The pianism of Denny Zeitlin

(March 2009)

By Ted Gioia

In the early 1980s, Gene Lees surveyed more than 60 jazz
pianists to find out which keyboardists they most admired. He
asked them to pick the "best," the "most influential" and their
"personal favorites" from the entire history of jazz, including both
living and deceased artists. The results were dominated by the
expected names: Art Tatum topped the list of the "best" and "most
influential"; Bill Evans was most often cited as the "personal
favorite." Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Herbie Hancock and the
other "usual suspects" also appeared on the list.

Yet Dr. Denny Zeitlin's name figured prominently on the various
ballots, with especially high markings when these elite pianists
were asked to pick their personal favorites—a result all the more
surprising since Zeitlin had spent his entire career as a part time

Early on, he had decided on a calling in medicine, and had
relegated jazz to a "sideline." His dual career brings new meaning
to the term "multitasking." I have been around many brilliant,
achievement-oriented people in my life, but Denny makes my short
list of the most impressive individuals I have encountered. By the
way, I once sat next to a medical expert on a plane, who knew
Denny only as a doctor. She was amazed to learn from me that he
had done so much in the jazz world, given how well he is respected
in the medical field. And jazz fans may not know about Zeitlin's
formidable reputation as a wine connoisseur. The more you learn
about him, the more you will wonder: "When does he find time to

When I wrote my book The History of Jazz a few years back, I
called attention to Zeitlin's work, and made a case for his
importance in the evolution of the jazz keyboard and modern piano
trio. I saw that he had been applying techniques back in the 1960s
that strikingly foreshadowed cutting edge jazz piano approaches of
later decades. If you wanted, you could even come up with some
colorful angle, and call Dr. Zeitlin the "Brad Mehldau of 1964" or
the "forerunner of the ECM sound" or concoct some other
generalization, touching on this futuristic element in his playing.
Yet with Denny, all labels of this sort are merely vague
approximations, and the best way to understand what his music
represents is to listen to it carefully.

Nonetheless I knew that the readers of my book would have few
chances to appreciate his artistry. It wasn't just because Zeitlin
seldom performs (and very rarely in the New York clubs where the
opinion leaders of the jazz world congregate), but even more due
to the scandalous state of his recorded legacy.

For example:

(1) The obvious place to start in listening to Zeitlin was his debut
as a sideman on Jeremy Steig's recording Flute Fever. When this
album was released, Bill Evans praised it lavishly in a Blindfold
Test in Downbeat. But these days you won't find it easy to hear
this music—Steig's album has been out of print for ages.

(2) The next place to go would be Zeitlin's piano trio recordings for
Columbia, made under the direction of John Hammond. These are
the albums that established Denny's reputation in jazz circles, and
serve as the cornerstone of his oeuvre. Good luck finding them.
Columbia / Sony never released these sessions on CD, and they
were taken off the market in LP format shortly after they were

(3) In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Zeitlin plunged into new
waters, mixing electronic and acoustic currents, odd time meters,
tight and loose improvisational structures—the whole nine yards,
so to speak. His indie label 1973 release Expansion earned a
glowing five star review in Downbeat, which proclaimed it "a
masterpiece." By any measure, this was one of the most exciting
jazz albums of the era. But this LP soon became even harder to
find than the Columbia releases. It is still out of print.

(4) Zeitlin's follow-up Syzygy from 1977 showed his keyboard
conception continuing to evolve in exciting new directions. But
don't even try to find a copy of this release. You will have a better
chance of getting a 1955 double-die penny in your change at

(5) Columbia recorded Zeitlin in a two-piano format with Herbie
Hancock in 1982 at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House.
Only one track was ever issued, and it soon disappeared from the
market. There is at least one more track that was never released. I
was at the concert and can attest to the importance of this music,
but I have given up any hopes of seeing it issued on CD.

(6) The next year, Zeitlin participated in a double-album tribute to
Bill Evans, produced by Herb Wong, and featuring what is
probably the most impressive list of jazz keyboardists to ever
collaborate on a single project. In addition to Denny, the
performers included Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, John Lewis,
George Shearing, McCoy Tyner, Teddy Wilson, etc. This LP
quickly went out of print and is unavailable on compact disk.

To sum up: Zeitlin put together a stunning body of work as a
young man, but almost no one has heard it. Fans haven't heard it
in decades and even many critics don't know about it . . . and they
could hardly even find this music if they wanted to check it out. It
almost seemed as if some perverse deity was determined on
erasing Denny Zeitlin's contributions to jazz during the key early
decades of his career.

This turn of events disappoints me as a jazz writer, but even more
as a fan. These Zeitlin recordings are the kind of music I put on
the CD player for my own personal enjoyment. But, for the most
part, they haven't been made available on CD, and my LPs now
have more snaps, crackles and pops than a cauldron of Rice
Krispies during a milk storm.

Yet finally the cruel fates have relented, and in a wonderful turn of
events, Mosaic has started reissuing the Zeitlin trio sides from the
1960s—and not only the previously released material, but also top
notch outtakes that even Denny had forgotten about. The recent
Mosaic three CD set includes music recorded for Cathexis,
Carnival and Zeitgeist, and represents the complete studio
sessions from the period 1964-67. I was sad to see the fine
Shining Hour: Live at the Trident tracks omitted from the
compilation. But this disappointment was more than compensated
by Mosaic's promise to issue these at a later date, along with an
"abundance of unreleased material" from this 1964 live album.

So I still have more than a few tracks on my wish list for future
release. But for the time being I am celebrating. Finally, the Zeitlin
studio trio sessions from the 1960s are available to the jazz world.
. . .
This is the end of part one of Ted Gioia's article on Denny Zeitlin.
For part two of this article, click here.

The Pianism of Denny Zeitlin (Part 2)

John Hammond, the great talent scout for Columbia, was always
on the lookout for artists who broke the rules—he championed
Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman in the 1930s and launched the
careers of Dylan and Springsteen half a lifetime later. But it would
be hard to imagine a less typical auditioning artist than the one
who sat on the piano bench in Columbia Record's New York
studios that day in 1963.

Denny Zeitlin was in his mid-20s and still hadn't made his first
album. While others of his generation had been taking sideman
gigs with name jazz bands or scuffling for work in New York, Zeitlin
was in Baltimore, studying medicine at Johns Hopkins University
School of Medicine. (In case you don't follow healthcare
pedagogy, let me note that this is considered by many as the
premier—and most demanding—medical school in the nation.)
Zeitlin had traveled to New York not for a gig, or even an audition
with Mr. Hammond. He had come to New York for Columbia the
University (where he was participating in a ten-week fellowship) not
Columbia the record label.

Jack Reilly recently shared an anecdote about auditioning for
Columbia the previous day, and having the session quickly come
to an end because he wanted to play his original compositions and
not standards. Now Zeitlin was in the hot seat, and Hammond must
have been impressed. Dr. Zeitlin soon found himself in the strange
position of being signed by the label and groomed for jazz
stardom, while finishing his medical degree and preparing for his
internship at San Francisco General Hospital.
It was inevitable that Columbia and Zeitlin would eventually part
ways. The challenges of a dual career prevented Zeitlin from
pursuing the round-the-year touring and full time commitment to
jazz that studio execs expect from artists on the company's roster.
But the music Zeitlin made during this brief interlude ranks among
the finest jazz piano work of the era. On his studio projects
Cathexis, Carnival and Zeitgeist—long out of print but finally made
available on a Mosaic reissue a few weeks ago—and the still hard-
to-find Live at the Trident, Zeitlin was redefining the jazz keyboard
vocabulary and establishing a conception of the piano trio that
strikingly anticipated the later evolution of the music.

I remember talking to Denny some years back about his Columbia
recordings, and probing him about the existence of unreleased
gems in the tapes. He dismissed the idea, claiming that the there
was little of interest beyond the material that had shown up on the
albums. And this remained his attitude until Mosaic sent him 17
outtakes from these mid-1960s sessions, of which he approved 15
for inclusion on the new box set. These are not just alternate
versions of the master takes, but include original compositions and
other new material. By any measure, this Mosaic release
(available in a limited edition of 5,000 copies) is now the place to
begin in coming to grips with this important pianist.

And why is Denny Zeitlin important? There is the obvious matter of
his formidable technical command of the instrument. His touch, his
dynamics, his clarity of execution are exemplary. But even more to
the point, Zeitlin came to grips with virtually all of the pressing
issues facing the jazz keyboardists of his generation. These were
matters that most of his contemporaries addressed partially or with
varying degrees of success, or (in some instances) tried to ignore.
But Zeitlin's penetrating intellect and vision allowed him to find
solutions where others merely encountered problems.

These were the looming issues in jazz pianism during the mid-

(1) How to balance the trade-off between the quest for "freedom"
(a pervasive issue of the day) with the value of structure. Zeitlin
juggled these two opposed goals with such fluency that he even
managed to create a viable rapprochement between them.
Someone once tagged him as the "Dave Brubeck of Free Jazz"—
and that odd sobriquet is not entirely inappropriate.

(2) How to incorporate longer structural forms into jazz composition
while retaining (and enhancing) the vitality of traditional song
forms. I can't think of a pianist of this period who did a better job of
pushing into longer forms that still were taut and supple—listen to
Zeitlin's exceptional recordings of "Blue Phoenix" or "Carnival" or
"Mirage" for some very striking examples of this.

(3) How to deal with odd meters in a way that was fluid, idiomatic
and not contrived: Zeitlin's work on "Mirage" is especially
fascinating. At one point in this piece he follow a structure notated
as 3 / 3 / 5 / 5 / 2 / 13 / 4 / 4 / 3 / 3 / 3 / 13. Yet the overall effect is
almost of a type of metered jazz without barlines. Once again, it is
hard to think of another jazz pianist of this period whose structural
thinking was at such a high level.

(4) How to bring orchestral textures into a jazz piano vocabulary
that had become thinned out and pared down since the 1940s.
The old stride piano players had often derided the bebop
keyboardists for being "one-hand" musicians, who could play fast
lines with their right hand, but often did little else. In the 1970s,
jazz piano would start to reverse directions and bring in a wider
range of two-handed techniques. But Denny Zeitlin was already
moving in this direction in the early 1960s. Pianists often talk
about their chord "voicings"—but this term does not do justice to
the full range of textures and sound tapestries that Zeitlin delivers
at the keyboard on these Columbia sessions.

In each of these instances, Zeitlin faced the issue head-on, and
came up with a robust solution. And, just as important, did so in an
integrated, holistic way. Everything he plays has his own personal
stamp on it. Nothing comes across as tenuous or forced or merely
experimental. Listening to these old tracks, which sound so fresh
today, I am reminded of the adage that the experimenting should
take place during the musician's practice and preparation, and
when the band shows up on stage, the time for experimentation is
over. Certainly these Columbia trio recordings reveal a poised
artist in complete control of his material, and with a clear idea of
where he wants to take it.

A few years later, when synthesizers and electric keyboards
captured the attention of the jazz world, Zeitlin was again at the
forefront. That music is not included on this set—and who knows
when this musician's recordings for the Arch Street label will ever
see light of day. But trust me on this: Denny Zeitlin was equally
adept at managing the trade-offs between electric and acoustic,
the conflict between commercial and artistic considerations, that
came to the fore during the 1970s.

Denny Zeitlin has enjoyed a remarkable life by any measure, yet
his contributions to jazz have too long been obscured by the fickle
decisions of record company execs who have kept the music from
the first twenty years of his career out of print. The release of the
Mosaic reissue, and a fine new trio CD on Sunnyside, give us a
good opportunity to reexamine this artist, and savor anew his
contributions to the art form.

Publication Date: March 2009
Ted Gioia