Denny Zeitlin’s sequel to 2010’s Labyrinth finds the Bay Area pianist in solo mode again, this time exploring standards and rejuvenating originals, foremost among the latter the sunny “Time Remembers One Time Once.” Zeitlin, who has recorded in various formats, clearly loves complexity, in his titles if not his presentation.
Subtitled “midnight moods for solo piano,” Wherever is an all-ballads album. Pacing is not a concern in this disc, which is mood music of exquisite refinement. If not for Zeitlin’s soft power, it would be a thematically unified snooze, more mood than music. Zeitlin’s integrity and intellectual rigor keep the listener involved.
Zeitlin, who is 74, is patient and authoritative, sneaking unexpected harmonies into familiar tracks like Gordon Jenkins’ lovely “Goodbye,” and turning the mini-medley “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars/How Insensitive” into a lovers’ dialogue equal parts brooding and tender. There is no angularity to his musical sensitivity; there is occasional sparkle and frequent rubato, and Zeitlin is one of the few pianists since his contemporary, Bill Evans, capable of sustaining a melody line through the course of a song.
Deeply meditative, like Labyrinth, Wherever is careful and creative and never defaults to the programmatic. Sure, it’s soothing; if not for its sturdiness and affection (Zeitlin’s choice of tunes is impeccable), it might recede into the background. But Zeitlin, a psychiatrist who also teaches at the University of California, seems protean, an artist who continues to strain at musical boundaries but always stays true to form.
In the ’60s, when Zeitlin launched his musical career, “mood music” albums by the likes of Jackie Gleason and the Melachrino Strings played on stereo consoles as-hopefully-backdrops to affairs. But Wherever is authentic and anything but calculated. It is the latest, characteristically seamless signpost in Zeitlin’s distinguished musical journey.