For over four decades, Denny Zeitlin has juggled practicing psychiatry, teaching in a medical school, playing jazz piano, composing, arranging, touring and pursuing a number of hobbies. Zeitlin was already playing professionally in high school, graduated Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Illinois, then entered Johns Hopkins Medical School. Zeitlin spent his evenings studying, though he enjoyed taking a break by playing jazz in a Baltimore club a couple of times a week, with Gary Bartz, Billy Hart and Grachan Moncur III among his collaborators.
Zeitlin was reluctant to record, having heard horror stories from various musicians, though Paul Winter insisted that he meet producer John Hammond in 1963. His friend's assertion that "He'll flip for your music" was correct; the pianist appeared on Jeremy Steig's Flute Fever and made his debut recording as a leader for Columbia the following year. One of his early compositions to take hold was the gorgeous requiem "Quiet Now," which soon became a staple in Bill Evans' repertoire.
After four albums as a leader for Columbia, Zeitlin was frustrated with the limitations of acoustic piano and was drawn to electronic instruments, in order to bend and sustain notes. After taking time away from performing to master them, he recorded two electronic albums for 1750 Arch that integrated jazz, rock, freeform and classical music, along with an LP of solo piano improvisations. Then director Philip Kaufman invited Zeitlin to create a soundtrack for a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, completed after ten weeks of intense work and a rare five-week break from his psychiatric practice.
During the '80s and '90s, Zeitlin refocused on acoustic music, including albums of duets with Charlie Haden, solo piano, a trio with Joe DiBartolo and Peter Donald, plus a partnership with bassist David Friesen. The year 2000 sparked new record dates: a duo with mandolinist David Grisman and a new trio with Buster Williams and Al Foster. The following year, Zeitlin revived the trio with Williams, adding the in-demand drummer Matt Wilson. The pianist recalled, "We played our first concert at the San Francisco Jazz Festival without a rehearsal of the three of us together, yet it was a gas and we went on to have a wonderful tour." Wilson added, "I adore the experience because these two masters definitely LOVE to get into the sonic sandbox. They embrace the music with passion and they embrace life with the same gusto." Because of the logistical challenges, Zeitlin has to book his trio up to a year in advance. Both Williams and Wilson are in great demand, while Zeitlin does not like to stay away from his private practice and teaching for very long, so the trio is limited to a few extended engagements each year, along with a smattering of individual concerts.
After a long layoff, Zeitlin was recently drawn once more to synthesizers. When he learned his old friend Bill Young was dying of cancer, Zeitlin sought to ease his suffering with a suite, "Solo Voyage," that incorporated both electronic and acoustic instruments, popular and jazz standards, original compositions and improvisations. When recording several tracks of solo piano for a second MAXJAZZ CD released in 2005, he realized that "Solo Voyage" merited inclusion, but hesitated at first, wondering if the background of the extended piece would turn off listeners. Instead, his audience was touched by both the project and the music.
Two more recent Denny Zeitlin titles have appeared. The three-CD Mosaic Select boxed set includes all three of his studio trio albums for Columbia. Zeitlin assisted with the remixing and remastering of the entire project and remarked, "I hadn't listened to the LPs in years. One of the most marvelous things was to hear the music played from the original tapes. I was amazed at the sonic compromises that were originally made to convert the masters to vinyl. After remastering, I heard interactions in the performances that I had never before noticed." The pianist chose a dozen previously unissued selections from the sessions, including a number of his originals that he has otherwise never recorded, commenting, "I think the new tracks represent some of the most interesting material in the set." Zeitlin's new Sunnyside CD In Concert is a compilation of several engagements with his current trio. The pianist is thrilled with this live album, feeling it captures the depth, exploration and excitement of this extraordinary group. Reflecting on the simultaneous release of these two projects, Zeitlin remarks, "To have 45 years of my career covered in the 70th year of my life is something special."