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Denny Zeitlin: Early Wayne

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This live solo-piano recital is an ambitious undertaking. The program is 10 Wayne Shorter tunes, most from the early 1960s. Shorter’s compositions, with their motivically assembled melodic structures and proprietary harmonic environments, are famously challenging. But Denny Zeitlin never sounds worried. He sounds exhilarated, caught up in the adventure.

When Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet introduced “Nefertiti” to the world in 1968, it was a strange, pensive suspension that recycled for eight minutes, without solos. Zeitlin is less interested in the song’s ambiguous chord progressions than in its tendril of melody. He delicately traces it and then gradually enlarges it into something deep and dense. He never quite abandons “Nefertiti,” even as he flows outward to its distant implications.

On Christmas Eve 1964, Shorter recorded a classic album, Speak No Evil. The title track and “Infant Eyes” became two of his most covered compositions. What is intriguing about Zeitlin’s project is that it offers profoundly pianistic versions of these pieces conceived for horns. With rich, ringing piano notes, he rounds their edges. By flooding them with new content, he renders them lush. But if the bridge of “Speak No Evil” becomes a rolling, spilling piano extravagance, “Infant Eyes,” reimagined in 7/4, reveals how a piano, in the right hands, can evoke gentle mysteries no horn can touch. Additional high moments include a ballad meditation (“Teru”), a subliminal bossa nova (“Ana Maria”) and two elaborate mazes also first introduced on Miles Davis albums (“Paraphernalia” and “E.S.P.”).

Given its erudition, it is surprising and impressive that this album was created not with multiple takes and edits in a studio but in one outpouring before a live audience. It was recorded in concert at the Piedmont Piano Company in Oakland, Calif., on Dec. 5, 2014. Zeitlin was having a really good day.

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