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Jeremy Steig Quartet
 Flute Fever, Columbia LP CS 8936 (originally released 1963)

When this ferocious album came out, it introduced not one but two great jazz players, Jeremy Steig on flute and Denny Zeitlin on piano. Steig was just twenty when the recording was made, and Zeitlin was a few months away from completing medical school. Together with Ben Tucker on bass and Ben Riley on drums they made a high-energy album that remains a landmark of both their careers over thirty years later. Produced by the mythic John Hammond, the album disappeared soon after it was issued and has never been re-issued.

Steig, the son of New Yorker cartoonist and children's book author William Steig, was injured in a motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed on one side. He plays the flute with the assistance of a special mouthpiece, and had a style (on this album at least) like no one else except possibly Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Jazz flute usually cannot hold its own in intensity with other front line instruments. But Steig uses key-tapping, over-blowing, unison humming (yelling, more like) and tongue-slapping to extract every ounce of energy from the instrument. Yet, for the most part, he avoids the upper register extremes, so we are spared ear-piercing screeches.

While clearly inspired by Bill Evans, Zeitlin is a strong two-handed pianist with an original harmonic sense and superb "ears" as an accompanist. He has a dual career as psychiatrist and musician. If he listens to his patients as closely as he does his jazz mates, he's probably a helluva psychiatrist.

The album features jazz tunes by Sonny Rollins ("Oleo" and "Blue Seven"), Thelonious Monk ("Well, You Needn't") and Miles Davis ("So What") as well as three popular standards, "Lover Man," "What Is This Thing Called Love?" and "Willow, Weep for Me."

Uptempo pieces such as "Oleo" show off best what was special about this album. According to the liner notes, "Oleo" was a last-minute addition to the album, recorded in one take. These guys must have played the tune before, though, because they track each other almost telepathically. The first half is mostly Steig playing the tune then soloing with amazing ferocity over Tucker's walking bass. Zeitlin and Riley join in and everyone improvises simultaneously. Zeitlin takes a really great solo, like Bill Evans in his "hottest" mood, but with more variety than Evans usually showed. Finally, there is a brief restatement of the theme by Steig and Tucker, and out.

That's pretty representative of the album. Structurally, there is nothing very unusual: your usual mainstream jazz approach of statement, solos, restatement. What sets the album apart is the level of co-improvising, especially between Steig and Zeitlin, and the emphasis on emotion. Much of it feels very "free" in a manner that is familiar to fans of today's jazz but was quite new in 1963, especially when applied to standards. Steig in particular was more concerned with emotion and energy than with following the chord changes religiously. (In fact, he was criticized when the album was released for not knowing the changes. He did, but that wasn't the point.)

This is evident even on a ballad like "Willow," where Steig utilizes audible breathing and other extended techniques, so that this is not your usual pretty flute ballad by a long shot. You feel that Steig is straining at the restrictions of the ballad, about to break loose at any time. (The ballads were probably producer Hammond's choice, not Steig's.) Then Zeitlin takes an achingly beautiful solo, staying close to the melody. The tension makes the whole performance memorable.

The sound is good but not great. The flute is right up front, the bass right behind, piano on the left and drums on the right. It's an early Columbia multi-track recording, and the instruments have a certain unnatural "separateness" to them, but everything is very clear, with Steig's flute sounds well captured.

Since this album, both Steig and Zeitlin have had comfortable careers. Steig went on to form Jeremy and the Satyrs, a seminal 1970s jazz-rock band, and has explored electronics and "world" music. Zeitlin has recorded and performed regularly, while keeping up his psychiatric practice. But neither has recorded anything that tops this debut. It is long overdue for re-release. --Glenn Brooks

Copyright © 1996 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.