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Jazz

Denny Zeitlin

Stairway to the Stars

[Sunnyside]

3 stars

Fred Hersch Trio

Floating

[Palmetto]

3½ stars

You can never be sure where paradigms will come to rest from one decade to the next. It is, for certain, no paradigm shift whatsoever that the free explorations of Bill Evans’ 1960’s Piano Trio with Scott LeFaro and Paul Motian have become so strongly imprinted on 21st century jazz musicians. But these two pianists heard here – one live, the other in his first studio recording in four years – are probably the freest and most interesting we have after Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau. (The death of Michel Petrucciani was a loss to post-Evans jazz piano that seems to increase yearly.)

Zeitlin was a near-contemporary (nine years younger) of Evans and, when he was first heard, seemed an angular, folk-influenced and much more infectious variation on him. (Zeitlin’s tune “Repeat” announced his arrival with an irresistible quasi-pop “hook.”) His double career since – he also has been a practicing psychiatrist in San Francisco – has made his appearances on disc, especially, in trios, extraordinary at times and never less than compelling.

This live Zeitlin set from the Jazz Bakery in Culver City goes all the way back to 2001 and is being released for the first time with bassist Buster Williams and drummer Matt Wilson. The opportunity to play with Williams, says Zeitlin now 13 years later, was the attraction, and it is Williams who makes this disc intermittently superb. Zeitlin is never dismissable, but this isn’t his best work either. When, for instance, he plays Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo,” it’s at a furious tempo in which he can’t really figure out all that much to do after the melody statement. In truth, most, if not all musicians at that tempo, have difficulty, but the great ones gobble up prestissimos and adagios equally (certainly Evans did).

Far more interesting is the Fred Hersch Trio’s studio recording just after his 2012 “Live at the Village Vanguard.” It’s a beauty. In fact, the kind of mixture of contingent linearity and harmonic Romanticism that Zeitlin, in his best work, represented, very much distinguishes Hersch’s trio in the slightly mislabeled “Floating.”

One of the leading HIV/AIDS activists in jazz, Hersch went through a problematic health period but his ambition has never seemed to flag. His new trio with bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson is the equal of his last with Nasheet Waits and Drew Gress.

The compositions are dedicated to Hebert, Esperanza Spalding, Kevin Hays and, most touchingly, Israel pianist Shimrit Shoshon, who was married to McPherson (and a pupil of Hersch’s) until her 2012 death from cardiac arrest.

Hersch mentions Ahmad Jamal and Cedar Walton along with Evans and Oscar Peterson as early guideposts, but his trio with his new players is rather stunningly accomplished in the new 21st century Evans trio paradigm.

Jeff Simon