Denny Zeitlin – Early Wayne (2016)

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Note: Recording in above video is not version of “Speak No Evil” that’s included in this album.

In recent years we’ve seen a lot of Wayne Shorter covers and also solo piano records in the jazz world; Denny Zeitlin came up with an inspired idea by combining two well-worn ones. Early Wayne (on sale July 8, 2016 via Sunnyside Records) is a continuation of Zeitlin — long a distinctive and boundary-pushing jazz pianist — paying homage to the highly influential saxophonist and composer.

In fact, Early Wayne can be thought of as an extension and continuation of the solo piano live recordings collection Labyrinth (2011), where Zeitlin applied his very personal interpretation of Shorter’s most recognized composition “Footprints.” Only this time, every song covered here is from Shorter, and all but one fall within his most fertile and groundbreaking Blue Note period from 1964 to 1968. Recording again in front of a live audience, Zeitlin’s longstanding familiarity with Shorter songs meant he didn’t have to go into a studio and fuss over them, and he felt free to allow his own personality to shine through.

Zeitlin takes an approach to the title track of Shorter’s best-known album that speaks as much to the creativity of himself as it does the flair of Shorter’s songs. For “Speak No Evil” he deconstructs the theme and recasts it, keeping its familiarity but altering its contours. Then he swings it hard before breaking it into fragments again. And yet, the essence — that esoteric essence — of the harmonics remains. In doing so, he uncovers one of the geniuses of Shorter’s compositions: they’re so sophisticated and so hard to pin down but also have a well-defined character that’s downright impossible to erase.

“Nefertiti,” with its hypnotically circular pattern, is stretched out to the point where it appears almost through composed, then Zeitlin settles into a groove and subtly substitutes and adds chords, successfully avoiding the monotony of playing an endless loop. “Ju Ju” seems to waltz with more animation in Zeitlin’s hands, and he’s able to deliver every facet of the enigmatic harmony with just his two hands. Zeitlin treats “Teru” with the impressionistic fragility often associated with Bill Evans’ “Blue In Green.”

Tempo is messed with and liberties are taken with the motif for the originally-swinging “Toy Tune,” but a steady bass line is maintained with the left hand, keeping the song moored. “Infant Eyes,” Shorter’s gorgeous masterpiece ballad, is taken on without much adornment here, a wise tact given that this number stands so strong on its own. On the other hand, the dense flowing intro used for “Paraphernalia” doesn’t easily tip off this tune until Zeitlin finally launches into the horn parts nearly two minutes in. “Ana Maria” is the lone song that was first recorded after the 60s, taken from Shorter’s 1975 Brazilian jazz excursion Native Dancer. Stripping away its fusion clothes, Zeitlin uncovers the vintage Shorter shapes and harmonic progressions that defined his classic period from a decade earlier.

“E.S.P.,” the third of three Shorter songs introduced on Miles Davis albums from his Second Great Quintet period, is an occasion for Zeitlin to show impressive range, vigor and complex emotion. The closer “Miyako” is another one of Shorter’s melancholy and graceful serenades that Zeitlin handles with fitting care.

So much has been said, written and covered of one of the few remaining living legends of pre-fusion jazz; honestly, it’s reached the saturation point. Perhaps it only took another veteran jazz star who can trace his own groundbreaking career back to the acoustic era to give Shorter’s songs tributes that are actually worthwhile hearing nearly as much as the originals.

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