Denny Zeitlin and George Marsh – Expedition (2017)

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‘Electro-acoustic’ seems to be one of the latest trends currently happening in the progressive and avant-garde jazz arenas, but that’s old hat to such veteran groundbreakers like pianist Denny Zeitlin and percussionist George Marsh. They have been exploring the endless possibilities presented by technology aiding in the improvisation process since the late 60s. Continuing a reunion after a four decade break, Zeitlin and Marsh build on a renewed rapport found on 2015’s Riding The Moment with Expedition (July 21, 2017 from Sunnyside Records).

Zeitlin has taken advantage of recent advances in technology to not only create music with orchestral complexity aided only by Marsh’s drums and percussion but also to compose extemporaneously. Compositions follow down a logical path, all more remarkable since Zeitlin and Marsh are blazing these paths together without forethought and — due to the logistics of the recording setup – also without the benefit of seeing each other while they do so. Thus, an endeavor so steeped in technology relies even more than conventional musical recordings on the trust between the musicians and their own intuition to pull this off.

Using a massive arsenal of music-making tools at his disposal, Zeitlin marshals various, keyboards, synthesizers, computers, pedals and a grand piano to mold layers and textures into a lucid whole that is alive in the moment because it was created in the moment, with almost all the performances heard here first takes with very little overdubs. And if you think that this results in some dissonant mess, think again; melody, harmony, rhythm and the arc of a performance are plentifully present.

The highly detailed cymbals and toms of Marsh on “Geysers” amid Zeitlin’s atmospheric potpourri becomes a focal point because it’s placed far up enough in the mix and sounds so human from the sharp relief. “Expedition” quickly finds its footing following a simulated bowed bass intro, a completely realized composition with a natural progression made all the more astonishing that it was imagined in the moment. Zeitlin’s piano turns the ambience of “Thorns of Life” into earnest melancholy. “Watch Where You Step” strings together a suite of connected improvs and bolstered at key turns by computer or synth generated orchestral backdrops.

As with Riding The Moment, Zeitlin is able to convincingly mimic real instruments, such as an acoustic guitar and flute on “Traffic,” but when Marsh breaks into a loose swing, the pianist responds in kind with his acoustic instrument on piano and without missing a beat, the song morphs into pure jazz. Despite that, Zeitlin finds a way to incorporate those artificial sounds without disturbing the purity.

Heavenly ‘vocal’ choruses grace the spare, introspective “Spiral Nebula,” but Marsh’s drums are the real star here, channeling the late Paul Motian. For “Shards of Blue,” a single-note synth line resembling a trumpet undertakes a solo firmly rooted in bop language, later settling into a looser groove led by a synth resembling an EWI. “One Song” comes closest to acoustic mainstream jazz for a while as a faux acoustic bass rounds out a traditional piano trio; synthesized accents occasionally intrude to add tasteful texture.

The number of jazz musicians who were innovating 4-5 decades ago and continue to innovate today is very small; Danny Zeitlin and George Marsh certainly belong in that exclusive club. Expedition continues their long, provocative journey.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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