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Denny Zeitlin and George Marsh's Expedition

11-20-2017 | By Marc Phillips | Issue 94

Denny Zeitlin & George Marsh's Expedition. (Sunnyside Communication SSC1487, CD $12.98, http://sunnysidezone.com/album/expedition)

The first time I listened to Expedition from pianist Denny Zeitlin and percussionist George Marsh, I didn't think of it as a collection of improvisations between two longtime collaborators. I imagined a more traditional jazz ensemble, one with a traditional rhythm section, even though their compositions skirted the world of free or "experimental" jazz. The only outward difference was the lead instrument. Instead of a saxophone or a trumpet or even a piano, Expedition featured the synthesizer—not one synthesizer, mind you, but an encyclopedia of synthesizer sounds.

That anomaly ushered in a multitude of memories from my childhood, growing up in the shadow of Disneyland during the Atomic Age. I'm talking about Tomorrowland. I'm talking about Monsanto's House of the Future, where my father once worked. I'm talking about the dream that one day we'd all take our flying cars to work, just like George Jetson.

We're not talking about modern programming, in other words. Zeitlin is firmly grounded in a retro-futuristic past with his keyboards, the way we thought 21st-century music would be, back during the Cold War. We're talking theremins and Moogs and monsters from outer space that take on human forms and trick us into marrying them or voting them in as mayors of our small Midwestern towns. There's a history of electronic keyboards being chronicled in Expedition, a strange alternate history, and that's why it immediately captured my imagination.

I've been reviewing a number of New Age-ish/jazz hybrids over the last couple of weeks, truly interesting recordings such as RK Dawkins' Journey and Justin Piper's Transcend. The Dawkins' CD mates straightforward '70s funk with the sort of atmospheric keyboard music that "New Age" fans were listening to 25 years ago. The Piper CD relies more heavily on an acoustic guitar approach, sounding like something Windham Hill might have released back when Bush 41 was sitting in the Oval Office. They're both interesting releases that seem to predict a growing interest in a new fusion of old styles. But Expedition is something even more compelling—it lacks boundaries and rules and exists on its own weird terms. It's an enormous amount of fun.

No one is more qualified than Zeitlin and Marsh to travel down this road. Zeitlin has been playing experimental jazz since the '60s, and he was a pioneer when it came to electro-acoustic improvisation. That, of course, brings up the most fascinating aspect of this recording—the synthesizers do not exist on a separate digital plane of existence from the rest of the performance. It's very easy to hear these keyboards interact with the physical space of the recording studio, just like any other instrument. More often than not, Zeitlin's effects are focused toward the rear of the enormous soundstage where they can explore and blossom in the air.

Marsh has been on this "expedition" with Zeitlin for many decades, so he is deeply in sync with his old partner. That's surprising, since both musicians are improvising and, get this, they cannot see one another during the performance. The liner notes suggest "telepathy," but more often than not you can hear the two performers reacting and adjusting to each other—especially when it comes to the ever-shifting time signatures they employ. Marsh's percussion becomes as varied as Zeitlin's keyboards—one minute he might be holding onto a familiar backbeat on a standard drum kit, and on others he's merely exploring the sonic interactions between two physical objects. Sometimes the line between percussion and keyboards blur, and that's when Expedition is the most fun.

I might take that last part back. What's really entertaining about these 13 tracks is how they trigger so many "sounds" from the past in such a surreptitious way. There are so many flickers of the familiar buried in these improvisations—everything from Carmine Coppola's slightly abrasive synthesizer score from Apocalypse Now to the aforementioned cues from '50s sci-fi to even moments of straight-up jazz improvisation. My favorite passages include the introduction of a bass guitar sound, melodic and plump, taken right out of some Don Knotts comedy from the mid-1960s. That's how specific these sounds can be.

Expedition takes its title literally, and you'll have no idea what lurks beyond the next turn. Considering that Denny Zeitlin and George Marsh have been behind the wheel of this particular 1954 Lincoln Futura for more than 50 years, it's best to sit back, shut up and enjoy the view as they barrel down the highway with huge grins on their faces.