Pianist Denny Zeitlin’s earliest recordings date back to the early and mid-1960s, when he recorded with Jeremy Steig (Flute Fever in 1963) and led his own trio (Cathexis, Carnival, Shining Hour and Zeitgeist). Denny’s approach has always been a masterful synthesis of technique and “brain freedom”—the suspension of pragmatism so that his spirit and hands can run the creative show. In most cases, his recorded adventures have been staged on an acoustic grand piano.
So imagine my surprise when I put on his new CD—Both/And: Solo Electro-Acoustic Adventures (Sunnyside). The album is a magnificent work that combines acoustic improvisation with densely layered electronica and sound sampling. What you hear is a sophisticated frenzy of jazz forms and computerized expressions that simultaneously astonish and tickle. Denny has always been an action pianist, but here he's operating on a much larger scale and in multiple dimensions—combining acoustic and electronic jazz keyboards with synth-symphonic surprises to produce an original work that's both chapel and cathedral.
What’s extraordinary is that Denny is playing and creating all of the sounds himself. At times it sounds as if there are dozens of musicians playing. As I’ve written in the past about Robert Glasper, RJ & the Assignment, José James and others, the future of jazz is incredibly exciting if you think in terms of digital collage and textures mingling with acoustic instruments. Denny’s work resides in the same neighborhood—where sound samples, software and instruments become electronic tubes of paint and the size and scope of what’s created is large, provocative and breathtaking. You have to hand it to Denny for continuing to let curiosity drive his explorations to the outer edges of the electronic jazz galaxy.
Last week, I spoke with Denny, 75, about his new album…
JazzWax: Your new album is such a radical departure from the acoustic recordings you’ve made in recent years. What was the motivation?
Denny Zeitlin: Even though I’ve been immersed in acoustic music over the past several decades, I've been keeping an eye and ear on developments in electronic music. Since 2000, there have been big technological improvements that make it possible for musicians to create multi-layered music in real time. You can draw on vastly improved and expanded sources of sound and more effortlessly record, edit and mix performances.
JW: Jazz meets Star Trek?
DZ: Almost. I found many of these technological improvements hard to resist, so I began to revisit electronic music—upgrading my studio to build on what I had created from 1968 to 1978, when I explored the electro-acoustic integration of jazz, classical, funk and the avant-garde.
JW: On your new CD, you perform all the sounds we hear, which is mind-blowing. How difficult was it to overdub all of that in the digital age compared with your earlier electronic, avant-garde works?
DZ: Expansion  and Syzygy  were recorded at 1750 Arch Records' studio in Berkeley, Calif. on an 8-track Ampex tape recorder. In addition to all my keyboards and synths, I had George Marsh on drums and percussion, and either Mel Graves or Ratzo Harris on acoustic and electric bass.
JW: Big difference then and now, yes?
DZ: Absolutely. Back then, finding space on tape for overdubbing after basic tracks were laid down was very challenging. The process often involved shared tracks and gymnastic moves to punch in and out to avoid erasing something crucial on the same track. Mixing also was arduous—frequently with three sets of hands on the console to make all the adjustments in real time. By the time of my electro-acoustic-symphonic score for the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), mixing consoles had some programmable features, and tape machines had 24 tracks, but the real leap forward was years down the road.
JW: And now?
DZ: The advent of digital audio recording software in the 1990s dramatically changed everything. I used Pro-Tools for Both/And and never ran into a significant problem of space or tracks for overdubbing. For example, there is a section of Monk-y Business Revisited that involves over 60 tracks playing simultaneously. Overdubbing is technically a breeze, and the possibilities of editing have vastly expanded. And automation is available for mixing, so the days of dancing around colleagues at the console are over.
JW: Did you have a complete vision of what you wanted to do on each track?
DZ: In some cases. For example, on Monk-y Business Revisited—which has numerous written sections and complex meticulous orchestration—improvisation remained the centerpiece, as it does throughout the whole album.
JW: And yet the electronic feel dominates.
DZ: Multiple keyboards trigger a host of sound sources, and an array of pedals alter these sounds, I felt like a galactic orchestra playing in real time. For example, in the case of Meteorology, 90% of the piece emerged from a single free improvisation. In other instances, a seed for a new piece might emerge—from a programmatic idea or basic theme or a pattern, a collision of unusual textures, or a sound that grabbed me as I started to improvise. In this case, it’s a work in motion, collaging as I moved forward.
JW: It sounds like you’re applying paint to a canvas.
DZ: Yes, in some ways it was more like that process. Since I was free from the limitations of live concert performance, I had the opportunity to review, overdub, delete, add sections before and after, and gradually bring a finished "sound painting" to life.
JW: What other types of software did you use?
DZ: As I mentioned, Pro-Tools was my digital audio workstation. I also used DVZ Strings by Audio Impressions, a relative newcomer on the scene that’s magically powerful but complex and challenging to install, maintain and use with sophistication. I also used Omnisphere and Trilian from Spectrasonics, which provide high-quality software synths and huge libraries of sounds and sound-altering capabilities that are more user-friendly. Sample libraries have greatly improved, and I used a number of them, including Vienna Symphony Orchestra and BFD.
JW: What about in the keyboard section?
DZ: I used a Yamaha S-90, which is an excellent hardware synth and keyboard trigger with an extensive sound library and breath control capability. I love the keyboard feel, which is also present on the three Yamaha CP-33 keyboards I used to trigger the various synths and libraries.
JW: Were you inspired by other electronic artists for this project?
DZ: I wouldn’t say there were main inspirations. This project drew on all the important musical experiences of my life—the composers and performers, regardless of genre, who have touched me most deeply. I hoped my compositions and performances would emerge as a broad and deep exploration and integration of electro-acoustic possibilities.
JW: How did the album make you feel emotionally?
DZ: With my focus on improvisation, I spent most of my time trusting that something meaningful would happen and trying to avoid conscious manipulation. I find this ecstatic state very precious. Then there were the many opportunities to play back the music and reflect. I might feel something else was needed. It might be obvious, or require a musical search that could be tedious or exciting. And the search might lead to new ideas and a new piece.
JW: Did pieces turn out as you originally expected?
DZ: The process was mixed. Hearing a composition approach what I had in mind was exhilarating. Yet there were times when I would decide a whole section of music simply didn't make it and would have to be deleted. For me, the gamut of human emotions is expressed on this CD, and the act of mixing and mastering—though trying at times—infused me with these feelings as I attempted to maximize their communication. When I listen back, I find myself forgetting that I played all the parts.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Denny Zeitlin's Both/And (Sunnyside) here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Monk-Y Business Revisited: Intro and Main Themes, which is part of a brilliant original suite...
JazzWax interview: You'll find Part 1 of my multi-part interview with Denny Zeitlin here. For additional parts, scroll up above the red date on each part and look for the link.