One of the great albums of the early 1960s has never been reissued on CD, a circumstance that calls for a listener uprising and perhaps a congressional investigation. It was Flute Fever by the Jeremy Steig Quartet (Columbia CS 8936 stereo, CL 2136 monaural). Copies of the LP in good condition, when they can be found, sell for upwards of $200. Great music should not be available only to rich collectors.
Steig, son of the brilliant cartoonist William Steig, was, and is, a flutist of audacity, force and humor. Flute Fever was his debut recording, as it was for his pianist, a young medical student named Denny Zeitlin. On the Sonny Rollins compostion “Oleo,” each of them solos with ferocious thrust, chutzpah, swing and—one of the most challenging accomplishments in jazz—a feeling of delirious freedom within the discipline of a harmonic structure. The structure happens to be the most lenient in jazz apart from the blues, the chord pattern of “I Got Rhythm.” Nonetheless, Steig and Zeitlin used it for two of the most exhilirating rides anyone since Charlie Parker had taken on “Rhythm” changes. Great as they both were, if I were forced to referee, I’d have to give the round to Zeitlin. His choruses constitute one of the most memorable stretches of improvisation by an unknown player ever captured on record.
Zeitlin’s anonymity ended with that solo, which triggered enthusiastic reviews. He went on to make a series of five LPs for Columbia. Only two of them are available on CD, not including the brilliant Live At The Trident. He was graduated from medical school and became a prominent practicing and teaching psychiatrist, never abandoning the piano. In the notes for Flute Fever, Willis Conover quoted the prospective MD: “I love medicine as much as music…I can play more of what I feel is in myself instead of playing what I have to for hamburgers.” While in full-time medical practice, he has managed to turn out seventeen albums and make regular appearances in clubs and concerts. He had an electronic period, with interesting, if mixed, results. He has done a fair amount of solo playing, but it seems to me that Zeitlin had made his most effective music with trios, none of which has been more stunning than his current one with bassist Buster Williams and drummer Matt Wilson.
Music and psychiatry are not enough to absorb Dr. Zeitlin’s curiosity and energy. He is also devoted to mountain biking, fishing, gastronomy and wine. Nor does he dabble in those interests. He Pursues them. I should mention his newest passion, his web site. With the aid of internet maven Bret Primack, Zeitlin recently set up shop on the web. I recommend a visit, but go when you have time to explore, among other areas of his life, the Zeitlin wine cellar. He gives you a video tour that, if you love wine, will activate your olfactory and saliva glands—and whatever gland stimulates envy. When you get there, click on “Denny’s Wine Cellar.”
Zeitlin’s old partner in excitement, Jeremy Steig, is still in business, as you may hear on a recent CD. He has a website, too. His primary interests are music and art. His site gives us glimpses of a few of Steig’s paintings, which he creates with the same imagination and whimsy that he brings to his music.
Now, the question naturally arises: when will these two magicians make music together again?