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Denny Zeitlin: Slick Rock

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The title Slickrock has nothing to do with blown-dry stadium bands of yore like Styx and Journey. Pianist Denny Zeitlin’s got the name from a sandstone rock that he and his wife encountered in the Canyonlands near Moab, Utah, on one of their many mountain biking adventures. As Zeitlin explains in the notes, the rock’s “sandpaper texture permits bicycle ascents at outrageous and heart-pounding angles.” It also inspired the four-part suite that closes the album and epitomizes the pianist’s rapport with bassist Buster Williams and drummer Matt Wilson. Opening freely with plucked piano strings, percussive clatter and bass pops, it kicks into a driving ostinato evoking the strenuous bike ride, moves into a pause for quiet reflection that again gets a little raucous before reprising the ride home. If the concept is considered too literally-imagining, for instance, the bearded full-time pianist and practicing psychiatrist huffing away behind the handlebars, as his piano pounds away-it might seem a little hokey, but on its own, it makes a compelling performance. Earlier, the trio plays “E.S.P.” at breakneck page, with the pianist bouncing numerous motifs around at weird angles before suspending the tempo for an unaccompanied passage.

Slickrock’s finest moments come when Zeitlin examines some old warhorses. “It Could Happen to You” gets rebuilt from the ground up, exploring new rich melodic possibilities through key and time signatures shifts before stating the theme at the end. The same goes for “Body and Soul”: Zeitlin begins with a lush solo before the group enters with a beautifully twisted reharmonization of the classic. “Sweet Georgia Brown,” on the other hand, sounds miscast when the trio turns the typically bouncy number into a slow waltz.