Jazz fans like to know the musicians that most jazz fans don’t know. It’s almost like a secret rite of passage, being familiar with the jazz musicians that seemed to have slipped through the cracks of history and praise. Yeah, Miles was great, but what about Kenny Dorham? Oscar Peterson had chops, but so did Phineas Newborn. One jazz musician in particular that has enjoyed an extreme lack of notoriety and celebration is Denny Zeitlin.
Tune: What Is This Thing Called Love
Recorded: 22, 23, 24 March, 1965 at the Trident, Sausalito, California
- Denny Zeitlin- Piano
- Charlie Haden- Bass
- Jerry Granelli- Drums
Picking a track to spotlight was difficult for this album. Each tune is noteworthy, from the heavily improvised Rollins standard, ‘St. Thomas’, that opens the album to the beautiful Zeitlin original ‘Quiet Now’, a tune that Bill Evans added to his band book. I chose the track above because it’s a great intro to Zeitlin’s piano work. He doesn’t even hint at the melody until he’s well into the track. Charlie throws some wild harmonics that further mask the tune’s identity, with Jerry adding gunshots and bomb detonations from behind the drum kit. The group settles into a medium swing before Zeitlin kicks things into high gear spontaneously, and then it’s off to the races. Zeitlin plays some Coltrane-esque chord changes in the bridge that almost allude to ‘Countdown’ before closing the number as unexpectedly as it began. All jazz (good jazz, anyhow) is based off of improvising and taking chances, and this track is the epitome of both. The album as a whole is fantastic. As Herb Wong says in the liner notes, the program is balanced perfectly, with everything from jazz standards, beautiful ballads, a blues that doesn’t sound like the blues, radical free jazz, and even a groovy tune with the extremely unorthodox time signature of 13/4.
This was Denny Zeitlin’s third album and his first live album. It was recorded at the locally famous Trident, a jazz club in the city of Sausalito, California, near San Francisco. The resulting album from the tapes of his live appearances there during a week-long run in March of ’65 showcases a trio that is both tight and loose, swinging, and exciting. Zeitlin’s chords and free improv are ably assisted by free jazz pioneer Charlie Haden on bass. Haden made a splash with Ornette Coleman’s group in 1959, and is ever on the ball on this recording. Jerry Granelli may not initially ring any bells, but you have almost definitely heard him. He spent time in Vince Guaraldi’s trio, recording the Christmas album with Guaraldi before moving on to Denny Zeitlin’s trio. Having heard him politely but firmly supporting Guaraldi’s trio, it was a surprise to hear him tastefully fitting right in with Zeitlin’s more radical music (the group plays a tune that slips between 7/4 and 6/4, turning into 13/4. Brubeck would be proud).
Who’s Denny Zeitlin, anyhow? I only learned of him through a 300-plus page book that dedicated less than a paragraph to him. Ted Gioia, the author, wrote that “had assimilated the breakthroughs of the previous decade, from the impressionism of Bill Evans to the free-fall explorations of Ornette Coleman, and blended them into a personal style that anticipated the next fifteen years of keyboard advances. He stood out from the crowd for the unbridled creativity of his work, the richness of his harmonic palette, and the sheer beauty of his piano tone”. My curiosity was piqued, and I looked him up. Dr. Zeitlin is both a doctor of psychiatry, a professor, and a jazz musician. If that’s not surprising enough, the man started his recording career in 1963 while a student in med school! In fact, this album was made during a week break from residency in San Francisco! He is still active today, practicing, teaching, and recording/performing. And what are we doing with our lives?
His lack of notoriety probably stems from both the paucity of albums made during his formative years (he only recorded five albums during the 1960’s, four as a leader) and the fact that they were out of print for decades, available only on vinyl until recently. Hopefully, more recordings from this man of many talents will surface, as there is reportedly more material in the vaults of Columbia, including more live material from the Trident.
The mid-60’s have arrived, and the beards are long. He has an uncanny resemblance to many jazz musicians and hipsters of today, actually. In 2017, all you need to show the world that you’re edgy and hip is some retro horn-rim glasses and a beard. The serious gaze into the distance doesn’t hurt, either. As an example, here’s a picture of somebody channeling (or at least trying to channel) the same vibe, complete with horn-rims and beard.
Also, that life preserver with the name of the club on it is one of the most Californian things I’ve ever seen in my life.
The venerable radio DJ and West Coast jazz historian Herb Wong contributes some fine liners. Glowing, informative, with keen insight- the way liner notes should be. The condition of the album jacket is pretty good, with some discoloring on the back. That John Hammond that produced the album is the same John Hammond that ‘discovered’ Count Basie, by the way.
This is an original first pressing, non deep-groove, with the white Columbia two-eye mono labels. The record numbers are handwritten into the deadwax, as opposed to the usual practice of stamping the info into the deadwax, which I think is pretty special. Side one is ‘1-A’ and side two is ‘1-B’. The mono sound is… mono. It definitely benefits from being a Columbia recording, though. Columbia always sounds good and top-of-the-line to my ears. Although I would love to have a stereo copy, I have always wondered how authentic stereo recordings of club performances really were. After all, when you’re in the club, you don’t usually get wonderful 360-degree sound. It is nice to get the aural representation of how the musicians are placed on the stage, though…
This album belonged to a radio DJ, and as such bears the audible signs of minor groove wear. It’s not terrible or really noticeable for the most part, and compared to other once-DJ-owned records that I have, it sounds fantastic. Other than that (and one pesky skip on the second side), the record plays smoothly.
The Place of Acquisition
Walking into the local record store one day, the store proprietor informed me that a radio DJ from St. Louis, Missouri had dropped off his jazz records. They were in boxes on the floor, and I immediately went to work scouring the boxes. In the first box, about ten albums in, I found this album, and I couldn’t believe it. A Denny Zeitlin in the wild, and one of his Columbia releases from the 60’s at that?! The price of $8.00 was well within the college student budget, so off to my house the record went. I say this every time, but it truly amazes me what kind of jazz records find their way to this store in northern Alabama. This record isn’t exactly rare, as a quick check of Discogs will show, but it’s an obscure title and not an album (or musician) one sees regularly.