By Stephen Provizer
Unlike musicians who operate on the surface and create a beautiful veneer, pianist Lennie Tristano’s music asks harder questions.
Lennie Tristano: Personal Recordings 1946-1970, Mosaic Records (6-CD), $99.
This six-CD box set represents a good overview of pianist Lennie Tristano’s work — live and in-studio, playing solo and with various sized groups. Lennie Popkin, a saxophonist who studied and played with Tristano, created the masters of these sessions, which manage to wrest decent audio quality from disparate sound sources. Popkin also wrote the album notes, but they are pretty much a love fest, so provide little insight into the recordings.
Tristano had a unique career that pushed at the edges of jazz. Some people are all in for his music. Others think he may have been a genius, but harbor the feeling they should like him more than they do. Others he leaves cold. I’ve recently advocated separating the art from the artist, but in this case I will look at Tristano’s career while glancing at how other musicians viewed him. Take it as a somewhat desperate way to ameliorate my respectful but somewhat chilly response to his music.
His story starts in Chicago. Of Italian heritage, Tristano lost his sight when he was a child. He was musically gifted, played classical music on piano, and had enough skill on the clarinet to play in a whorehouse at age 11. As a teen, he played two to three horns at one time in a Dixieland band. He composed and arranged using Braille, taking courses toward an advanced degree from a Chicago Conservatory. He began teaching when he was young and it was to be a through line until his death.
He often went to Black jazz clubs in Chicago and heard Charlie Parker on recordings and he gigged around town. His reputation was such that he drew mostly other musicians, which fanned the ire of club owners. He fiercely asserted that jazz was an art form; he even wrote a screed about how commercialization was ruining jazz in Chicago. He came down hard on club owners, record companies, bad rhythm sections, zoot-suited “characters” and “Mickey” (short for “Mickey Mouse”) bands. Plainly, his was a personality that cared little about blowback from the music industry or from fellow musicians.
When Woody Herman’s band came to town, Herman’s bass player Chubby Jackson heard Tristiano and was impressed. Jackson encouraged him to come to New York City and offered to let the pianist stay at his place. So, in 1946, Tristano and his wife made the move.
Tristano resumed teaching in New York and Jackson hired him for his own band. However, after a short time it became apparent to Jackson that leadership of the band was moving from him to Tristano. The difference in presentation styles between the two men was stark. Jackson’s parents were vaudevillians — he did all he could to connect with his audiences. Tristano, on the other hand, was all business, wary of anything that he felt smacked of commercialism. He even eschewed playing the melodies of well-known tunes, preferring to launch directly into improvisations, which he felt was less commercial.
In 1946, Tristano began an association with guitarist Billy Bauer, who thought his role would be similar to that played by Oscar Moore in Nat Cole’s group. But Tristano wanted Bauer to do something different. Rather than accompanying either in a 4/4 swing or “comping” in the bop style, his idea was that Bauer would be a flexible, independent voice. The guitarist was initially nonplussed — especially given Tristano’s tendency to diverge from the traditional chord structures of jazz standards. However, the two forged an interactive style, often playing interweaving contrapuntal lines. This was a harbinger of the “free” playing that Tristano was to fully investigate in the next few years.
Tristano was indebted to Art Tatum and Bud Powell. He was recognized for his “inside” playing skills, utilizing substitute harmonies, odd groupings of notes, and time shifts. There was enough distinctive substance in his style that he stood out from other bop pianists. He won jazz polls, going on to play with the best bop and mainstream players in all-star groups. Here is Tristano leading a group performing in an essentially mainstream musical space. Listen for Bauer’s expanded role.
At the same time, Tristano was pursuing a very different kind of sound. He had gathered his best students around him and, in his teaching studio and in nightclubs, he began playing a brand of free jazz or “free-form” music, as Tristano put it. There were significant efforts to expand the boundaries of jazz in the late ’40s: compositions such as Robert Graettinger’s “City of Glass” played by Stan Kenton and “Ebony Concerto” written by Igor Stravinsky for Woody Herman. Then, there was the Miles Davis “Birth of the Cool” group, which drew on progressive arranging techniques as well as on Tristano’s free-form efforts (Tristano student Lee Konitz was involved in the last two projects).
In some ways, the free jazz Tristano and his group initiated in the late ’40s continues to this day. It was predicated on trying to find compatible notes in situations where harmony is not predetermined. Sometimes the meter or rhythm was predetermined, sometimes not. This meant that each musician had the responsibility to respond as quickly as possible to whatever the others were playing. The group accepted a higher level of dissonance than normally found in jazz — but finding “pretty” combinations of notes remained important.
The result was very different from the free jazz that we came to know about 10 years later through Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and company. The free jazz they played refocused on “energy” — it was less concerned with prettiness. The emotional spectrum shifted such that more abrasive, “off the horn” sounds became intrinsic to the music. One other difference is notable — and this is an area of discussion too large for me to pursue here: Tristano’s version of free jazz was performed with white musicians (he recorded more mainstream music with Black musicians). Free jazz that started in the late ’50s was dominated by Black musicians. Tristano criticized ’60s free jazz for its lack of musical logic as well as its expression of negative emotions: “If you feel angry with somebody you hit him on the nose — not try to play angry music.… Express all that is positive. Beauty is a positive thing.”
Tristano began a career-long negotiation, seemingly largely financially driven, between teaching, “regular” piano playing and overt experimentation. In the late ’40s Tristano had been aggressive about bringing free jazz to a live audience, but the support wasn’t there and he seldom publicly attempted it after that. His drive to innovate reemerged with the arrival of new recording technology. By the early ’50s, Tristano had become well versed in recording with tape. This enabled him to do a great deal of recording at his own studio; he no longer had to rely on support from record companies. He also began to layer multiple piano tracks onto some of his recordings. His approach to multitracking was first cousin to his free group improvisations — denser texture, increasingly complex metrical juxtapositions between lines, and an increased tolerance for dissonance.
Here is one of two tunes he took from a 1951 session and later overdubbed with piano.
In 1953, he recorded “Descent into the Maelstrom,” based on an Edgar Allan Poe story of the same title. It is far freer than his group forays and completely different from anything a jazz musician had recorded before.
The public and critical response to these experiments was ambivalent and his name started to drop from jazz polls. In fact, the question of audience response to Tristano had been in the air since the late ’40s, when a well-known critic named Barry Ulanov tried to buttress public support of the music, promoting Tristano by putting him into his Metronome (magazine) all-star bands. Ulanov felt he needed to battle the perception that Tristano’s approach was “mechanical” or “devoid of feeling.”
It’s never simple to understand why a particular artist does or doesn’t carry sufficient emotional charge to galvanize an emotional response in a sizable listenership. I first heard Tristano perhaps 40 years ago and found the music interesting but slightly icy. The atmospheric, somewhat grave album cover photographs of him seemed to reflect the spirit of his performance. To my surprise, in the process of investigating his life for this piece, I discovered that Tristano actually paid a great deal of attention to the role of emotion in music. I spoke with a former Tristano student who was insistent that his teaching method was designed to enable students to play with the maximum amount of feeling. Another student said that his goal was to free students from the tyranny of the brain. Tristano is quoted as saying that emotion should be distinguished from feeling, going on to suggest that playing a particular emotion was egotistical, that it lacked feeling. I think he was talking about depth here — that imitating an emotion is glib in comparison to conveying or inducing a feeling. The goal was not to be overt or literal. Tristano said, in sum: ”Your fingers have to reproduce not only sounds but feelings.”
Did Tristano’s ideas about feeling reflect the way he dealt with other people? I encountered a wide variety of opinions about him as a person. Some said he could be abrupt, insulting, and judgmental. Still, over the course of his career he forged close musical collaborations and commanded great loyalty. Some found him a truly inspirational teacher and pianist.
All that this really says is that Tristano was a complex man and — as I believe is almost always the case — the relationship between his character and what he played was not easily reducible to psychological formulas or generalizations.
Still, it seems enigmatic, even paradoxical, that an accomplished artist who insisted that his goal was “finding ways for my fingers to reproduce my deepest feelings” made music that so many have found difficult to emotionally access. A core of jazz listeners have remained very strong advocates for Tristano but, over the course of time, there seems to have been no significant expansion of devotees to his music.
Pointing out elements in Tristano’s music that have distanced me is not easy. But here are a couple of observations. Tristano did not give his bass player and drummer the freedom that bop rhythm sections usually had. He wanted the melodic lines and harmony to have maximum support. Critics have said this is one reason that listeners have trouble connecting to his music. But this is not a serious factor for me. However, when Tristano plays solo piano, he often chooses to play single note runs in his right hand while his left hand plays a rapidly moving bass line. Yes, that supplies a dramatic, virtuosic quality, but the strategy also begins to feel distanced and seem forced. Also, Tristano doesn’t use the top end of the piano that much — he often stays insistently in the middle register. To me, that decision inevitably gives his sound a steely and somewhat forbidding quality. There’s a great deal of individuality in Tristano’s playing, but hearing the story a musician wants to tell entails suspension of disbelief — the vulnerability of the pianist seems veiled and that diminishes my connection. The story becomes about technique and not emotion.
All of this is completely subjective, of course. I might say it was merely projection on my part to want someone with Tristano’s stated philosophy to sound a certain way, but I felt this way long before I knew his philosophy. Would knowing what I know now have made my initial listening experience different? There’s no going back to find out.
I retain great admiration for Tristano. He clearly could be an inspirational teacher. Unlike musicians who operate on the surface, satisfied with creating a beautiful veneer, his music asks harder questions. At a time when almost all “modern” jazz musicians were in the thrall of Charlie Parker, Tristano had the courage to bring another kind of music to the world. He had a vision and developed the skills and the persistence to share it. If Tristano’s work moves us, we should be grateful. Even if it doesn’t, the artist was sincere and honest, and his work still has the power to affect us in ways that are worth pondering.
Steve Provizer writes on a range of subjects, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.