Perched on the mezzanine level just above the lobby of the posh Kitano hotel on Park at 38th Street is a music room of extraordinary intimacy. Affectionately known as Gino's living room, promoter Gino Moratti has been bringing top-notch jazz to the Kitano since 2006. On Friday November 18th the venue featured two sets of solo piano by the superlative pianist Denny Zeiltin, featuring songs from his recent album Labyrinth. On Saturday November 19, 2011, the Kitano featured Mr. Zeitlin in a trio format with the iconic Buster Williams on bass and the effervescent Matt Wilson on drums.I was fortunate enough to be able to catch most of the first set and all of the second set Saturday.
It is rare to get to see Mr.Zeitlin in New York as he resides in California where this Renaissance man practices psychiatry and teaches at the University of California in San Franciso. The superlative rhythm section of Williams and Wilson is no stranger to Zeitlin. The three have been playing on and off for 10 years, and Zeitlin's 2009 Sunnyside release Trio in Concert is a testament to their obvious chemistry. If the way a working trio functions is in some respects analogous to the way we function in life, then Zeitlin is the cerebral mind, Wilson is the joyful spirit and Williams is the pulsing heartbeat and soul of this entity. Each is a virtuoso in his own right and they all have characteristics that blur such simplistic boundaries.
The first set included a tender ballad "Wishing of You," a Zeitlin composition, that featured the pianist's deeply probing technique. Zeitlin can take you from sensitive passages that he renders with a gossamer touch to daring explorations that bring you to the brink of precipice, without ever letting you fall over the edge. A rousing rendition of John Coltrane's homage to bassist Paul Chambers "Mr.P.C." had Zeitlin playing arpeggios at dazzling speed. The song featured the bass of Buster Williams who produced a simply gorgeous tone that resonated through the entire room, tantamount to the peaceful solemnity of a Tibetian gong. Mr.Williams is a master of his instrument who can add great poignancy by simply bending or sliding down to his notes and sustaining them as they decay to silence. Drummer Wilson is astutely attune to the needs of the music as he seamlessly changes from brushes to sticks, from clashing hi hat to shimmering cymbal.
Another Zeitlin composition "The We of Us" was written for the pianist's wife. Here Zeitlin demonstrates an extraordinary ability to play on the highest register with crystal clarity of sound and precise intonation. The trio does an amazingly dynamic version of Julie Styne's "As Long as There is Music." The intuitive interplay is a marvel to behold as the group collectively create a swell of intensity that has the crowd mesmerized, eventually yielding to a fading coda that is accentuated by Buster's lingering bass line.
As if being a world-class jazz pianist and working psychiatrist and educator weren't enough, Zeitlin is also an avid mountain biker. He spoke of Moab, Utah as the inspiration of his next composition titled "Slick Rock." This composition is by far the most unorthodox of the repertoire. Here the pianist and his cohorts create an array of atmospheric sounds as Zeitlin reaches into the cavity of the piano using mallets to play the strings. Mr. Williams rubs the side of his thumb against his bass strings adding tension to the eerie sound as Mr. Wilson adds further agitation by using apiece of chain to rub against his cymbal. The audience is lulled into the peaceful solitude of the surroundings when suddenly Zeitlin hurls them into a spiraling musical journey filled with frantic twists and turns. You can feel the imaginary bike careening down jagged hills, precariously avoiding boulders and divots in a pianistic free fall. The pace subsides as Zeitlin becomes more ruminative; Wilson employs a weirdly eerie wooden flute that he somehow uses against the face of his drumhead and Williams bows in a decidedly ominous way.
Watching Wilson here, I am reminded of an excitable young boy with a chest full of wonderful toys. The drummer has an effervescent joyfulness that is palpable and he finds percussive magic in a variety of unorthodox devices which he skillfully weaves into patterns of dynamic tension and surprise. I was watching Zeitlin and Williams looking at Wilson at various times during his solo on this piece and I was reminded of a YouTube clip that I saw of a beaming Charlie Parker watching an equally playful young Buddy Rich, as the drummer displayed his rhythmic prowess (click here for that video). Wilson is that good!
The second set started off with the "The Night Has 1000/10000 Eyes." Bassist Williams creates a funky vamp that has the whole audience bobbing their heads. Buster can create a mood that few bassists can summon so successfully. Zeitlin inspired by the heartbeat-like rhythm lets loose with some of his most free-flowing playing of the night.
The trio played a charming version of what sounded like "Child's Play," a double time version of Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm," Cole Porter's "I Love You," and Jimmy Van Heusen's "I Could Have Told You." The set ended with bassist Dave Freisen's composition "Signs and Wonders" and after a rousing ovation the encore was Zeitlin's own "Just Passing By."
For lovers of piano jazz trios it was one of those very special evenings. Zeitlin is an innovator par excellence with few peers. His trio with the great Buster Williams and the exciting Matt Wilson is one of the finest trios working in jazz today.