His mother was a speech pathologist and his first piano teacher. He began formal study in Western classical music at age six, switching to jazz in the eighth grade. In high school, he played professionally in and around Chicago, and by college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was playing with Ira Sullivan, Johnny Griffin, Wes Montgomery, Joe Farrell, Wilbur Ware, and Bob Cranshaw, among others. Mentors included pianist Billy Taylor and George Russell, while pianist Bill Evans, an early supporter, frequently recorded Zeitlin's composition "Quiet Now" and made it the title track of a 1970 album. Signed by Columbia Records' John H.
Hammond, Zeitlin began his recording career in 1963 while studying medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, debuting as the featured pianist on the Jeremy Steig album Flute Fever. Four Denny Zeitlin Trio albums for Columbia followed in the period through 1967. Trio members included Charlie Haden and Jerry Granelli. Zeitlin moved to San Francisco in 1964 to intern at the University of California, San Francisco, followed by a psychiatric residency. Jazz critic Leonard Feather called Zeitlin "the most versatile young pianist to come to prominence in the early 1960s". Reflecting on Zeitlin's Columbia period, jazz historian Ted Gioia wrote that the pianist "had assimilated the breakthroughs of the previous decade, from the impressionism of Bill Evans to the free-fall explorations of Ornette Coleman, and blended them into a personal style that anticipated the next fifteen years of keyboard advances.
He stood out from the crowd for the unbridled creativity of his work, the richness of his harmonic palette, and the sheer beauty of his piano tone". Between 1968 and 1978, Zeitlin integrated electronic keyboards, synthesizers, and sound-altering devices with acoustic instruments, working in multiple musical genres. The results were first heard in 1969 when Zeitlin composed and performed music for the "Jazzy Spies" sequences on the first season of Sesame Street, featuring vocal overdubs by Grace Slick. The following year, he released Expansion, a trio album with George Marsh and Mel Graves, which Down Beat magazine awarded its highest rating. The period culminated with Zeitlin's writing the score for the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which turned out to be his only film score despite numerous offers afterward, because of the extreme workload of many 20-plus-hour days. While New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael thought the music occasionally overpowered the action, she called the score "generally dazzling" and a large contributor to both the humor and terror of the film. Beginning in 1978, Zeitlin returned to a primary focus on acoustic music, continuing to play concerts internationally and recording some 22 albums.
His projects include the solo album Soundings, the duo album Time Remembers One Time Once with Charlie Haden, and Denny Zeitlin Trio in Concert with bassist Buster Williams and drummer Matt Wilson. Zeitlin has continued to draw strong reviews. Critic Doug Ramsey wrote that "Trio in Concert", released in 2009, "catches Dr. Zeitlin, at age 70, in his musical prime and his trio afire". Read more on Last.fm.
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