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12/12/11

Denny Zeitlin
Labyrinth: Live Solo Piano
Sunnyside

Carlo Wolff reviews Denny Zeitlin's solo piano release, 'Labyrinth'

Bay Area jazz guru Denny Zeitlin evokes such classical icons as Paderewski and Scriabin—romantic, bravura keyboardists whose blend of technique and passion galvanized listeners. But where Paderewski and Scriabin played to packed concert halls, Zeitlin plays to smaller audiences: Labyrinth memorializes two concerts he gave in the summers of 2008 and 2010 in a northern California home. These were such intimate affairs you can almost hear the hush in the room.

Zeitlin, who began recording in the ’60s for Columbia, has always mixed rhapsody and rigor. His technique is astounding: Check how he coaxes a sprightly melody toward hammered, glassy clusters on “Brazilian Street Dance,” one of three originals here that he wrote in the ’60s. He plays so fast he generates his own implied rhythm section. He brings impish body to Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints”; builds Richard Rodgers’ “People Will Say We’re in Love” with appropriate warmth, care and minimalism; blasts through John Coltrane’s “Lazy Bird” as if to contradict its title (think Lennie Tristano on speed); and on “Dancing in the Dark,” stretches meter and tempo to their limits. Zeitlin goes where more conventional pianists fear to tread but never loses his way.

The key cuts are the title track (also the longest) and “Slipstream,” the ridiculously complex closer. The orchestral “Labyrinth” is dark, almost brooding, the left hand dominant until the middle, where the hands seem to go in different directions; how Zeitlin steers clear of the labyrinth, going inside the piano, attests to his sense of mystery, his command of touch and sonics. “Slipstream” is even more dramatic, a roiling tune with a bluesy undertone that Zeitlin ends with descending, angular piano cascades and a single, loud note to close. Labyrinth is an effortless tour de force.

Originally published in November 2011
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