THE DOZENS: LENNIE TRISTANO by Ted Gioia

Few jazz pianists have demonstrated a more expansive and awe-inspiring vision of the improvisational arts than Lennie Tristano (1919-1978). Yet one would hardly know that from reading most of what has been written about Tristano. He is usually dealt with as some sort of sociological or anthropological phenomenon—the portrait of a jazz artist as cult figure. Yet the majesty of the man resides in his music.

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         Lennie Tristano, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

In short, this artist must be heard to be appreciated. Yet it hasn’t always been easy to hear Lennie Tristano. When he passed away in 1978 at age 59, most of his major recordings were out-of-print. Even today, a substantial portion of his legacy is available only on hard-to-find CDs. The audio quality of his recordings is almost uniformly poor. I can’t remember the last time I heard his music on the radio—certainly not in the last decade.

But the main reason why Tristano is usually discussed as a symbol or theorist rather than as a musician stems from the man himself. Tristano was frank, opinionated, and not afraid of bucking the system. Critics frequently reviewed the man’s personality rather than his records. And, as time went on, there were fewer and fewer records to review.

Yet what marvelous records they were. Below I have highlighted 12 tracks from this path-breaking artist. If you don’t know about Lennie Tristano—or know him only as a name from the past—do yourself the favor of checking out the music. And if you have heard Tristano’s recordings, you may still find some little known gems among the tracks featured below.


Lennie Tristano (with Lee Konitz): All the Things You Are

Track

All the Things You Are

Artist

Lennie Tristano (piano)

CD

Lennie Tristano / The New Tristano (Rhino (Atlantic) 71595)

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Musicians:

Lennie Tristano (piano), Lee Konitz (alto sax), Gene Ramey (bass), Art Taylor (drums).

Composed by Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein III

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Recorded: The Sing Song Room of the Confucius Restaurant, New York, Summer, 1955

Albumcoverlennie_tristanolt

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

In the annals of jazz history, the Sing Song Room of the Confucius Restaurant will never be confused with Birdland or the Village Vanguard, but Lennie Tristano recorded one of his finest live dates in this unlikely setting during the summer of 1955. This excellent version of "All the Things You Are" was originally released by Atlantic on their Lennie Tristano LP in February 1956, but a larger selection of recordings from the Confucius Restaurant has occasionally been made available (currently they can be found on a poorly produced Spanish import with sound quality inferior to the old LP release). Both Konitz and Tristano were improvising at top form on this gig, which finds them thriving in a low-key setting, seemingly playing as much for their own enjoyment as for the audience. Somehow I think that if this same crew had been featured at Carnegie Hall that evening, the musical results would not have been half so fun.

Konitz would later move away from his cool jazz sound, but here he reminds us of the long lineage of cool sax playing going back to Lester Young and Frank Trumbauer. Imagine a bebop update on Prez (circa "Lady be Good") translated to alto, and you have some idea what this track sounds like. Tristano plays with great relaxation and inventiveness here, and offers up a smart linear improvisation. His lines at the turnaround at the close of his first chorus and the bridge of his second chorus are absolutely choice—demonstrating a way of accenting complex long phrases across the barlines that sounds twenty years ahead of its time. Remember this was recorded long before those types of interval choices or rhythmic dislocations were common currency. Then again, this artist always had an uncanny knack for anticipating the future history of jazz.

"All the Things You Are" was a familiar friend to the Tristano school, played at many of their gigs; but they never got stale playing it. Rather its performance was like the repetition of a ritual, finding deeper meanings with each new encounter.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Lennie Tristano: I Can't Get Started (1946)

Track

I Can't Get Started

Artist

Lennie Tristano (piano)

CD

The Essential Keynote Collection 2: The Complete Lennie Tristano (Mercury 830 921)

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Musicians:

Lennie Tristano (piano), Billy Bauer (guitar),

Clyde Lombardi (bass)

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Composed by Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin

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Recorded: New York, October 8, 1946

Albumcoverlennietristanokeynote

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

I rarely find this recording discussed in jazz circles or cited in the history books, but Gunther Schuller called special attention to it in his study The Swing Era, citing it as a landmark performance, and even comparing it to Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" and Duke Ellington's "Cotton Tail." High praise, but Schuller is on the mark. If there is a jazz piano track from this period with a more advanced harmonic conception, I haven't heard it. There is hardly a bar in this recording that isn't interesting, and some parts are downright amazing. Listen to how the pianist reworks the bridge and admire the artistry. In later years, Tristano would adopt a highly linear style with more overt bebop mannerisms, but he could have constructed grand aural superstructures with just block chords, as this track makes eminently clear.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Lennie Tristano: Line Up

Track

Line Up

Artist

Lennie Tristano (piano)

CD

Lennie Tristano / The New Tristano

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Musicians:

Lennie Tristano (piano), Peter Ind (bass), Jeff Morton (drums).

Composed by Lennie Tristano

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Albumcoverlennie_tristanolt

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

When this track was first released, it attracted enormous attention . . . but not for the music. Tristano had "tampered" with the tapes by recording the piano part over a separate rhythm track, manipulating the music in the process. Tristano never provided details—and got testy when questioned about his method—but it appears that he brought the bass and drums down to half speed, and recorded the piano on top of this slower version, then accelerated the playback rate of the combined performance. A certain ethereal and detached quality permeates the finished product. The piano sound possesses a strange, unnatural crispness, and the question was raised whether Tristano wasn't trying to "trick" people into thinking that he could play faster than was actually the case.

The controversy would be less pronounced today, when studio splicing, dicing and "fixing" are a high-tech art. But the sad result of this brouhaha was that it distracted attention from Tristano's brilliant performance. "Line Up" is one of the great linear improvisations in the modern jazz heritage. Students could profitably study this solo, learning from its crystalline structure, unlocking the artistry of its phrasing, the rhythmic relationship of melody to the ground beat, and the harmonic implications of Tristano's lines. The chord changes are borrowed from "All of Me," but instead of the romantic sensibility of that standard, Tristano offers a diamond-hard coolness purged of all emotional excesses. This is as pure and abstract as music can get. At any speed, "Line Up" is a masterpiece.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Lennie Tristano: Out of Nowhere / 317 East 32nd Street

Track

Out of Nowhere / 317 East 32nd Street

Artist

Lennie Tristano (piano)

CD

Lennie Tristano Quintet: Live in Toronto 1952 (Jazz Records JR5-CD)

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Musicians:

Lennie Tristano (piano), Warne Marsh (tenor sax), Lee Konitz (alto sax), Peter Ind (bass), Al Levitt (drums).

Composed by Lennie Tristano

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Recorded: UJPO Hall, Toronto, July 17, 1952

Albumcoverlennietristanotoronto

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

Lennie Tristano made only a few visits to recording studios during his long career. His fans are thus forced to search out tapes of live performances—of varying levels of audio quality, and some rather difficult to track down—in order to gain a rounded sense of this artist's musical evolution. Tristano's live recording from Toronto in 1952 is one of the essential entries in this body of work, and features the pianist with perhaps his finest band. Only guitarist Billy Bauer, who refused to make the trip to Toronto, is missing from the core SWAT team of dedicated Tristano-ites. A few weeks later Konitz would join the Stan Kenton orchestra—breaking up the unit—while Marsh would stay on until leaving for California in 1955. But at the time of the Toronto engagement, these players had almost a half-decade of shared music-making under their belts, and their experience and comfort level shine through on this track.

This is Tristano's first recording of "317 East 32nd Street"—which would become one of his most widely played pieces—and the pianist helps identify its source by opening with a clever intro stating the "Out of Nowhere" standard from which his composition derives its chord changes. When Marsh and Konitz enter with Tristano's melody line, the effect is angelic. The tension that one sometimes hears in the earlier recordings of these players is nowhere evident, and the whole performance is a magnificent example of relaxed and thoughtful improvisation.

Much has been written on Tristano's forceful personality, and his musical clique has been, with some exaggeration, compared to a cult. But the source of his influence was ultimately the strength of his musical ideas, and here they reign supreme. Few jazz artists have done a better job of presenting their own unique conception of improvisation through an ensemble. Every solo is top notch here, and with a 9-minute running time, no one is rushed or harried. This track would make a good starting point for a musician trying to get a grasp of the essence of the Tristano sound and style.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Lennie Tristano: Don't Blame Me

Track

Don't Blame Me

Artist

Lennie Tristano (piano)

CD

Why Do I Love You? Rare Broadcasts: 1947-48 (Natasha Imports 4015)

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Musicians:

Lennie Tristano (piano), Billy Bauer (guitar), Tommy Potter (bass).

Composed by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields

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Recorded: New York, November 8, 1947

Albumcovermdtubelt

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

Charlie Parker was in the studio the day this was recorded (as part of an all-star band assembled by Barry Ulanov), and Bird had just recorded his definitive version of this ballad earlier in the week. Sad to say, the altoist stays on the sidelines during this track. But Tristano does not disappoint. He constructs an ethereal sound collage above the harmonies of "Don't Blame Me," sometimes getting so far away from the tonal center that he appears about to sever the umbilical cord and drift away into another song. It's catch-as-catch-can for Billy Bauer, who has the unappealing task to trying to match his guitar chords to Tristano's mind-bending solo. Anticipating the moves of this pianist is like trying to predict the navigational patterns of a butterfly. Wherever you go, Tristano just left. But the band somehow holds together, and delivers a diaphanous version of this 1932 standard.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Lennie Tristano: Yesterdays [Glad I Am]

Track

Yesterdays [Glad I Am]

Artist

Lennie Tristano (piano)

CD

Live at Birdland 1949 (Jazz Records JR-1CD)

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Musicians:

Lennie Tristano (piano).

Composed by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach

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Recorded: Chicago, 1945

Albumcoverlennietristanobirdland

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Here is one CD that you can't judge by its cover. The song is listed as "Glad I Am," but is actually "Yesterdays." Tristano is credited as composer, when Jerome Kern should get the nod. The cover of the CD promises a quintet live at Birdland in 1949, but this track is a solo piano selection from Chicago in 1945.

Ah, these are quibbles. Don't let the phony factoids stop you from checking out the music. This track is an inspired exercise in harmonic reconstruction, unlike anything else in jazz, circa 1945. Tristano takes the song at a leisurely pace, and the chords move slowly enough for us to savor the wry dissonances and the curious progressions, unexpected changes sometimes unfolding with four-surprises-to-the-bar. I have heard Tristano's protgs play standards in a similar manner, without ever resolving into a tonic keyan odd and unsettling philosophy when applied to a sentimental old ballad. Lennie stops short of such in-your-face atonality here . . . but just barely. Everything fits together, and resolves, but the games he plays in the process are fascinating to observe.

Yet pick up another Tristano CD and you will probably hear him play in a completely different manner. It's to this pianist's credit that he was able to forge such an identifiable sound, while making so many changes in his approach. I wish he had recorded more music in this veinheck, I wish he had recorded more music in any veinor perhaps had attempted to translate this approach into a combo or big band concept. As it stands, the 1945 solo piano tracks are just more outliers on the elongated Tristano bell curve, idiosyncratic performances that give little sense of where this artist would be a few years later, but still stand out as essential listening for anyone with a deep interest in piano jazz.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Lennie Tristano: Descent Into the Maelstrom

Track

Descent Into The Maelstrom

Artist

Lennie Tristano (piano)

CD

Descent Into The Maelstrom (East Wind 8040)

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Musicians:

Lennie Tristano (piano).

Composed by Lennie Tristano

.

Recorded: Lennie Tristano's home studio, NYC, 1953

Albumcoverltristanodescent

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Years before Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman released their first LPs, Lennie Tristano offers up an intense example of Free Jazz, completely atonal and full of drama. The song title refers to a 19th-century story by Edgar Allan Poe, but that is the only aspect of this track that looks backwards. The music itself anticipates the future with great acuity. But this performance was not released for a quarter of a century, so it impacts the history of the music only as a retrospective monument to Tristano's boldness and creativity. One wonders what would have happened had Tristano dared to put this out at the time. I imagine that the controversy over his "Line Up" track would have been a mere tempest in a teapot compared to the maelstrom that this performance might have unleashed.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Lennie Tristano: Intuition

Track

Intuition

Artist

Lennie Tristano (piano)

CD

Intuition (Capitol 52771)

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Musicians:

Lennie Tristano (piano), Lee Konitz (alto sax), Warne Marsh (tenor sax), Billy Bauer (guitar), Arnold Fishkin (bass).

Collective improvisation by the ensemble

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Recorded: New York, May 16, 1949

Albumcoverlennietristano-warnemarsh-intuition

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

Here is another first for Lennie Tristano. "Intuition" represents the first collective improvisation in the history of recorded jazz. Only the order in which the instruments would enter was determined beforehand. Everything else was created on the fly. Tristano had been experimenting with this type of total improv in private, and now put it on record at this path-breaking 1949 session. This song was a radical move in the 1940s, and still sounds futuristic today. Put this up on the shelf with other Tristano breakthroughs, including the first recorded example of atonal piano jazz, and that earth-shattering version of "I Can't Get Started" from 1946. But this artist's recorded legacy is more than a matter of being first. The sheer brilliance of Tristano's conception is evident time and time again on these seminal recordings. Why this artist doesn't figure more prominently in the jazz history books remains one of the great mysteries of 20th-century music.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Lennie Tristano (with Lee Konitz): If I Had You

Track

If I Had You

Artist

Lennie Tristano (piano) and Lee Konitz (alto sax)

CD

Lennie Tristano / The New Tristano (Rhino / Atlantic 71595)

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Musicians:

Lennie Tristano (piano), Lee Konitz (alto sax), Gene Ramey (bass), Art Taylor (drums).

Composed by James Campbell, Reginald Connelly & Ted Shapiro

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Recorded: The Sing Song Room of the Confucius Restaurant, New York, Summer, 1955

Albumcoverlennie_tristanolt

Rating: 91/100 (learn more)

Mr. Tristano's musical persona had so many different sides. Here he comps with thick, bouncy voicings behind Konitz's lyrical improvisation, then digs in with a block-chords-from-hell solo. Imagine how George Shearing might have played if he had possessed an extra few fingers, and you will have some idea of what this sounds like. But Konitz comes back sweet as your sister on her first date, and you would never guess that anyone had roughed up the keyboard. Another great track from Tristano's memorable live date in that unlikely setting, the Sing Song Room of the Confucius Restaurant.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Lennie Tristano: Expressions

Track

Expressions

Artist

Lennie Tristano (piano)

CD

Concert in Copenhagen (Jazz Records JR12)

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Musicians:

Lennie Tristano (piano).

Composed by Lennie Tristano

.

Recorded: Tivoli Gardens Concert Hall, Copenhagen, October 31, 1965

Albumcoverlennietristanoconcertincopenhagen

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

The mid-1960s was a period of ferment and experimentation in the jazz world, and Lennie Tristano continued to develop and expand his keyboard conception. Of course, fans would hardly have been aware of this. At the time of this concert, Tristano could look back at the previous decade and count only one session that had shown up on LP. He had no manager and told an interviewer during this European visit that playing jazz was only possible if one were "making a living some other way."

But the fire still burnt inside Tristano, and he takes total command of the piano on this dense, percussive performance. This artist had been publicly critical of the Free Jazz movement, but he partakes here of its guiding spirit (as he had, indeed, even before Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor made their mark, as demonstrated on his 1953 "Descent Into the Maelstrom"). "Expressions" finds him again pushing the limits of tonal improvisation. Bristly and brilliant, this is one of the finest solo piano recordings of the decade. One wonders what Tristano might have accomplished as part of the Blue Note or Impulse stable of artists during this period, collaborating in combo settings with the cutting-edge artists of the mid-1960s. Certainly Tristano, circa 1965, was playing at the peak of his career.

But who knew? . . . since record labels had bypassed this artist. Even today this little known track, from one of Tristano's last recorded performances, is a hard-to-find collector's item. Yet those who go to the trouble of hunting down the scattered relics of late-vintage Tristano are unlikely to be disappointed.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Lennie Tristano: Ghost of a Chance

Track

Ghost of a Chance

Artist

Lennie Tristano (piano)

CD

Concert in Copenhagen (Jazz Records JR12)

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Musicians:

Lennie Tristano (piano).

Composed by Victor Young, Bing Crosby & Ned Washington

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Recorded: Tivoli Gardens Concert Hall, Copenhagen, October 31, 1965

Albumcoverlennietristanoconcertincopenhagen

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

The day before this Halloween concert in Copenhagen, Tristano shared the stage in Berlin with Bill Evans, John Lewis, Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines and Jaki Byard. He griped afterwards about the constraints and short solo space allocated to him in this all-star setting, branding the event as a "commercial performance." For this follow-up solo recital, Tristano was in a cerebral, noncommercial mood, and works through "Ghost of a Chance" with dense, dissonant chords played at a languorous tempo. One can almost see the overtones lingering over the Steinway, like wisps of smoke from a smoldering cigarette. Midway through the bridge, Tristano seems ready to modulate into something completely different, and it is actually something of a surprise when he returns to the chords of "Ghost of a Chance." In moments such as this, Tristano is out in his own unique galaxy, freed from the gravitational pull of Tatum and Powell and the other keyboard legends who captured so many others in their orbit. This is his sound, his style, his personal conception, set forth in architectonic structures of imposing grandeur. Moreover, he achieves all this while staying loyal to the sentimental pop tunes of yesteryear (this one was introduced by Bing Crosby back in 1933) that always formed the core of his repertoire.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Lennie Tristano: Background Music

Track

Background Music

Artist

Lennie Tristano (piano)

CD

Continuity (Jazz Records JR6CD)

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Musicians:

Lennie Tristano (piano), Warne Marsh (tenor sax), Lee Konitz (alto sax), Sonny Dallas (bass), Nick Stabulas (drums).

Composed by Warne Marsh

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Recorded: Live at the Half Note, New York, June 1964

Albumcoverlennietristanocontinuity

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

The sound quality is quite poor, and the performance is incomplete. But Tristano's solo here is absolutely riveting, full of intensity and lan. The track starts without the melody statement . . . Tristano is in full flight, tossing off chorus after chorus of improvised linesfast, intricate phrases that go on and on and on. So little of his work from this period is available on record, that it is easy to think of Lennie as having lost his edge, embracing the quiet life of a teacher and mentor to others. But this performance, taken at a demonic tempo, tells a much different story. This is fiery music, and full of surprises. At one point, Tristano lets loose with a barrage of majestic syncopated chords, breaking up the tapestry he is weaving out of single-note lines, and sounding as if he is ready to take off into the stratosphere. This is some righteous piano playing, let me tell you. And if it is true, as many assert, that this pianist wouldn't let a drummer challenge him, you wouldn't be able to prove it by this performance. Stabulas is very aggressive, and Tristano clearly feeds off the energy. If this is background music, I advise you to steer clear of the foreground.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Dang, I never got to “Turkish Mambo” or “Wow” or “G Minor Complex” or “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” And you really should hear Tristano’s work with Charlie Parker (check out Bird jamming at 317 E. 32nd Street with Kenny Clarke playing brushes on a phonebook). And “Out on a Limb” on Keynote, which is worth hearing if only to savor Tristano’s piano intro . . . Well, those will need to wait for another day.



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