a column by
Stuart Broomer

Cecil McBee, Denny Zeitlin and Freddie Waits, 1964
Cecil McBee, Denny Zeitlin and Freddie Waits, 1964                                  Courtesy of Mosaic Records©2009

Jazz grows ever more mythic. At times it may seem in that archetypal New Orleans funeral that, upon reaching the cemetery, the corpse is restored to dance happily back home with the band and his friends. The recent reappearance of Giuseppi Logan is one of the more heartening tales of jazz and its capacity for rebirth. In its own way, Logan’s return from homelessness and mental illness may be even more striking than the return of Henry Grimes, for at least Grimes had something resembling appreciation his first time around: Logan had scant recognition in the ‘60s when his work was too strange for all but a few other musicians. These sagas of return can take strange forms. There’s a sense that Lowell Davidson is back as well, though he died nearly 20 years ago, celebrated in the reissue of his sole “commercial” recording and new interpretations of his graphic scores by a trio of Joe Morris, John Voigt and Tom Plsek (see this issue’s Moment’s Notice).

There’s something of the return, too, about the resurgence of Denny Zeitlin, suddenly returned to prominence by the near simultaneous reissue of an archival box set and a new live recording. But Zeitlin has never really been away: he’s been performing and recording intermittently throughout the past four decades. There’s another critical difference, too. When he’s been away from jazz, Zeitlin has pursued a career as a psychiatrist. While others might be “Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” Zeitlin could have actually worked there. It’s added numerous dimensions to his secondary career in jazz, from his inspirations to the special reception that originally greeted his work.

Zeitlin is not unique in trying to balance a jazz practice with another demanding vocation. The bassist Art Davis, frustrated by the color bar in the symphony orchestras of his day, gained a doctorate in clinical psychology and worked in the field. Closest might be trumpeter Eddie Henderson who did his residency in psychiatry but worked as a general practitioner. There are at least two sides to Zeitlin’s dual practice. On one hand the music acts as a creative release from the rigors of medicine while the psychoanalysis seems to inform the concepts underlying some of the compositions.

There’s a certain mercurial brilliance to Zeitlin’s trio music, and it’s especially apparent on Denny Zeitlin (Mosaic Select 34), the three-CD reissue of the studio albums he recorded for Columbia between 1964 and 1967, and now supplemented by an hour of unreleased material.  While the first LP Cathexis and part of the second, Carnival, appeared on a Collectables CD about a decade ago, the collection is the first CD release worthy of the material, complete with unissued material and superior sound, reminding one that it’s sometimes the major labels that can do the best job of hiding music.

Zeitlin appears here as a rapid-fire post-bop stylist with deep roots in the mainstream modern, yet whose methodology extends to free improvisation. HIs distinguishing marks include his sometimes radical recasting of the harmony of standards, the emotional directness of his ballads, the fluidity and clarity of his up-tempo inventions. There’s a strong connection to Bill Evans in his harmonic language, but it’s a view of Evans that sees him in full view of his authentic roots, in the jagged lines of Bud Powell and their transmutation in the style of Horace Silver. There’s plenty to distinguish Zeitlin: the harmonic daring (with interests in both polytonality and free playing) would come from Lennie Tristano and George Russell, the latter perhaps Zeitlin’s most significant teacher and mentor. Zeitlin presented a fresh voice in mid-60s jazz, a progressive rather than a revolutionary presence.

While there may be a certain facile aspect to his playing – he’s almost too quick and there’s an occasional brittleness – he had tremendous skills, including a knack for assembling cohesive trios and picking tunes, as well as composing his own memorable works. The first session here has the combination of Cecil McBee and Freddie Waits, as lively a pairing as you could find among younger musicians in 1964. Among the delights of his debut is a taut, minimalist account of “Round Midnight.” The expansive tonal language of his unaccompanied flight on his suite, “Blue Phoenix,” is stunning. The next session has Charlie Haden and Jerry Granelli providing support. Zeitlin’s recasting of “We’ll Be Together Again” is a marvel of reharmonization, an eloquent, original take on a ballad that tugs it gently toward atonality. “Carnival”—reminiscent of Stravinsky’s piano transcriptions of his ballets--has him shifting moods and densities with great art.

Zeitlin’s careers seem complementary, jazz initially a creative outlet in the midst of a gruelling process of education and apprenticeship. In the retrospect that he has added to the Mosaic set, he recalls, “Medical school was fascinating bur extremely demanding and in the late evening after studying for five or six hours, to be able to go and play was wonderfully balancing. I was also fortunate that the medical residence hall in which I was staying had an excellent 7-foot Steinway in its entry room. I would grab a few minutes whenever I could between classes and labs.”

There’s a strong sense in which integrative patterns associated with psychoanalysis influence or shape Zeitlin’s compositions. The title of the first LP, “Cathexis,” is a translation of Freud’s term “besetzung,” defined in the notes as “the amount of psychic energy which is directed toward or attached to the mental representative of a person or thing.” Another track, “I-Thou” invokes Martin Buber’ description of the “real relation.” Certain archetypes seem to shape Zeitlin’s compositions, like the mythical regenerating bird of “Blue Phoenix,” or “Mirage” or “Labyrinth.” “Mirage” demonstrates Zeitlin’s interest in the tension between complex structures and free playing. Oddly enough, Zeitlin later scored the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the plot of which mirrors Capgras Syndrome, a mental illness in which a person believes a loved one to have been replaced by an imposter.

Listening to the Columbia sessions, I was repeatedly struck by the quality and daring of the tracks that hadn’t been released, as if Zeitlin’s most creative moments were held back. The stunning “Labyrinth” shows how well he handled free improvisation, pressing into a sonic area that few musicians had entered and in which Charlie Haden and Jerry Granelli are ideal partners. It’s a bit disconcerting to hear music from 1966 that likely went unreleased because it was too adventurous. It’s just as surprising with the lyrical “Requiem for Lili,” inspired by Nadia Boulanger’s sister, a brilliant composer who died in her twenties. It employs her own techniques to achieve a startling memorial, as limpidly beautiful as Ravel.

The Other Side

There may be something slightly discomforting about Zeitlin’s career and the highpoint of that career – the Columbia recordings – may spotlight it. This has nothing to do with Zeitlin’s innate qualities as a musician; in fact, he may have been substantially better – more fluent, more creative – than he had to be.  

That’s apparent in the other young musicians who recorded for Columbia in the early to mid-60s, a kind of guarantee of temporary stardom handed to Jeremy Steig, 21-year-old son of a New Yorker cartoonist who would play the flute through a pipe because of his paralyzed face, or Paul Winter, the bland winner of a Collegiate jazz festival who soon developed a form of world music before his band (Ralph Towner, Paul McCandless and Colin Walcott) – decamped to become Oregon. The Winter Consort had a rhythm section of Cecil McBee and Freddie Waits before Winter introduced Zeitlin to John Hammond, all suggesting that by the 1960s Paul Winter was a better talent scout than Hammond, the latter having only discovered Winter. There is something strikingly pointed about all of this. Hammond was, after all, the man who had effectively discovered Billie Holiday – and Count Basie, too, as far as major recordings were concerned –and, more to the point, integrated the Benny Goodman trio. But by the early ‘60s, jazz to Hammond and corporate Columbia apparently looked like a white art – and a fairly innocuous one at that—and one that required a special hook.

Zeitlin’s comments on his career can be a little startling when you contrast them with the reception of other musicians of the period: “The...Columbia LPs opened many doors – to network TV and repeat spots on the Tonight Show, appearances at colleges and major festivals, and recognition from the international press.” I don’t have great recall of the old Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, though I saw it occasionally. The only jazz pianist I can recall appearing was Dudley Moore, who had a secondary career as a comedian and could also get gigs playing Mozart. I once saw Gerry Mulligan turn up, certainly a musician of sufficient fame to justify an appearance—but he was playing a duet with Woody Allen.

The only other contending instrumentalist I can think of is Peter Nero – not exactly a jazz musician – but the chances of Hank Jones or Tommy Flanagan or Sonny Clark or Wynton Kelly showing up – Jones or Flanagan might have subbed in the band – was unthinkable. I don’t recall any of the musicians like George Russell,  Gary Bartz  and Grachan Moncur III who figure in Zeitlin’s notes as teacher, mentor or partner showing up on the Columbia roster or the Tonight Show (though Russell later did the interesting Living Time with Bill Evans for Columbia). Lee Morgan and Roland Kirk made it to the Merv Griffin Show, but that was due to a protest launched from the audience.

Which brings us to the special significance of Zeitlin’s odd “double” as a psychiatrist. There’s a certain semiotic magic there, and you pick up on it immediately as you look at the notes. When his first record appears, he takes it to Bill Evans’ apartment because Evans had spoken well of his appearance on Jeremy Steig’s debut record. When Zeitlin left New York for the West Coast in 1964, he learned Charlie Haden “was living at Synanon,” the residential center for recovering heroin addicts, and was available to play. What is clear, I think, is that Evans and the early Haden are musicians we might think of more readily as patients.

So Zeitlin had a kind of double mojo as jazz musician-psychiatrist, as a man who spoke two of the higher codes of the mid-twentieth century, as one who both generates mysteries and analyzes them. Each provides a different kind of meaning. One creates a non-discursive language; the other provides a language to track and name our fears and delusions. This is a remarkable shift in paradigms, for in his Tonight Show appearances Zeitlin seems to take the place of Oscar Levant, the pianist/patient who had been a regular guest on the Tonight Show with Jack Paar in the 1950s There may also be the possibility that as a psychiatrist/jazz musician, he might keep the other jazz musicians at bay.

This is not to suggest that Zeitlin didn't deserve attention or that he isn't a fine musician. He is, and you can hear it in his artfully idiomatic versions of Gigi Gryce’s “Nica's Tempo” and Horace Silver's “Nica's Dream” from the Cathexis sessions. But I can't quite figure out how Monk’s “Pannonica” didn't make it into a triptych of the baroness. Similarly I’m puzzled when Gryce’s “Minority” turns up on the second album, but there isn't a Gryce tune on the third album, Zeitgeist. I keep seeing all these patterns of three being interrupted, and wonder if criticism is a form of obsessive compulsive disorder or if Zeitlin is deliberately obscuring its trace or frustrating its expectations (Speaking of obscuring, Gigi Gryce had disappeared from the New York jazz scene just a few months before the first Zeitlin recording session, becoming Basheer Qusim, a music teacher with the New York Board of Education; this is recounted in detail in Noal Cohen and Michael Fitzgerald’s Rat Race Blues: the Musical Life of Gigi Gryce, Berkeley Hills, 2002 ).

Zeitlin’s qualities are still apparent in his new recording, In Concert (Sunnyside SSC 1206) with the rhythm section of Buster Williams and Matt Wilson. Zeitlin’s playing may be rounder now, but there’s still plenty of the same energy. He’s forged the kind of three-way dialogue with Williams and Wilson that’s the mark of his early dates and he has the same fluid movement between taut structure and sudden release.  Zeitlin digs into Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C.,” integrating tempo changes and group dialogue. There’s an intense unaccompanied Zeitlin interlude that moves from blues to free improvisation and back again and a fine bass solo by Williams, the two sounding like musicians with legitimate memories of Coltrane and his dedicatee, Paul Chambers. Zeitlin even supplies his own blow-by-blow descriptions of the nine tracks, pointing out shifts in meter and reharmonizations. 

It’s a fine session by a musician who can comfortably explore an expressive and formal range that he first outlined 45 years ago.

Stuart Broomer © 2009


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