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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Overlooked Masterpieces 1 - Denny Zeitlin

(Since I wrote this post I receieved some factual corrections, observations and clarifications from Denny - I've added these in an addendum to the blog - please make sure to read this at the end of the post)

Denny Zeitlin is the exception that proves the rule - the rule in this case being that contemporary jazz is such a complex and demanding art form that to be a true master of it demands that one devotes one's entire attention to it, and spends one's whole life in its singular pursuit. This ‘rule’ is something that I actually believe to be true – while there have been many fine part-time jazz musicians, there’s never really been many (if any?) who only devoted some of their time to it yet played it at truly the very highest level. In fact I would go as far as to say that it’s not possible to really play it at the very highest level while devoting half of your time to doing something completely different.

Or perhaps it's more accurate to state that I would say that if I didn’t know about Denny Zeitlin...........

Zeitlin is, and has been for over 40 years, a full time psychiatrist and a part-time jazz musician – or at least part-time in that he has always fulfilled a fulltime role as a medical man while presumably (though I don’t know this for sure), playing jazz only when he has time away from his medical practice. And what is extraordinary about him is not that you could say he’s an amazing jazz pianist considering he doesn’t devote himself full time to it – what’s extraordinary is that he is a truly great jazz pianist by any standard. He is truly world class, and always has been ever since the time he came to New York as a medical student in the early 1960s, playing gigs and making recordings while studying medicine .

His brilliance and originality is immediately evident on the first recordings he appeared on, and no less than Bill Evans recorded his beautiful composition ‘Quiet Now’ which became a staple of Evans’ repertoire at that time. He released several albums during the 60s and then seemed to disappear from performance, emerging again in the early 80s with a beautiful duo recording for ECM with Charlie Haden ('Time Remembers One Time Once'), and even locking horns with Herbie Hancock on Straight No Chaser from a live recording, ('Jazz at the Opera House'), that I don’t think has ever been released on CD, but is one on which Zeitlin demonstrates again his right to be considered as one of the truly great jazz pianists.

Yet he remains under-appreciated and under-recognised, despite the fact that he remains active as a pianist and is playing as well as ever both solo, and in his trio with Buster Williams and Matt Wilson. I was recently talking to some musician friends of mine, and I brought Zeitlin’s name up, and while some of them had heard his name, few were aware of his work, and none were aware of the great trio recordings he made in the early 60s. I think it’s a travesty that these recordings are not better known – hence this blog post.

In 1964, while only 25 years old, he made what is for me an incredibly forward looking and prophetic piano trio album – Cathexis – with Cecil McBee and Freddie Waits. This recording is full of compositional, pianistic and ensemble concepts that were very uncommon at the time, but that later went on to become part and parcel of the contemporary jazz pianist's (and musician’s) vocabulary. It was very far ahead of its time in so many ways.

At a festival we were both playing at in Belgium last year I had the good fortune to have a conversation with Cecil McBee, the bassist on Cathexis, during which I brought up this recording (Cathexis) and asked Cecil about it. He said a very interesting thing – he told me that it was the first recording he (and Freddie Waits), made in New York when he arrived there, but that in hindsight he felt that he wasn’t really ready to make that recording. When I asked him what he meant by that, he said that though his reading skills and technique were in good condition due to his just having left music college, and he was able to negotiate the many technical difficulties of the music, at the same time he said that the conceptual material was so varied and demanding, he felt that he didn’t have the experience at that time to deal with the music in the way he now wished he could have.

Listening to Cathexis even now, there are so many challenges for the rhythm section, and so many varieties of feel and approach demanded of them. Waits and McBee do a fantastic job on the music, especially given the difficulties involved - I wonder if they did any gigs in preparation for the recording...... Even today this music would be challenging, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be faced with those pieces at that time – it remains incredible to me that this recording was conceived and recorded in early 1964, and by someone who wasn't devoting all of his time to music!

For example – here are a few audio clips which give an idea of the sheer breadth of conception and ease of execution of this music and this CD (Thanks to Mr. Zeitlin for permission to use these clips - depending on your internet connection some clips may load slowly, if so, please be patient)

‘I-Thou’ is an exquisite melody, which has a wonderful circular feel with a deceptively tricky form – melody is one of Zeitlin’s great gifts

'Stonehenge' on the other hand, is a fast modal piece that has a hair-raising (for the rhythm section) rhythmic and densely chorded section that's used to launch the solos. Even in today's jazz world, where we're used to rhythmically difficult passages in the music, this would be considered challenging.

The use of 20th century harmony (as in the chromatic harmony of Schoenberg and Stravinsky, featuring stacked triads etc.) to re-harmonise standards became very popular in jazz the mid-to late 70s, particularly through the work of Richie Beirach and Dave Liebman. But Zeitlin was doing this many years before, such as in this take on Gershwin's classic 'Soon'

Or how about this chromatic take on the even more classic 'Round Midnight............

'Nica's Tempo' on the other hand features many tempo changes - a very unusual thing in a piano trio recording in 1964, though Mingus had been using it as a compositional device for a while

'Little Children, Don't Go Near That House' (the title is worth the price of admission alone!) is a very unusual melody showing a real original mind at work - the harmony is dense, the melody is lyrical and a little poignant, yet stylistically unclassifiable.........

'Cathexis' itself is a burn-out, with lots of chords including the fast moving Trane type progression heard here that shows that Zeitlin, along with pretty much everyone else at that time, was affected by Coltrane's contemporary harmonic explorations

And finally - an extended form composition - in this case an exploration of the minor blues. 'Blue Phoenix' works its way through three different sections, starting off very slowly with solo piano before getting into an extraordinary evocation of a walking bass line with the left hand of the piano. Zeitlin has always been brilliant at this (check out his 'Billie's Bounce' from 'Time Remembers One Time Once' on ECM for another amazing example). As a bassist I've rarely heard pianists successfully imitate the feel of a walking bass line - it's usually too angular and percussive. But Zeitlin seems to have figured out how to get that legato driving thing that bassists often do - as in this example:

He finishes 'Blue Phoenix' as a fast burning minor blues, utilising the following accelerando (another rare thing in jazz) to get to the desired tempo

He moved to the West Coast in the mid-60's and in between his medical work put together a new trio with Jerry Granelli and Charlie Haden which made several recordings - 'Carnival', 'Live at the Trident' and (with Joe Halpin on bass and Oliver Johnson on drums on half of it) 'Zeitgeist'. Carnival and Zeitgeist were recently released on a Mosaic box set that also includes 'Cathexis', though the Trident recording wasn't included in this collection for some reason.

While Haden and Granelli recorded more extensively with Zeitlin and form an obvious trio rapport with him, I've always been very fond of the pieces on Zeitgeist that have the Joe Halpin/Oliver Johnson bass and drum team. They have a muscularity of approach that really fires the music and puts it into other areas. This is particularly true on 'Dormammu' where Zeitlin shows the breadth of his creative abilities yet again. Here he ventures into some ferocious open improvisation with Halpin and Johnson that shows he was au fait with the 60s free scene

I also really like Johnson's time feel too - he has a wonderfully springy cymbal feel with an edge to it - slightly pushy but not rushing, reminiscent of Jack DeJohnette's time feel. 'Night and Day' is a good example

And finally, have a listen to the playfulness of the way they play the hoary old classic 'I Got Rhythm' - dense voicings yet underpinned with real swing

These albums contain an extraordinary amount of improvisational and compositional approaches - extended form, lyrical ballads, complex rhythms, sophisticated chromatic reharmonization of standards, free playing, fantastic swing. They are major statements in the art of the possible for piano trio, and given the time they were made, were very prophetic. The dominant piano trio influence in mainstream jazz in the 60s was Bill Evans, yet to my mind, these trio recordings show a greater variety of approach within what is largely a conventional jazz context, than does the various Evans trios. This is not to denigrate the Evans trios, but rather is meant to point up the extraordinary achievements of the Zeitlin trios.

Achievements that have not been given their due recognition. Which brings us back to the opening point - can you really reach the highest level you can reach if you don't devote yourself full time to the music? I think its clear that Zeitlin has reached and surpassed the level that most full time pianists can reach. But could the achievements have been even greater had he devoted himself fulltime to music? He certainly would have been given greater recognition - as Monk famously said, even if you don't have a gig you should always be on the scene. Out of sight, out of mind is a truism - there's no doubt that Zeitlin's absence from the scene - especially in NY - has contributed to the lack of awareness of his work, especially today.

However he has an interesting take on all of this, in which he posits the idea that his medical and musical work feed off each other. So - do check out these great trio albums, check out what he's doing currently, and let's leave the last words to him


After I wrote this blog I received a message from Denny pointing out a couple of factual errors and giving some insight into some of the points I raised.

With regard to the errors - ‘Billie’s Bounce’ was actually recorded on a Palo Alto recording called Tidal Wave. And the audio clip version of ‘I Got Rhythm’ that I posted featured the bass and drum team of Charlie Haden and Jerry Granelli – there’s a different version featuring Joe Halpin and Oliver Johnson on the bonus tracks of the Mosaic Box Set I mentioned in the post.

Here are Denny’s observations and clarifications:

It is accurate that over the years I have maintained a primary responsibility to patient care and psychiatric education, and have woven music into this fabric as best as I have been able.

Re my "disappearance" : After the Columbia series of 5 LPs in the sixties, I became very interested in the integration of acoustic and electronic instruments, jazz, classical, rock, funk, and free music. I withdrew from public performance for several years while I got the instrumentation, technology, and group together, and then performed this music through the seventies. This journey was recorded on the small independent label, 1750 Arch, and culminated in my acoustic-symphonic-electronic score for the remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." That score was recently released on CD. I then returned to a focus on acoustic music, and the duet album for ECM with Charlie soon followed, reaching a larger audience.

Re Cathexis: I had one night of rehearsal with Cecil before our first recording session, and met Freddie for the first time in the studio. We never gigged as a trio. I agree that they did an absolutely superb job on the date. It was very interesting to learn of Cecil's conversation with you.

RE Blue Phoenix: You might want to mention also that my new solo CD, "Precipice," has several examples of walking bass lines at different tempos.

RE the Mosaic Box Set: The reason Live At The Trident was not included in this set is that the set focuses exclusively on the studio dates. Mosaic plans to release LATT on CD, probably within the next 12 months.

(Your description of the Johnson/Halpin team and Oliver's contribution is right on, and tallies with my experience of them.)

RE: I Got Rhythm: The version you audio-clipped and described is actually one of the Haden/Granelli

Bonus tracks. The version with Johnson/Halpin is the very brief, more avant-garde reconstructed/deconstructed track 6 of Disc #3.

Many, many thanks for your support of my music, Ronan, and I hope our paths will cross in person before too long.

All best,


Sunday, July 18, 2010

Jazz Prodigies

Jazz has never been big on child prodigies. Unlike classical music, there have been very few bona-fide child prodigies in the music, or at least ones who made a genuine impact. Classical music has had its fair share of them, and several have successfully made the transition into adult performers of note. Probably the most famous of these (in the modern era – there was also Mozart of course), was Yehudi Menuhin, but there have been others such as Midori and Evgeny Kissen. The phenomenon of the child prodigy seems to be particularly prevalent in classical music – go onto Youtube today and you will see any amount of startlingly young children playing at a suitably startling technical level.

Child prodigies have had much less success in jazz and improvised music, both in terms of numbers of prodigies who appeared in the music and in relation to the ultimate long term careers of these prodigies. The most successful one of course was Tony Williams, whose extraordinary playing at the age of 14 with Jackie Mclean startled the jazz world and prompted no less than Miles Davis to lure him away from McLean’s band in 1963. Williams, along with Elvin Jones, became the most influential modern jazz drummer since Max Roach and strong echoes of his playing can be heard in the playing of most jazz drummers today. He went on to be a dominant force on the jazz scene till his death at the tragically early age of 50. Williams aside, I can think of no other child prodigy in jazz who continued his career into adulthood with the same kind of effect that Williams had, or that Menuhin etc. had in the classical world. I do remember teaching at the Banff Centre in Canada in 2002 and coming across an extraordinarily gifted 14 year old pianist called Aaron Parks who has of course gone on to great things in adulthood. But again he’s an exception.

It’s interesting to consider why jazz doesn’t seem to attract, or nurture prodigies in the way that classical music does, and has for over a hundred years. After all, why shouldn’t kids be able to negotiate the changes of a blues or Rhythm Changes when they can negotiate the much stiffer technical challenges of Brahms and Beethoven? My own feeling is that the demands of good jazz improvisation require not only a good technique and knowledge of harmony, but also a broad range of other skills, many of which depend on the maturity and empathy of the player. And maturity and empathy are not usually associated with 10 year olds.

Playing classical music, one can be guided and directed by a good and sympathetic teacher. The goals are a lot clearer – play the score correctly and interpret the notes in order to play the music the way the composer wanted it played. Playing improvised music in a group setting, on the other hand, is not just about one’s own playing, but also demands an ability to hear where one is in relation to everyone else, to respond to everyone else, and to allow one’s own path to be influenced by everyone else in the band, in real time. It’s an extraordinarily difficult task to be able to juggle the subjective and objective like this. And no matter how gifted one may be musically, to have the maturity and empathy to be able to bring off this particular balancing act is usually beyond even the most gifted youngster.

This post was prompted by my seeing two very gifted young musicians recently – the Israeli pianist Gadi Lehavi (14) and the Slovakian guitarist, now living in Ireland, Andreas Verady (13). Both are extraordinarily talented and have a genuine feel for the music – their ability to be able to process information is beyond what one could expect at their age. Lehavi in particular is almost scary in this respect. I watched him play ‘All the Things’ at a jam session in Den Haag recently, and I couldn’t get over the note choices he made, the harmonic ingenuity of his lines and his ability to turn on a dime when an alternative idea was suggested to him by something played in the rhythm section. How can someone so young amass such information, both technically and aesthetically at such an age!? Andreas is also very gifted, if more conventional in terms of his lines and note choices. I played with him at a workshop last year and was struck by his ability to get into the music once he picks the instrument up.

Of course the problem that always surrounds child prodigies is how to nurture their gifts and prevent them from becoming part of a kind of freak show. Audiences love watching children perform beyond the norm for kids of their age, and getting people to come and pay money to gawp at their abilities is like shooting fish in a barrel for promoters. The danger for these kids is that they’re paraded around the circuit and used as a promotional tool by festivals and promoters, and sometimes by the musicians who are performing with them. What these kids need is a nurturing musical environment where they can be given the support required to develop their extraordinary gifts. What they DON’T need is to be sold as a kind of freak, paraded around the circuit endlessly until they become too old to be of any interest to the rubes, and instead of spending all the time they should have spent developing their musicality they’ve worn themselves out playing endless gigs. So they end up at 20 years of age, pretty much playing the way they were when they were 14, but now being just one of hundreds of competent 20 year old players. The danger is that instead of having a long-lasting career in which their gifts enrich the whole scene, they become washed up in their early 20s.

So they need to be looked after very carefully, and it seems to me that Gadi is in good hands – he seems very unaffected by everything, has a real passion for the music and is not being paraded around endlessly by promoters and older musicians. On the other hand I’ve noticed that Andreas is being extensively touted around Ireland in the past 6 months as ‘Jazz Guitar Prodigy’ by festivals, promoters and older musicians. It has a bad feeling about it.

Lets hope that Gadi and Andreas make it beyond the realms of novelty, beyond the vested interests of those who love an opportunity to exploit novelty, and take their extraordinary gifts into their adulthood intact. In the meantime, let’s enjoy their brilliance

Here’s Andreas negotiating Giant Steps at speed

And here’s Gadi, showing extraordinary harmonic richness and improvisational ability on Corea’s ‘Spain’

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Rhythm-A-Ning - 2

Here's a 2nd video taken at the recent IRSA meeting at Newpark, in case you might like to have a look

Saturday, July 10, 2010


In 2007 a casual lunch gave rise to something that culminated recently in twenty seven great musicians from all around the world coming together to informally play music and explore the world of rhythm in jazz and beyond.

The lunch occurred at the 2007 IASJ meeting in Siena and involved myself, my brother Conor and the Brazilian saxophonist and composer Marcelo Coelho. We’d just attended workshops given by each other on very different aspects of rhythm and over lunch we remarked on a) how many different developments there had been in the area of rhythm in jazz and improvised music over the past twenty years, and b) how little people working in this field knew about what other people were doing, and how they went about what they were doing.

From that conversation came the idea of the International Rhythmic Studies Association, an organisation formed to help put people working in the area of rhythm in touch with each other. We agreed that the first thing we’d need to do was have a venue for a meeting where people could meet, play and exchange ideas – Marcelo volunteered the Conservatorio Souza Lima, the school where he teaches in Sao Paulo, as a venue and since it had long been an ambition of mine to go to Brazil I readily agreed!

So we had our first meeting in 2008 in Sao Paulo and though it was small in number, it allowed us to put a shape on the meeting that would make it most affective for the participants. While we weren’t quite sure what we wanted at the beginning of the meeting, we were very sure about what we didn’t want. We didn’t want this to be any kind of workshop situation, with teachers and students. We wanted it to be a meeting place for high level practitioners, a place where peers could share information, try things out for themselves and see what others were up to. And so we settled on the best format for the meeting – in the mornings the musicians would get together in informal groups and try different things out – each musician would bring things they were working on and could introduce ideas and concepts to the other members of the group. In the afternoons there would be a more formal presentation of ideas and techniques to the entire membership of the meeting. This idea worked very well and allowed for the maximum exposure to the maximum amount of rhythmic information over a three-day period. In addition being in Sao Paulo allowed us access to some of the greatest rhythmic music in the world and this undoubtedly added to the stimulus of the meeting.

In 2009 we repeated the idea in Sao Paulo again and decided that if the meeting was to grow, we would have to have it in Europe at least once – Brazil is a wonderful country and one of the great rhythm countries, but it is expensive to get to from Europe and since there was so much intensive and wide-ranging rhythmic activity going on in Europe it was important to make the meeting more accessible to European musicians. So this year we did just that and took the meeting to Dublin, to my school – Newpark Music Centre. And as we had hoped, putting the meeting in Europe made it more accessible to more people and we had the biggest meeting yet this past week – 27 people from 13 different countries. But despite the greatly increased interest in attending the meeting, we decided that we would never let the meeting become larger than 30 people since to do so would be to endanger the flexibility of the musicians to be able to work together and get the most out of their encounters. We turned down several applicants on the grounds of numbers and/or suitability – the criteria for attending the meeting is that the participant should be someone with a prior interest in the rhythmic aspects of the music, preferably with a track record of activity in this area.

We followed the same format as before – informal playing sessions in the mornings and presentations of new ideas and concepts in the afternoons. It takes the musicians a minute to get used to the morning sessions since it’s so unique – there are no rules, no pre-agreed ensembles to go into, no group leaders. So it can be difficult at first to figure out what to do, but people quickly begin to revel in the freedom of this format – freedom to get together with lots of different people or with just one or two people and just work on whatever you feel like working on. These sessions featured such things as Brazilian music in odd metres, metric modulation, frame drumming, South Indian rhythmic techniques, odd metre standards and clave, and try-outs of new rhythmic compositions. By moving around, each musician got to try out a wide variety of music over the three days.

The formal presentations included such subjects as South Indian rhythmic techniques, Odd Metre Clave, rhythmic techniques used in contemporary composed piano music (such as Ligeti, Nancarrow and John Adams), multi-layered metric modulation, composing using the rhythmic line technique, the evolution of Afro-Brazilian rhythms and an overview of recent developments in rhythmic music in Brussels, Paris and London.

Given the explosion in the rhythmic variety of jazz in the past twenty years I think this kind of sharing of ideas is very timely – not that we need to regulate the world of rhythm, but with such a vast Terra Incognita out there an organisation like IRSA can help map the outermost regions at least.

Next year we’ll be returning to Sao Paulo again where no doubt we’ll have another great three days. Here’s the first part of a video documentary on the meeting which gives a flavour of what the meeting was like and what it was all about