Pianist Denny Zeitlin and bassist David Friesen's duo performances blur the lines between lead and accompaniment, between theme and improvisation.
At times Thursday before a small crowd at Steamers Cafe in Fullerton, it seemed as if the duo, who have been working together for 15 years, were soloing simultaneously, sometimes along different lines of thought, but always of one mind.
In the evening's first set, familiar tunes were presented in unfamiliar ways. Original works, some being performed publicly for the first time (as in the case of Zeitlin's "Every Which Way") were made to sound familiar with folk-like themes and bouncy rhythms. No matter the music, both musicians were always on the same page even as they told different stories.
In "You and the Night and the Music," Zeitlin embellished the theme with asides, footnotes and other extrapolation. At one point, his right hand sprinkled bits of the melody from high in the upper register while his left hand filled in the missing pieces from deep in the lower. Friesen's play, though going its own melodic way, meshed with the piano like the teeth of a zipper.
Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti," from the 1967 Miles Davis album of the same name, was stated laconically like the original, but then broke into unfettered improvisation. The song took on the air of a dance, ending on repeated, rumbling figures from Zeitlin's left hand. Friesen found inspiration in the tune's descending lines, leaping against them in flurries of ascending notes that buoyed the pianist's floating figures.
The original compositions gave Zeitlin an opportunity to employ his classical training, and his solos sometimes sounded like fugues, his left-hand lines locking tightly with those of his right. His "Wherever You Are" created a romantic vision, with Debussy-like harmonics. Friesen's "After All Is Said and Done" came in the form of a never-ending question.
Friesen's "Signs and Wonders" was the liveliest number, with its bouncy "What'd I Say" riff and shifts of mood with every chord change. Zeitlin's ability to solo nonstop through those changes was most impressive, while Friesen's attention to the simpler aspects of the piece made it the evening's most inviting performance.
Few duos allow each member the freedom to pursue his or her own way with the music, yet come together so grandly. It is as if Zeitlin and Friesen set out to cohabit each number, setting up shared housekeeping with one dusting up on the melody, the other sweeping through the corners and crannies.
\o7 * Denny Zeitlin and David Friesen play tonight at the Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City. 8 and 9:30 p.m. $18. (310) 271-9039.\f7