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
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
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