June 13, 2024


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CD review: Denny Zeitlin – Crazy Rhythm: Exploring George Gershwin – 2023: Video, CD cover

Throughout a six-decade career, Denny Zeitlin has thrived on the cutting edge of jazz. That holds true even when he is sitting down in front of an unaccompanied piano covering old classic tunes.

Crazy Rhythm: Exploring George Gershwin (out June 30, 2023) continues this developing trend of his of putting out a record every four or five years where he tackles the songs of a certain prominent composer, and this time he took on the music of arguably the king of the Tin Pan Alley and Broadway composers, George Gershwin.

Gershwin songs remain such a dominant force in the repertoire of jazz classics that when scanning the song list for Denny Zeitlin’s latest album, it’s easy to assume that this is a multi-sourced ‘standards’ record until you realize that every one of these all-time classics came from one man who lived only to the age of thirty-eight.]

For nearly a decade, the endlessly exploring pianist / composer / improviser Denny Zeitlin has focused on an individual composer for his annual solo concert at Oakland’s Piedmont Piano Company. Zeitlin brings his full creative force to these efforts to transform these well-known pieces into remarkable musical journeys. In 2018, Zeitlin decided to focus on the great American composer, George Gershwin, for his concert and recorded the proceedings, released now as Crazy Rhythm: Exploring George Gershwin.

George Gershwin is one of the celebrated composers of the early 20th century. During his short lifetime, he wrote orchestral and musical works, many times in conjunction with his brother, Ira, establishing a valuable catalog of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway tunes that have been recontextualized for generations as standards, providing the basic framework for jazz performance. The composer successfully bridged two seemingly distinct musical spheres, in classical and popular music, a feat that Zeitlin always appreciates in artists and strives to do in his own music.

Zeitlin grew up listening to the music of Gershwin. His parents loved both the popular and symphonic works. Zeitlin remembers as a child being especially galvanized by the music to An American In Paris. Years later, it was the reinterpretation of Gershwin’s musical Porgy and Bess by Miles Davis and Gil Evans that expanded Zeitlin’s appreciation of the music’s potential as a springboard for improvisation.

When it came time to prepare for his Gershwin concert, Zeitlin began to hone pieces that he would consider for performance. A few months out he began to look at a Gershwin songbook, hoping to find pieces that he never heard or studying pieces that he knew, trying to find new dimensions within each piece. His aim was to breathe fresh life into the pieces and provide new flavors that listeners might appreciate.

On December 7, 2018, Zeitin returned to Piedmont Piano Company and sat down at a beautiful concert grand that he had selected himself to bridge Gershwin’s timeless pieces to contemporary explorations in improvisation.

The recording begins with “Summertime,” probably Gershwin’s most well-known piece from Porgy and Bess, Zeitlin segueing from a free improvisation into a reharmonization of the piece. Zeitlin makes “How Long Has This Been Going On?” from Rosalie into a rhapsodic, exploratory ballad, while “S’Wonderful” from Funny Face is exciting with shifting keys and time signatures. The delicate “Bess You Is My Woman Now” highlights the bittersweet sentiment of the tale of the heroes of Porgy and Bess.

Zeitlin dissects the various sections of “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” also from Porgy and Bess, to delve into the piece’s expressive variety of moods. The rarely heard “By Strauss” was originally used by the Gershwins as a tongue-in-cheek mockery of their contemporaries, but Zeitlin reinvents it here as a tender waltz, while, conversely, he plays “The Man I Love” in an unconventional but convincing uptempo arrangement. The dramatic, impressionistic take of “My Man’s Gone Now” echoes the tragic emotions of Serena after her husband is murdered in Porgy and Bess.

After a short opening statement, “I’ve Got a Crush on You” becomes a gorgeous and stately bossa nova. The energetic burst of “Fascinating Rhythm” follows with Zeitlin taking liberal choices throughout in the shifting of meters. The recording concludes with “I Was Doing All Right” from The Goldwyn Follies, Zeitlin’s playful yet measured take on the standard closing the album warmly.

Denny Zeitlin has long been an exquisite and open-minded interpreter of standard material. On Crazy Rhythm, he shows his full capabilities and imagination by prismatically opening the beloved sound world of George Gershwin’s music.

1. Summertime
2. How Long Has This Been Going On?
3. S’Wonderful
4. Bess You Is My Woman Now
5. It Ain’t Necessarily So
6. By Strauss
7. The Man I Love
8. My Man’s Gone Now
9. I’ve Got a Crush on You 06:32
10. Fascinating Rhythm
11. I Was Doing All Right

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