It is easy to be confounded and amazed while marveling at the changes that happen over time. The changes in oneself and the world are not as astounding as the probability that one will usually come full circle, back to a theory or practice reached long ago that can bring as much inspiration as it did when first arrived upon.
It is a paradox that keeps many musicians honing their craft and revisiting past methods, perhaps with new techniques and tools, to create new and rewarding works. The legendary pianist/composer Denny Zeitlin has always been adept at transitioning from one musical idiom to another, as he has found inspiration in the sounds of the acoustic piano in different groupings, and electronic music.
On the new recording Riding the Moment, Zeitlin returns to spontaneous composing utilizing electronic instruments along with the acoustic piano. His co-creator is the prodigious drummer and musical conceptualist George Marsh, with whom he collaborated on his first foray into the world of electronics during the late 1960s and 1970s.
In the mid 1960s, Zeitlin recorded a handful of well-received trio records for Columbia Records. Marsh had heard and digested these records while in Chicago and, upon his arrival in San Francisco in 1968, he called Zeitlin to show his enthusiasm for the pianist’s work and hopeful collaboration. It was during this time that Zeitlin was becoming increasingly interested in electronics and synthesizers, after becoming frustrated with the limitations of the acoustic format. He went as far as taking time off from public performance to explore and develop this new area.
In Marsh, Zeitlin found a ready and open-minded collaborator, a drummer who shared his interest in integrating all types of music, from jazz to classical to funk to rock to free music. And Marsh was open to Zeitlin’s approach to electronics to create a larger palette for expression. Together with bassist Mel Graves and later Ratzo Harris, a trio was created to develop, perform and record their new, complex music that lasted until 1978, the year Zeitlin released his extraordinary score to the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The exhausting work of generating the film score led to Zeitlin’s return to the acoustic format for over two decades until the advancement in synthesized sounds lured him back into his home electronic studio. In the early 2000s, he began a major upgrade, acquiring new computers, synths and sound modules. The culmination of his initial work can be heard on his 2013 Sunnyside solo release, Both/And.
Later in 2013, Zeitlin was inspired to reach out to his old friend and musical partner Marsh in order to expand his explorations. He felt that a duo would be perfect as it presented him the freedom to go wherever he wanted melodically and harmonically but would also provide him with added drive from a drummer who could handle anything and who was a great creative initiator.
The duo began meeting together regularly on weekends at Zeitlin’s studio. Their initial meetings found them increasingly invigorated by the music they were creating on the fly. They both knew that the next step would be to record and preserve these improvisations, as what they were doing felt so organic and rewarding.
Of course, the music that they created was inspired. The two would record without a preconceived plan. A physical sound barrier prevented visual cues; neither one would know who would start or stop, it was all shared musical vision and intuition. The rapport felt telepathic. At the beginning of a piece, Zeitlin, working from a menu of thousands of sounds, would have roughly thirty preset patches set up that he could access, mix, and modulate quickly from his multiple keyboards, changing direction as the inspiration sprang. Ninety-five percent of the recording was done in real-time, Zeitlin only adding overdubs when physical limitations blocked a melodic or textural idea that he felt would be appropriate.
The pieces that the duo presents on Riding the Moment are dynamic and varied. From track to track, the listener will hear an integration of classic jazz elements, modern classical flourishes, funk, and the colors of a galactic universe. There are moments of surprise and those of beauty that only a meeting of creative minds such as Zeitlin and Marsh could provide.
Time advances and it allows us to look back. It is left to true innovators to see both sides of the equation in order to keep their art evolving. Denny Zeitlin and George Marsh have revisited a collaboration they had nearly four decades ago when they were on the cutting edge of new technology and improvisation. Riding the Moment is a continuation and a furthering of their work into the future, as they create their own paths into new sounds and expression.