The iconic West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin is a consummate artist and craftsman. Few pianists today have explored the instrument sonically, inside and outside the imposing brass frame that holds – taut and tuned – the strings that when softly hammered produce so glorious a sound that Mr Zeitlin does. This 2018 recording – released in 2023 – entitled Crazy Rhythm – Exploring George Gershwin is an uncommon thrill for the senses. It is part of the live series that began, Mr Zeitlin tells us, in 2014 with “annual solo concerts at Oakland’s Piedmont Piano Company… focus on the work of single composers: Wayne Shorter, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Billy Strayhorn.” At first blush it becomes eminently clear why the album was worth waiting 5 years [or so] for its release.
Mr Zeitlin is clearly at the peak of his powers. He always is, playing as he does, before an audience and never fails to send them into raptures with his wondrous virtuosity. He treats the written melody of these classic songs by the inimitable George Gershwin as if they are lofty promontories from which he makes his daring artistic leaps to float away on the wings of the music. His flights, though, are unique as the musician in him appears to shapeshift into a kind of pianistic condor. Melodic cadenzas are marked by impossibly dazzling arpeggios – the left hand often purveying with flaying fingers a mirror image of what the right hand is doing. Harmonic inventions are marked by glissandi that liquify the melodies as he creates monumental musical edifices, venerable tributes to Mr Gershwin.
But there is one elemental difference [and this is what sets Mr Zeitlin’s Gershwin apart from anyone else’s that you may have heard]: Mr Zeitlin turns the composer’s narratives – short stories with living characters – into vivid, action-packed feature-length musical novels. His astute pedaling – una corda, sostenuto and [most generously] the damper – to create not only drama, but almost always climactic thrill. Mr Gershwin’s music for Porgy and Bess lends itself to Mr Zeitlin’s most vivid poetics and dramatics. His use of the keyboard to create light and foreshadow darkness. My Man’s Gone Now is a brilliant example of the kind of unheard-of epic drama that Mr Zeitlin can produce from the familiar linear musical narrative. For good measure he adds rhythmic atmospherics by plucking and trashing the strings in order to accentuate and further dramatise the tragic circumstances of Porgy’s demise.
However, that is but one example, indeed one of many songs on which Mr Zeitlin indulges his virtuosity and pianistic pyrotechnics. The lighter action of other songs – S’Wonderful and Fascinating Rhythm, for instance – enables Mr Zeitlin to [also] establish and maintain exhilarating tempi, framing melodic lines with astonishing feats of agility. Enlivened by stirring rhythmicality, Mr Zeitlin conjures a sonorous constellation that both thrills and amazes. But even as he indulges in mad pyrotechnics, he interjects moments of minute delicacy that is always bracingly masculine. In the affecting emotion of the recording’s finale, I Was Doing All Right, Mr Zeitlin meets the songful, gently swinging melody by creating an air of pervasive calm, out of which blossoms a narrative that reaches towards the supernal realms.
Denny Zeitlin is one of the few pianists around with the technical resources, musical grasp and conviction to recreate George Gershwin’s legacy persuasively. In doing so, he amply demonstrates the timelessness and vitality of Mr Gershwin’s music. It seems safe to say that with Crazy Rhythm… he has given us the Gershwin cycle for our time, and one unlikely soon to be superseded.
Music – 1: Summertime; 2: How Long Has This been Going On? 3: S’Wonderful; 4: Bess, You Is My Woman Now; 5: It Ain’t Necessarily So; 6: By Strauss; 7: The Man I Love; 8: My Man’s Gone Now; 9: I’ve Got A Crush On You; 10: Fascinating Rhythm; 11: I Was Doing All Right.
Musicians – Denny Zeitlin: piano.
Released – 2023
Label – Sunnyside [SSC 1693]
Runtime – 1:08:53