Q & A: Denny Zeitlin, Psychiatrist and Jazz Pianist (Part 1)

By Don Heckman

Denny Zeitlin is a rare Renaissance man.  He’s been a practicing psychiatrist since the early ‘60s, and a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco since 1968.  His career as a highly praised jazz pianist has paralleled his psychiatric work.  After making his first recording in 1963, he released dozens of albums over the succeeding decades, including his latest release, Wherever You Are—Midnight Moods For Solo Piano.  This is Part 1 of our conversation.

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Zeitlin will present an evening of Solo Jazz Piano, December 1, 8 PM, at the Piedmont Piano Company, 1728 San Pablo Avenue (at 18th Street), Oakland, CA. Admission $20.  Reservations recommended:  (510) 547 8188.

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Don Heckman: Denny, you’ve got a solo piano concert coming up on December 1. I know you’ve enjoyed exploring the possibilities of that format for years. Will there be a special focus for this performance?

Denny Zeitlin: Since I’m going to be recording, I’m going to focus on compositions that haven’t been released in solo version and some that have never been recorded—originals and standards. The exception will be some of the material from my new solo piano album of ballads on Sunnyside: Wherever You Are—Midnight Moods For Solo Piano.

DH: How did you decide, after so many years of presenting albums with great variety among the tracks, to do an album of one over-arching “Midnight” mood?

Denny Zeitlin

DZ: It’s true that even in studio albums of the past I’ve always programmed for maximum variety to make it like a concert.  And of course all the live albums have had that character. But I have had it in my head for some years to someday do an album of just ballads—with a sustained mood throughout the CD. My hope was to take some of the tunes from the American songbook that have been really important to me over the years and explore them as deeply and authentically and spontaneously as I could. I wanted this to emerge as a suite of pieces that would repay deep listening, but also be an album that could be lived with as a companion to activities of everyday life.  As it turned out, the project included a couple of Jobim tunes, and an original of mine. I was happy that Sunnyside wanted to release it, and have been very pleased with the response from listeners and jazz writers.

DH: And now I understand that your very first recording, in 1963, as featured pianist with Jeremy Steig on his Columbia LP, Flute Fever. is going to be reissued on CD in January. How does it feel to mark your 50th anniversary as a recording artist in this way?

DZ: Having Flute Fever finally come out on CD after all these years has helped me reflect on just how lucky I am to have been able to share music in this way for half a century. Having a series of albums over the years has provided some permanent “snapshots” of my odyssey with an art form which by its nature is so impermanent and “in the moment.” Even after so many years, I can clearly remember what it was like to go into Columbia’s  30th Street studio and prepare to start that recording session. I could feel the vibes of the countless artists who had recorded there. I was in my third year at Johns Hopkins Medical School, and had just met John Hammond month or two earlier when he had invited me to come onto the Columbia roster as a recording artist. I hadn’t been actively looking for a recording contract, and was blown away by his excitement and generosity.

DH: How did the idea of recording with Jeremy come about?

DZ: The plan was that I was going to do a series of trio albums, but John felt it would be a good idea for me to get my feet wet in the studio by being a featured pianist on Jeremy’s first album. It was essentially a “blowing date”. I met briefly with Jeremy the day before to discuss some of the tunes he wanted to record, and then we got together in the studio with Ben Riley and Ben Tucker and recorded the album in two sessions. I thought there was very special chemistry in the room among the four of us, and that the interaction of flute and piano was particularly fresh and special.  Jonathan Horwich is releasing the CD on his International. Phonograph label, and has done a super job of re-mastering from the original multi-track tapes. The CD restores the original take of “Lover Man,” with Jeremy’s terrific flute solo which had been edited away to fit on the vinyl. As a bonus track, there is an alternate take of “What Is This Thing Called Love” that is really burning.

DH: Speaking of re-issues, I’ve wondered whether someone would reissue the electronic-acoustic projects — Expansion and Syzygy — you did for 1750 Arch records back in the seventies.  Any plans for that? How did you get involved in that musical direction? Any other projects in that genre?

DZ: I’m hoping it won’t be too long before those projects will be reissued. They remain close to my heart. Towards the tail end of my association with Columbia records, I was getting very hungry to explore the world of electronics and synthesizers, having become a bit restless with what felt like the timbral limitations of the acoustic piano. Beginning in the mid-60s I began to investigate what was out there, hiring engineers to build sound modules and equipment for me. I wanted to find a way to integrate my experiences in jazz, classical, rock, funk, and avant garde music.  I withdrew from public performance for several years to focus on this, with collaborators George Marsh on drums, and Mel Graves on bass.  What gradually emerged was a 747 cockpit-like array of keyboards, synthesizers, pedals, and sound altering gear that would take 6 hours to tear down and set up at a concert venue, and 6 more hours to undo afterwards. I actively pursued this direction until the late seventies, initially releasing “Expansion” on my Double Helix Records label, but happy when Tom Buckner, a fine avant garde tenor vocalist, offered to release it on 1750 Arch Records [1973]. A few years later, “Syzygy” [1977]was recorded for that label.

DH: And that experience led unexpectedly into another direction, didn’t it?

DZ: Right.  In 1978 I lucked into an opportunity to compose the score for the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and perform on much of it. This allowed me to bring to bear everything I had experienced in music, particularly the electronic forays, and included the challenge of writing for a symphony orchestra. For 10 weeks I felt like some kind of military general presiding over a battalion of musicians, contractors, and studios, dealing with the politics of Hollywood, and immersed in my own studio frequently for 20 hour days.  When the film was finally wrapped, and the soundtrack album complete, I was both exhausted and exhilarated. I realized this had been an extraordinary musical opportunity that might never repeat, and decided not to pursue any further film scoring. And at that point I also had a great hunger to get back to the purity of acoustic music.

DH: But you haven’t completely remained in that arena.  Why not?

DZ: Particularly in the last few years, there have been huge leaps in synthesizer technology and access. Now there are “virtual” synthesizers that live in computers that have exponentially greater power than the older synths.  The technology allows a musician to work increasingly in “real time.” Since in many ways I’ve always wanted to “be” an orchestra, this is a very exciting opportunity for me. In the last year or so, I’ve been concertizing less and spending more time in the studio working with this music. I’m very excited with what is emerging, and hope to have an album released next summer.

To read Part 2 of the Denny Zeitlin Q & A click HERE

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