Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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TRISTANO, Lennie

(b 19 March '19, Chicago; d 18 Nov. '78) Pianist, composer, teacher. Born during an epidemic, he was blind by age eleven. He also played reeds and played in dixieland and rhumba bands, absorbing everything. He recorded in NYC '45 with trombonist Earl Swope (b 4 Aug. '22, Hagerstown MD; d 3 Jan. '68, Washington DC), the 'Lost Session' sextet; Tristano's impetuosity on different solos on two takes of 'Tea For Two' is impressive in view of his later reputation for being too cerebral. He had an extraordinary impact for someone whose work had little commercial appeal; his love of counterpoint (and use of block chords) was probably an influence on Dave Brubeck. His harmonic thinking made him with Art Tatum and Duke Ellington one of the great harmonists in jazz; though his music was incredibly and densely rich, he and his best students created endlessly beautiful variations on a handful of old pop songs (similar to the way Bix Beiderbecke worked magic with early jazz tunes). Rhythmically Tristano was also his own man, and the way he put it all together was unique. He tried to get hornmen to play uninflected so that the result would depend on musical construction rather than emotion, and some said his music sounded cold (but as Terry Martin has written, 'ice can burn'). He wanted rhythm sections to play an unadorned beat so that his invention could have its desired effect, creating his own metre full of angularity and subtle pulse variation, and was accused of not swinging. He would try to get his students to learn classic solos originally played on other instruments, to learn a sense of solo construction without the note-spinning tendencies peculiar to this or that horn. Far from being too cerebral, he said he couldn't play and think at the same time ('It's emotionally impossible,' he told Ira Gitler) and he made a distinction between feeling and emotion: in the '60s he thought that the biggest stars in jazz (John Coltrane etc) were 'all emotion, no feeling', and that 'real jazz is what you can play before you're screwed up; the other is what happens after you're screwed up'. Musicians were fascinated by what he was doing, but the public were flummoxed because his music was cleansed of reassuring clichés: jazz is supposed to be the expression of the moment, says the orthodoxy, while in fact the best music in any genre has an artistic sensibility behind it, and Tristano's was always instantly recognizable. Always seen as avant-garde, Tristano did not believe there was any progress in jazz at all.

His students included saxophonists Warne Marsh, Lee Konitz and Ted Brown, and guitarist Billy Bauer from the Woody Herman band. A Lennie Tristano Trio including Bauer recorded for Keynote '46 with Clyde Lombardi on bass, '47 with Bob Leininger: 19 tracks included eleven alternative takes (six different versions of 'Interlude', aka 'Night In Tunisia'), plus an untitled fast blues almost four minutes long, have been compiled on a Mercury CD. The Lennie Tristano Sextet recorded for Capitol '49 with Konitz, Marsh, Bauer, Arnold Fishkin on bass, drummers Harold Granowsky at one session and Denzil Best at another; seven tracks incl. 'Intuition' and 'Digression', in which the players were told to start playing without a key, chord structure or melody, reading each other's minds many years before 'free jazz' became a buzz phrase. (Capitol was outraged at the time and tried to refuse to pay for the session, issued as Capitol CD Intuition '96 coupled with a Warne Marsh album, with notes by Martin.) Tristano was a rapidly evolving artist of great originality who stayed ahead of his audience; he was aware of this, saying of the '49 sextet, 'Instead of consolidating our position, it was always in a state of development, and that's no way to sell something.' A similar lineup without Bauer recorded for Prestige as the Lee Konitz Quintet '49; some sources said Tristano played piano, discographies say it was acolyte Sal Mosca (b 27 April '27, Mt Vernon NY). The Metronome All-Star date '49 recorded three takes of Tristano's 'Victory Ball' (based on Gershwin's ''S Wonderful') which were anything but cold; Charlie Parker not only improvised on the chords but (unusually for him) on Tristano's theme. (Tristano was usually critical of other musicians, but loved Parker.) He opened a studio in NYC '50 and concentrated on teaching, knowing that he was not going to make a living as a leader; later students included English-born pianist Ronnie Ball and bassist Peter Ind (b 20 July '28, Uxbridge, Middlesex; Ind recorded with Tristano, also on The Real Lee Konitz '57 on Atlantic; recorded '57-75 for his own Wave label, ran a London club, the Bass Clef, in the '80s). Musicians outside modern jazz such as Bob Wilber and Bud Freeman came to see Tristano; Freeman, the great Chicago-style/Swing Era tenor saxist, said that Tristano helped him regain confidence during a low point by making him concentrate on basics.

Tristano recorded two tracks for his own Jazz label '51 with Ind and Roy Haynes, doing some overdubbing, some of which was speeded up in the mastering; nobody noticed at the time. Although a keyboard virtuoso, he had to play duets with himself to be able to say it all. 'Descent Into The Maelstrom' '53 (once on East Wing, then Inner City LPs) needs reissue on CD; it is a landmark in jazz. He recorded for Atlantic '55 with a quartet including Konitz, Gene Ramey on bass, Art Taylor on drums, and solo '62 (tracks compiled as Lennie Tristano/The New Lennie Tristano on Rhino); the '55 date included tape experiments which caused a furore: 'Turkish Mambo' for example had three lines, each a changing time signature; he manipulated it the way he wanted it, then was amused that people listened to the tape rather than to the music. Far from not swinging, all this music was intensely rhythmic; as Max Harrison has put it, 'If the 1961 solos were beaten out on a single note they would still embody greater rhythmic invention than much better-regarded jazz which uses more elaborate resources.' His Jazz Records is now a division of the Lennie Tristano Jazz Foundation; CDs available include Live At Birdland 1949 (the '49 sextet with Jeff Morton on drums, plus four piano solos made in Chicago '45) and Wow (live in NYC c'50 with unidentified bass and drums) (both of these in very poor sound, apparently using a wire recorder, except for the piano solos, which are fine); Live In Toronto 1952 (with Marsh, Konitz, Ind, Al Levitt on drums), Continuity (at the Half Note '58 with Marsh, Henry Grimes and Paul Motian, '64 with Marsh, Konitz, Sonny Dallas on bass and Nick Stabulas on drums), Note To Note (in his studio '64-5 with Dallas, drums overdubbed by Carol Tristano at Lennie's request), and Manhattan Studio ('55-6 with Ind and Tony Weyburn). These duplicate LP issues, averaging about 44 minutes; but Tristano's recordings are like Parker's: every scrap is of value. In '98 came some more: a 39-minute Concert In Copenhagen recorded '65 by Danish Radio. The Lennie Tristano Memorial Concert was a five-LP box on Jazz with Marsh, Mosca, Max Roach, Eddie Gomez, Sheila Jordan, many others.

(Bassist Sonny Dallas (d 22 July 2007, Long Island, aged 76) had turned pro in Philadelphia in the late 1940s, went to New York in 1955, recorded with Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh and Phil Woods as well as Tristano. In the late 1960s he embarked on a teaching career in Suffolk County.)