Lennie Tristano is a jazz pianist whose small body of recorded work does not do justice to his influence on the music, which is audible in the works of such piano legends as Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett (each of whom have gone on to become major influences on other musicians in their own right) and those who worked directly with him, like saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. Tristano, blind by age 10, began studying music at a young age and somewhere in the late 1940’s became influenced in his playing by the bebop revolution, especially the music of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. But his own approach was different – while he liked the rapidity and complexity of bebop, he was attracted to the structural and rhythmic elements more than the emotive, “bluesy” elements. This has, unfortunately, lead many to dismiss his music and cold or cerebral, when nothing could be further from the truth. In Tristano’s own words: “I can never think and play at the same time. It’s emotionally impossible.”
So even though in his conception of the music he instructed his horn players (especially Konitz and Marsh) to use an uninflected and neutral tone to better concentrate on the structure and form of their solos, the guiding principle is still expression via improvisation, one of the core ideas of jazz. So when people accuse him of “cheating” or violating some principle of jazz for using techniques that eventually became commonplace in jazz (such as overdubbing and tape manipulation), in addition to the crime of using intellectual means to focus his music, I would reply that one need listen to only one minute of this record’s “Requiem,” a piano solo tribute to the recently deceased Charlie Parker, to understand that this music is intensely emotional, and of course improvisational – in short, that it’s most assuredly jazz.
Though there are earlier studio recordings dating to the mid-40’s, this 1956 album marks what will probably stand as Tristano’s major recorded statement, a record that divides neatly into two halves – one set of studio cuts that outline his approach (and his then-controversial studio techniques) clearly and one group of ballad standards recorded live that show his ideas in practice in a more conventional jazz setting. Fans of the studio cuts often dismiss the live material as lighter weight, and indeed it’s definitely more traditionally beautiful and less challenging, with Lee Konitz and Tristano trading solos over the relatively anonymous rhythm support of Gene Ramey and Art Taylor. But the studio works that define the album (and lead it off) help show how to understand the second part more deeply.
The first track is “Line Up” in which bassist Peter Ind and drummer Jeff Morton tick off a steady (and studio-manipulated) rhythm over which Tristano solos continuously, offering up no set theme and just letting one idea flow from the previous one until the song eventually fades out. Next is “Requiem,” which after its classical-styled intro drops into a bluesy tribute, but is full of constantly changing rhythmic attacks from Tristano’s improvisations, marrying his logical approach to an undeniably emotional content. It’s gorgeous, warm, touching, perfect, and it too, fades out. Next up is another piano piece (plus somebody shaking a maraca to tick off time), “Turkish Mambo,” (neither Turkish in origin, nor a mambo, but a great title regardless!), in which he lays one piano rhythm down, lays another track of piano over it in counterpoint, and then adds a third overdub in which he solos on the complex, shifting rhythms that he’s set up with the other tracks. And again, a fade.
Why the fades, you may wonder? Well, my theory is this – he’s set up a structural approach (most clearly in “Turkish Mambo”) in which he could keep improvising forward forever on the rhythmic lines he’s made. In my mind it’s analogous to a comment King Sunny Ade once made about his approach to his own music: “the rhythm is basically simple and, once you hook it up, it flows endlessly.” Tristano’s rhythms are sometimes trickier and his varied approach to them keeps it feeling like a moving beast, but the idea is the same – set up a solid rhythmic base and then go as long as you need over it. The last studio cut, “East Thirty Second” brings Ind and Morton back in for a number very similar in sound to “Line Up” with Tristano soloing over their foundation. And of course, it fades out. Then come the ballads, which all sport the traditional theme-and-solos approach, have endings rather than intimations of infinity, and all hit a slower tempo than most of what’s preceded them. But after hearing the studio work a few times, it’s obvious that in these Konitz and Tristano could’ve kept rolling out their ideas for as long as the audience would be there to listen if they’d chosen to. The approach remains the same even if the feel of the second half is very different.
And of course there are those who find the first half, with its “cheating” approach to jazz hard to take, but who generally find the lovely second half quite endearing and simply gorgeous – not at all the cerebral coldness that Tristano is accused of. Me, I love both parts, especially given the paucity of recordings of Tristano on the market. It’s a great album and the diversity of it only makes it stronger in my ears.
- Patrick Brown