Thursday, June 27, 2019

Denny Zeitlin Solo Piano: Remembering Miles

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

By way of background, for some Jazz fans, solo piano is the ultimate conceit. Unbridled and unrestrained, to their ears it represents a kind of Jazz-gone-wild. Unchecked by the structure of having to play within a group, they view it as simply a vehicle for pianists to show off their techniques, or to just show off.  And unless the solo pianist is particularly adept at dynamics, tempo changes and repertoire selection, solo piano can develop a sameness about it that makes it deadly boring, to boot.

For others, solo piano represents the ultimate challenge: the entire theory of music in front of a pianist in black-and-white with no safety net to fall into.  For these solo piano advocates, pianists who play horn-like figures with the right-hand and simple thumb and forefinger intervals with the left [instead of actual chords] are viewed as being tantamount to one-handed frauds.

Can the pianist actually play the instrument or is the pianist actually playing at the instrument?

Ironically, at one time in the music’s history, solo performance was a preferred form of Jazz performance. As explained by Henry Martin in his essay Pianists of the 1920’s and 1930’s in Bill Kirchner [ed.], The Oxford Companion to Jazz [New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 163-176]:

“In New York, the jazz pianist of the early 1920s was called a “tickler”as in “tickle the ivories.” Since Jazz was part of popular culture, the audience expected to hear the hit songs of the day, stylized and personalized by their favorite players. Often hired to provide merriment as a one man band, the tickler was a much honored figure of the era. He was wary of departing too often or too radically from the melody, since this could alienate listeners. As recordings were relatively rare and not especially lifelike, the piano was the principal source of inexpensive fun a self-contained party package for living rooms, restaurants, bars, and brothels.

The ticklers exploited the orchestral potential of the piano with call and response patterns between registers and a left hand “rhythm section” consisting of bass notes alternating with midrange chords. This “striding” left hand lent its name to “stride piano,” the principal style of the 1920s.” [p.163]

In particular, beginning in the 1920s and continuing well into the 1930’s, solo piano recitals by James P. Johnson, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller Willie “The Lion” Smith and Teddy Wilson were a source of much delight and admiration for listeners when Jazz was still the popular music.  Later in this period, the boogie-woogie piano stylings of Jimmy Yancey, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis and Joe Turner were all the rage.

Indeed, the first 78 rpms issued by Blue Note Records, which was to become the recording beacon for modern Jazz on the East Coast in the 1950s and 60s, would be by Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis. The 18 performances that were recorded on January 6, 1939 singly and in duet by Ammons and Lewis have been reissued as a CD entitled The First Day [CDP 7 98450 2] and are examples of solo blues and boogie-woogie piano at its best.

Perhaps the epitome of Jazz solo piano was reached in the playing of Art Tatum, or as Henry Martin phrases it – “the apotheosis of classic jazz piano” – whose dazzling command of the instrument was a constant source of wonder and amazement to the point that some thought that they were listening to more than one pianist at the same time!

And while Erroll Garner, Nat Cole, Lennie Tristano, George Shearing and Oscar Peterson continued the tradition of solo piano into the modern era, pianist Bud Powell’s use of the right hand to create horn-like phrasing as an adaptation of the bebop style of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie transformed many pianists into essentially one-handed players in an attempt to mimic Powell’s artistry.

What’s more, over the second half of the 20th century, solo Jazz piano became something of a lost art with fewer and fewer pianists performing in this style and still fewer listeners seeking it out.

So, in the face of what had become a mostly languishing form of the art, for the past few years, Denny Zeitlin has been giving December solo piano recitals at the Piedmont Piano Company in Oakland, CA focused on the works of selected composers including Monk, Wayne Shorter and, most recently, Miles Davis.

Denny is no stranger to solo piano as throughout his career he has revisited this format including one of my favorites which was recorded in performance at Maybeck Recital Hall, Berkeley, CA, October 18, 1992 and released the following year on Concord Records as Volume 27 in its Maybeck Recital Hall Series [CCD-4572].

In its sleeve notes, Don Heckman, the distinguished Jazz author, columnist and critic offered these observations about this exquisite performance.

“Andre Gide once wrote that all great art has great density - whether it occurs in the loony antics of Fritz the Cat, the deceptive simplicity of a Mozart melody, or the textural complexities of a Shakespeare drama.

Solo performance has always been the vehicle of choice for uncovering a jazz pianist's true creative densities.  Unlimited by the need to follow any musical path other than their own, most pianists revel in the opportunity to explore the outer limits of their skills.

There is no better example than Denny Zeitlin. Typically, for a man whose career has been devoted to a pursuit of the elusive fascinations of music and the mind, pianist/psychiatrist Zeitlin was delighted to perform a solo program at a Maybeck Recital Hall concert. It was, for him, a unique occasion in which to display the symbiotic connections between both disciplines.

"The great excitement in solo piano playing, for me, is in being the only person there," said Zeitlin, " - in knowing that my task is to usher myself into a merger state with the music itself and with the audience.

"I think there are fluctuating states of consciousness that people get into when they perform, and the one that feels most successful to me is when I can have a sense of the music sort of coming through, almost as though I'm a conduit for the music.  If the audience accepts the invitation to participate in the merger state, then a special rapport occurs. And when that happens, then - as a solo pianist, in particular - I just feel as though I'm in the audience listening to the music."

Zeitlin clearly did a great deal of interactive listening in this performance. Not only are his improvisations inventive and varied, as might be expected, but they also reveal a remarkable integration of his myriad musical experiences - from bebop in the fifties, to avant-garde in the sixties, electronics in the seventies, and eclectic free-grazing in the seventies and eighties. Just past his 55th birthday, and after twenty albums and many decades of international touring, Zeitlin has achieved the status of creative elder, gathering together his nearly 40 years of seasoning into a mature, richly textured, esthetically dense musical expression.

The concert included originals and standards. "The program" said Zeitlin, "sort of coalesced over a few weeks of just thinking about what I'd like to do, and browsing through my record collection with the idea of finding what would be exciting and challenging.

"I wanted to present some aspects of the whole range of my interests. I knew it wouldn't be tilted toward the avant-garde, but I also felt that it would be alright to include a little dissonance as well."

And the dissonances are there, in fact - but never for their own sake, and always either as piquant sprinklings of spice or as dramatic, attention-getting dashes of pepper.”

Well, if Denny “ … achieved the status of creative elder, just past his 55th birthday …. seasoning into a mature, richly textured, esthetically dense musical expression,” one can only say that all of these qualities have been expanded 30 years later as is evident by listening to his work on Denny Zeitlin Solo Piano: Remembering Miles [Sunnyside SSC 1553].

What really struck me while listening to Denny’s imaginings on Miles’ compositions in a solo piano context is how much they reflect Keith Jarrett’s assertion that: “A master Jazz musician goes on stage hoping to have a rendezvous with the music. He/she knows that the music is there (it always is), but the meeting depends not only on knowledge but on openness …. It is like an attempt, over and over again, to reveal the heart of things.”

“Openness,” or as Denny phrased it - “having a sense of the music sort of coming through me” is the key to how we get to Zeitlin through Davis or, if you will, Davis through Zeitlin.

Elsewhere in the Heckman Maybeck notes, Denny is quoted as saying: “I like to think that my psychiatric work [Denny is a Psych MD] helps my music and vice versa. I’ve always felt there’s been a cross-pollination between the two fields that’s had a kind of synergistic quality for me. But the real bottom line is that I’ve never been an either/or kind of person. I’ve always seen myself as a both/and type - interested in integration as opposed to exclusion. If there’s anything that I hope is true about my music, that’s it - that it is inclusive enough or broad enough to incorporate everything I’ve experienced, and everything I am.”

Openness, inclusion and integration are what makes the music on Denny Zeitlin Solo Piano: Remembering Miles so startlingly appealing and accessible.

One would never think of the music of Miles Davis from the vantage point of solo piano.

Trumpet with alto saxophonist’s Charlie Parker’s Quintet, the ultimate E-flat, B-flat combo sound; Birth of the Cool Octet; Coltrane Quintet with Philly, Paul and Red; the Sextet with Cannonball, ‘Trane and Bill Evans; the Quintet with Mobley, Wynton, and Cobb; the Quintet with Wayne, Herbie, Ron and Tony; the career culminating Jazz-Rock Fusion Groups with McLaughlin and Zawinul: How does one get to solo Jazz piano from any of those formats?

Thankfully, Denny provides keys for how he met that challenge in the insert notes he prepared for Denny Zeitlin Solo Piano: Remembering Miles.

Like most musicians, my initial jazz influences back in 1951 were on my own instrument. In the high school years that followed, my interests expanded to bass and drums, and then to all instruments, particularly to the music of Miles Davis.

Miles as a performer, composer, magnet for outstanding sidemen, and
shape-shifter has inspired my whole musical life.

For a number of years I have been doing an annual solo piano concert at the Piedmont Piano Company in Oakland, focusing on the work of a single composer. I titled my 2016 concert "Remembering Mies," which allowed me to reflect on a number of compositions associated with Miles over the course of his long career. Some were clearly written by Miles; others may have been appropriated by him; still others were important vehicles for Miles penned by other composers.

I hope you will enjoy my re-imagining of these compositions.

Solar— Attributed to Miles, but according to consensus, probably written by Chuck Wayne, this tune, loosely modeled after "How High The Moon," became a jazz standard soon after Miles' 1954 recording. The 1st two measures appear on his tombstone. To add some spice, I keep transposing down in minor thirds.  

Dear Old Stockholm— Miles' 1952 LP with this tune was my introduction to his music. Though attributed to Miles, the melody is a popular Swedish song from the 1800's. I was particularly attracted to the slow, sinuous, spacious groove of the recording.

Flamenco Sketches— Attributed to Miles, but with input from Bill Evans, this modal dassic is from the 1959 album Kind Of Blue . The performer chooses the pace through the 5 modes , and I allow myself considerable departure from the modes as the solo develops.

Stablemates— Miles released Benny Golson's tune on a 1956 album. A very intriguing and original composition, it has an A-B-A shape with an unusual number of bars. It wasn't long before a musician dared not go upon the bandstand at a jam session unless he knew those changes.

Tomaas— Miles co-wrote this composition with Marcus Miller, and it appears on his 1986 album, Tutu. The album, infused with mid 80's funk and R&B, synthesizers, sequencers, and drum machines, was controversial. I loved how he inhabited these idioms and left his personal stamp.

Milestones (1958 Version)— Miles introduced his modal approach to jazz in his 1958 album of the same name, with his "first great quintet"augmented by Cannonball Adderley. I give this piece a very free exploration.

Milestones(1947 Version)—Attributed to Miles on his debut album as a leader in 1947, it is generally held that John Lewis wrote the piece. It is an elegant and challenging composition, and Charlie Parker purportedly demurred soloing on anything but the bridge, claiming it was too complex for a "country boy" like him.

Circle — Miles' 1967 album, Miles Smiles was a trailblazer, with his "second great quintet" in topform, stretching the music in so many ways. Circle is a haunting waltz, with an initial 18 bar structure that then offers a variety of inserts to the 'improviser, before returning to the tag or top of the tune. I explore those options, as well-as totally free insertions and developments.

So Near, So Far— In 1963, with the album Seven Steps To Heaven, Miles had most of the players of his "second great quintet" on board. He initially explored this little-known piece in 4/4 time, but it wasn't really gelling, so on the album the group takes it in a fast 6/8. I found that it was intriguing to play the A sections of the AABA form in 5/4, and the B (bridge) section in 4/4.

Time After Time — Miles loved Cyndl Lauper's tune so much, he kept it in his repertoire for years, perhaps partly because of the wave of applause that would always greet the start of it. He first presented it in his 1985 album, You're Under Arrest, where he explored pop tunes and politics. I found myself deconstructing the tune, focusing on various motifs and fragments. |

Lament — I wanted to include something from the gorgeous collaboration of Miles and Gil Evans. I've always loved this ballad by JJ Johnson and l integrate his original version with the Davis/Evans treatment on the 1957 album Miles Ahead.

The Theme— Miles would usually end his sets with some kind of statement from this piece, based on I Got Rhythm changes, often just the last few bars. I first heard a complete version on an Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers album in the 50s, with a different bridge, and that is my point of departure.

Weirdo—This is a truly marvelous and weird blues with Miles in top form on a 1954 album with the superb rhythm section of Horace Silver, Percy Heath, and Art Blakey. They got an incredible groove, and the harmonies were riveting. I try to capture some of that feel.

Remembering Miles represents the culmination of six decades of recorded Jazz by Denny Zeitlin and you have to listen to it to truly understand how special it is in terms of the gift of the experience and genius that Denny brings to his music.  Few pianists could have rendered the music of Miles Davis in a solo piano setting with such discrimination and heartfelt sincerity.

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