[JPL] A pianist and a psychiatrist, he links music and the mind

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Sun Aug 27 12:17:18 EDT 2006


A pianist and a psychiatrist, he links music and the mind

By Andrew Gilbert, Globe Correspondent  |  August 27, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO -- Denny Zeitlin is in the intuition business. He's found his
calling in two very different professions, but whether he's guiding patients
in his psychiatric practice or radically reinventing standards on the piano
with his jazz trio, Zeitlin seeks a similar state of selfless communion.

As a therapist, he sees his role as an accompanist who supports his patients
``to help them tell their stories in the richest, most clear way possible,"
says Zeitlin, 68, who makes his Boston debut Tuesday with his trio at
Scullers. It features bass virtuoso Buster Williams and the supremely
inventive drummer Matt Wilson.

Sitting behind the piano, Zeitlin moves to the foreground to tell his own
tales. In both cases he's reaching for a rarefied state of mind where
instinct and train-ing mysteriously merge.

``Whether I'm working with a patient or I'm playing music I see a big part
of my job as being able to enter a kind of ecstatic state, not in the sense
that it's always joyful, but ecstasy in the original Greek sense of being
outside of oneself," Zeitlin says during an interview.

Over the years Zeitlin has formed a number of musical relationships that
exemplify the ecstatic communion attained by the greatest improvisers. Some
of his earliest albums feature his breathtaking interplay with bassist
Charlie Haden and drummer Jerry Granelli. Unfortunately, of Zeitlin's four
John Hammond-produced Columbia releases, only his astonishing 1964 debut,
``Cathexis," has been released on CD in its entirety in the United States .

In the 1980s, Zeitlin forged an exceptional partnership with bassist Dave
Friesen, a collaboration documented on the (out of print) Windham Hill album
``In the Moment" and an eponymous 1995 duo CD for Concord Jazz. Since
hooking up with Williams and Wilson about five years ago, Zeitlin is once
again at the center of a state-of-the-art trio.

The band's 2004 album for MaxJazz, ``SlickRock," was one of the year's most
satisfying releases, with a blend of reimagined American Songbook classics
(``You and the Night and the Music"), jazz standards (Wayne Shorter's
``E.S.P."), and Zeitlin's originals, including the title suite, which was
inspired by his adventures mountain biking with his wife in Utah's
Canyonlands National Park.

The group started taking shape when Zeitlin was preparing to make an album
for the Japanese label Venus and he recalled his longtime desire to play
with Williams, whom he first became aware of through Herbie Hancock's 1969
Blue Note album ``The Prisoner." ``Buster has this bottomless sound,"
Zeitlin says. ``The feeling of pulse in every note is just right, and his
harmonic anticipation is wonderful."

Wilson came on board through the recommendation of several colleagues, who
guessed that his sense of swing would mesh perfectly with Zeitlin. ``Matt is
uncanny," Zeitlin says. ``He's always in the right place at the right time
doing the right thing. It's hard to think of any drummer who has that kind
of radar."

The musicians describe having as much fun hanging out together after gigs as
they do playing together, noting that they all share a love of fine wines.
For Wilson in particular, who at 41 is by far the junior member of the
ensemble, working with two veterans he's long revered is a dream gig.

``What I love about it is they seek out the adventure," Wilson says.
``Buster's groove is so deep, and Denny gets such beautiful colors out of
the piano. I feel like he wants it to be a collective conversation, and the
sets can unfold like one long improvisation."

On both the nature and the nurture side, Zeitlin had a head start as a
doctor and a musician. His father was a radiologist and enthusiastic,
untrained pianist. His mother was a speech pathologist and capable classical
pianist. Zeitlin started studying piano and classical music at 7, and by his
early teens had become entranced by jazz. Growing up in a suburb of Chicago,
he began gravitating toward the city's thriving jazz scene, finding mentors
like the great multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan.

Even during medical school at Johns Hopkins, Zeitlin managed to spend a fair
amount of time jamming with future jazz stars Gary Bartz and Billy Hart.
Starting in the late '60s, he spent a decade immersing himself in
cutting-edge electronic music, a period that culminated in his acclaimed
score for Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake of ``Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
On his latest album, ``Solo Voyage" (MaxJazz), he's again starting to
explore electronics. While it's impossible to judge whether Zeitlin's career
as a jazz musician has made him a better psychiatrist, it's hard not to feel
the depth of communication he attains with his bandmates stems partly from
his skill in sounding the mind and soul.

It all comes back to ecstasy. ``With a patient that means being able to
enter into their world well enough to feel what they're feeling,
remembering, and dreaming," Zeitlin says. ``If I'm on the stage with other
musicians, it means feeling as though the music is coming through us, so
that I'm not forcibly manipulating it and just allowing it to occur." 
 © Copyright  2006 The New York Times Company

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