composition.

Pianist Denny Zeitlin has long been in the vanguard of musical innovation. His 1960s acoustic trio was one of the first to advance beyond the concepts of Bill Evans, and his genre defying electro-acoustic experiments were some of the most intriguing from a jazz musician.

Zeitlin always wanted to develop his ability to be more expansive with his sound. As a child, the pianist dreamed of being able to control an orchestra with a single device. Zeitlin was obviously ready for the advances in synthesized sounds that developed, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, which put an orchestra at his fingertips. He quickly adopted synthesizers and sound design into his musical language, creating classic records like Expansion and the soundtrack to Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Innovative percussionist George Marsh was there through all of these electro-acoustic professional musical excursions, offering a sympathetic and advanced sense of what percussion could add in these widely varying situations. His egoless approach makes him a perfect partner for Zeitlin, as everything they do together serves the music.

During the past four years, Zeitlin and Marsh's collaboration has been reenergized. Meeting regularly at Zeitlin's home studio, the two have explored new topographies in collaborative music making. They both see their meetings as a privilege, as there are no pressures of time, finance or extraneous purpose to impede their enthusiastic music making.
Zeitlin's studio, with its array of keyboards, synthesizers, grand piano, pedals, outboard gear, computers, and monitors, evokes images of Mission Control at NASA.

Setting up to preserve track separation while recording, Zeitlin and Marsh are unable to see each other, and depend upon a rapport that seems telepathic. They have focused on free improvisation — spontaneous compositions that arise with no preconception. With their shared vision, the music is allowed to bloom on its own accord; there is a fluidity within the sound as harmonic and rhythmic textures weave themselves in and out. Times signatures often do not apply, as many of the pieces find the collaborators switching and blending continually.

The initial presentation of some of the fruits of their labor was the critically acclaimed Riding The Moment (Sunnyside, 2015.)

Two years later, their follow-up recording. Expedition, shows just how profound their relationship has become. The music demonstrates the very feeling of delight that the musicians take in the freedom they have in conjuring their music.

The music presented is inspired and stylistically varied. There are atmospheric pieces, like "Geysers" and the quietly surging "The Hunt," and ballad-like ruminations, like the ambient "Thorns of Life" and "Spiral Nebula." The pulsating uptempo tracks are rhythmically fascinating, like the skittery percussion highlight "Shooting The Rapids" and the driving "Sentinel." The triumphant "Expedition" is a perfect example of the duo's goal of creating a succinct composition with direction and arc, all spontaneously in the moment.

Zeitlin and Marsh's forward-thinking collaboration spans 50 years. Their connection has only gotten stronger as they have invested themselves in expanding their vocabularies in electric-acoustic and improvised music. Expedition brilliantly displays what two highly attuned and flexible musicians can create on the fly.”

You can locate order information about Expedition and sample the music on it by visiting Denny at

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