Denny Zeitlin: Stairway to the Stars

Since the turn of the century, pianist Denny Zeitlin’s recordings have fallen into two categories: solo projects and releases with this trio featuring bassist Buster Williams and drummer Matt Wilson. Stairway to the Stars-recorded at the Jazz Bakery in L.A. in 2001, the year that Zeitlin first teamed with the two-is another argument for more trio dates. These three are formidable together.

On the surface, there’s nothing that hasn’t been done a thousand times before. The title track goes back to the 1959 Marilyn Monroe vehicle Some Like It Hot, while other numbers come from the pens of such familiar tunesmiths as Harry Warren, Jimmy Van Heusen and Rodgers and Hart. Those standards are augmented by Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo” and a Wayne Shorter composition, “Deluge,” from 1964’s JuJu, the youngest track here save for the finale, a Zeitlin-penned blues that is the only original on the album.

What sets the Zeitlin-Williams-Wilson trio apart is its openness and ardor: They approach this material as if it’s never been played before, deconstructing the melodies and rebuilding them in their own image. Zeitlin, who had already been playing professionally for three-and-a-half decades at this point, favors a sensitive, inquisitive touch on ballads with which Williams and Wilson naturally empathize. They’re clearly in love with each other’s playing.

If there’s one complaint it’s that the ballads are too many. Only on “Oleo” do they seriously turn things up, and it’s such a kinetic, electrifying rush that you wait (in vain) for more music like it. Maybe next time.