Home » Jazz Articles » Lennie Tristano: Lennie Tristano Personal Recordings, 1946-1970


Extended Analysis

Lennie Tristano: Lennie Tristano Personal Recordings, 1946-1970


Sign in to view read count
Lennie Tristano: Lennie Tristano Personal Recordings, 1946-1970
They called it the Cool School, but what's in a name?

In this case, quite a lot as it happens. The Cool School included musicians like Chet Baker, John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Dave Brubeck. Under the guidance of arranger and composer Gil Evans, it established itself in an unquestionable way with the release of Miles Davis' album Birth of the Cool (Capitol Records) in 1957, though the music had actually been recorded some eight or so years earlier. The Cool School was the younger sibling to bebop that replaced swing as popular music, and its two founding fathers were Miles Davis and Lennie Tristano. What Davis and Tristano had in common was a need to explore improvisational musical forms and their content in unexpected ways; to challenge commonly accepted opinions about what jazz is, and what it should be. They were true originals, and shared that with the other true jazz originals who inspired them: Louis Armstrong, "Little Jazz" Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker.

Tristano has often been dismissed by the jazz "mainstream" as a musical original whose teaching was cult-like and whose music was too technical and pristine to awaken the kind of insistent foot-tapping, head swaying response in listeners that swing and bebop triggered. And it's true that he has often been more appreciated by musicians than by audiences, which distanced him from club owners who were fiercely focused, as ever, on bottoms in seats. But Tristano still has fierce fans 50 or more years after he appeared on the New York jazz scene in 1946, the date when the music in this CD collection starts.

Quite simply, Lennie Tristano was a man ahead of his time. His fierce insistence on mastering the art and craft of pure improvisation, and his sometimes loud intolerance of those who did not properly respect the art he practiced, confused many and rubbed some the wrong way. That is because his playing and teaching implicitly rejected the "easy way" of improvising by mimicking great players, but rather by digging deep to find your own voice through studying those players. There is a difference. He was the first teacher of jazz improvisation to create a flexible (as opposed to rigid) pedagogy for learning jazz improvisation that even now is at the root of almost every jazz school curriculum. You can hear his influence, for example, in the adventurous playing of pianists Aaron Goldberg, Brad Mehldau, and Keith Jarrett, guitarists Larry Koonse (who was a young sidesman for Warne Marsh in the 1980s), and Kurt Rosenwinkel, drummer Jorge Rossy, and tenor saxophonists Mark Turner and Joe Lovano, to name just some contemporary examples. Tristano's students were not all jazz musicians either, and included, for example, guitarist Joe Satriani who is arguably the bestselling instrumental rock guitarist of all time. Satriani studied with both Tristano and his band mate, guitarist Billy Bauer (also heard extensively on these recordings). And Satriani in turn taught Steve Vai, and so Tristano's influence on modern musicians broadens and widens in unexpected ways . . .

Despite that, Tristano's legacy seems to have settled into being an "also ran" at best, in the shade of the "giants" of the bebop and post-bop era. The release of these recordings will hopefully change some of that. They certainly deserve that. To a degree, Tristano was the author of his own banishment to the shadows of jazz history because of his uncompromising insistence that jazz improvisation was an art form and its commercialization was unacceptable. Then there was the other reason, mainly that his decision to stop performing regularly by the 1960s was not entirely a choice, because jazz clubs at this point were already struggling with presenting mainstream jazz by established names and did not book him as often as they had once done. Instead, Tristano focused almost exclusively on teaching. He told Robert Reisner for his book Jazz Titans, "I have found great degrees of hostility in the music business. It is a grueling profession. The world is seen as a bar after a while. The hours, the dulling, the deadening surroundings, the competition, the hassles, the drinking which produces maudlinism or aggressiveness of an ugly sort. It is no wonder that no one can sustain a high level of creativity without stimulants of some sort."

Tristano opened his school of jazz in New York City in 1951. It was likely the first important institution of its kind. The faculty was made up of the musicians who had been Tristano's students, and included Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Billy Bauer, and pianist Sal Mosca. However, as these musicians became more involved in their own musical careers they gave up or reduced their teaching, and within a few years Tristano returned to private teaching.

These 74 tracks, engineered and chosen by tenor saxophonist and long-time Tristano student Lenny Popkin along with executive producer Michael Cuscuna and co-producers Jerry Roche, and drummer Carol Tristano (Lennie's youngest daughter and Popkin's' wife), clearly demonstrate how wrong are those appraisals of Tristano. Besides his own playing, which these tracks establish without question as virtuosic and deeply imaginative, his presence hovers over his students, predominantly Konitz and Marsh and tenorist Ted Brown , but also guitarist Billy Bauer, pianists Sal Mosca, Dave Frank and Connie Crothers, bass players Peter Ind, Arnold Fishkind and Sonny Dallas, and singer Sheila Jordan, nearly all of whom went on to establish their own musical careers both as performers and teachers, spreading their own version of Tristano's teaching method. And they certainly weren't the only ones. In the case of Bill Evans' early playing, for example, in George Russell's Workshop recordings of "Concerto For Billy the Kid." Lennie's ghostly presence does not detract from Evans' masterful playing, but it is clearly there.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet is another example. This was a more commercial version of Tristano's quartet with Lee Konitz, and Konitz's influence as a player distinct from Charlie Parker in sound and imagination is fairly easy to spot in players like Brubeck's alto player Paul Desmond, and Art Pepper who somehow melded Lee and Bird and found his own voice in the process. Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool record and the Tristano Sextet sides can also be readily heard as influences in the music of Gerry Mulligan, and more faintly in Jimmy Giuffre's trios with guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Ralph Pena.

Tristano came from an Italian background, was born in 1919, grew up in Chicago and took up the piano at an early age. By the time he was twelve he was playing saxophone and cello, the piano in local taverns, the clarinet in a local brothel, and had gone blind. He attended the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago in 1938 and graduated with a bachelor's degree of music in performance. He stayed on to take graduate courses. According to Barry Ulanov's "Master in the Making" article in Metronome magazine (August, 1949), his teacher from the Illinois School for the Blind warned the conservatory to "pay particular attention to this boy, because he's going to do everything faster than you're used to." Ron Offen, wrote in "Lennie Tristano," Literary Times, (July-August 1964) that Tristano found the conservatory really easy. Tristano told him, "You know, they were giving me exercises on theory and harmony that were supposed to take a week to finish and I was knocking them out in half an hour."

Tristano and his wife moved to New York in 1946. Not long after, Barry Ulanov wrote about Lennie in Metronome magazine: " Go out and give a good ear to Mr. Lennie Tristano. A great new star has arrived in our midst." In his 1989 book The Swing Era, jazz scholar Gunther Schuller called Tristano's 1946 Keynote Records recording of "I Can't Get Started" "one of the most prophetic recordings in all jazz history."

By the time Birth of the Cool was released some ten years later, he had issued several influential and well-received recordings, including Crosscurrents (Pro Sales & Distribution, 1949, released by Capitol records in 1972) and Tristano (Atlantic,1955) which contained the plaintively haunting "Requiem" and the remarkable and initially controversial solo "Lineup."

Controversial because Tristano was the first jazz musician to deliberately manipulate an improvised recording. Despite the fact that by this time Les Paul had done something similar by multi-tracking his wife, singer Mary Ford to emulate the Andrews Sisters, no one bothered to castigate Paul for this technique. In Lennie's case, he played the solo against a real, but prerecorded rhythm section he slowed down. Then he sped up everything again. "Cheating!" some said, and waved fingers nastily. Pioneering new recording techniques, others might say, particularly when it comes to musically "breaking the fourth wall," and turning a passive tape recorder into an active participant in the recording process as Les Paul was doing. Lennie learnt to play "Lineup," at the sped-up tempo, bassist Peter Ind told me a few years ago, because he got fed up with the criticism. With "Turkish Mambo," Tristano overdubbed an improvisation over three other overdubbed moving lines, one in 7/8, another in 5/8, and a third going from 3/8 to 4/4.

He and Paul pointed the way forward for the modern recording industry. One thing is for sure, if you put on your musician's hat (if you wear one) and stop to think about it, trying to improvise a virtuosic complex, flowing line of improvisation like "Lineup" is tough enough, without the added complication of having to play it at half speed and an octave lower than it would eventually sound. It was completely in line with Lennie's dedication to exploring improvisation unconditionally and with doggedly acquired craftsmanship. In a way he was to music what Jackson Pollock, Basquiat, or Picasso are to fine art. An acquired taste for some perhaps that is nevertheless worth the investment of effort to appreciate and understand. In all cases, if we make the effort we come away the richer for it.

Most modern pianists are likely ignorant of the fact that Tristano was the guy who first really created and recorded a walking bass in the left hand while improvising with the right hand. Pianist Dave Frank studied with Tristano from 1971, when he turned 16, until 1978, the year Tristano died. He said, "The word on the street, was that when he was developing the left-hand bass line style, he did nothing else for one year of piano playing."

Tristano's taste in rhythm sections, at least early on, to slightly misquote Lester Young, was just to "keep that boom-ticky-boom going all night." As opposed to the explosive drumming of bebop that bred the likes of Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and Max Roach, Tristano wanted as clean a rhythmic canvas as possible to paint on; he did not want it getting in his way. In an article in 1945 ("What's Wrong With Chicago Jazz," Jazz Quarterly) Tristano wrote that the local drummers were, "Part Dixieland, part shuffle, and mostly maniacal . . . their tendency is to evade the beat and . . . confuse some poor instrumentalist." In a 1958 Down Beat interview he was even more direct, if that is possible. "There are no sidemen anymore. Everybody's a star. There's a fairly current idea, not reflecting the ideas of all musicians, that the drummer is really the dynamo of the organization... [But the drummer] has come to play a little ahead of the beat. The bassist is supposed to play on top of the beat. He plays that way because the soloist is supposed to be behind the beat. That means the drums, the bass, and the soloist are in three different places in reference to time. To improvise under these conditions is absolutely ridiculous."

Now, if you were a black drummer in particular, like Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, etc., (all of whom Tristano played with at one time or another) you would be forgiven for getting really pissed off at this opinionated, apparently disrespectful white mo-fo. But if you knew Lennie Tristano you knew something else was going on. In his book Lennie Tristano: His Life in Music (1964) Eunmi Shim quotes Max Roach as saying, "Lennie made me feel like I had something special as a drummer... Lennie had a school. And of course, Dizzy and Bird and Monk was the other school. We were uptown, which was blacktown, and Lennie was downtown, which was white... He was really something. Because he dealt with the piano and it was something different than Bud." Peter Ind told me that it became a problem for Tristano to find players who could sustain a relaxed swing when he started playing across bar lines, which he did with more and more frequency. The rhythm sections started to tighten up, and so Lennie got an unearned reputation for not being able to swing. These newly released tracks clearly show this is not the case.

Keeping the accompaniment simple allowed him maximum room to improvise in all kinds of directions. It was a deliberate choice, in a performance, to explore rhythms that up to that point had not been experimented with much by soloists and were only just then coming into vogue with modern drummers and 20th Century classical composers. Many improvisors, even now, focus far more on melody and harmony than rhythm. And yet, even as Dizzy Gillespie talked about thinking rhythmically first and melodically second when he improvised, Lennie's work exploring rhythm went to greater depths than almost anyone else, besides himself and his students. It was challenging, cutting edge stuff. Tristano looked for the edges, smooth and jagged, where improvisation could be pushed. It was and continues to be challenging at first listening, because he is also pushing the language and tools of improvisation in a similar way to how Shakespeare did with English, or Samuel Beckett and Anthony Burgess.

The discs move somewhat chronologically, though they are also grouped by topic, such as solo piano, duos or trios with guitarist Billy Bauer, and bassists Arnold Fishkind, Peter Ind, or Sonny Dallas. The drummers were either Al Levitt, Jeff Morton, or Nick Stabulas. Other tracks include Lee Konitz and/or Warne Marsh in quintet and sextet recordings.

The Arts Fuse blogger, Stephen Provizer, reviewing this collection, commented somewhat astutely: "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." While that is clearly an honest response to music that boils down to, "I am trying to admire this but I don't really like it," in terms of Lennie's contribution to jazz and his accomplishment as a musician it rather begs the question, though the review goes to pains to say, "I wish I liked this stuff more.."

Many people, for example, struggle with the written works of James Joyce or Marcel Proust, but there is little hesitation in agreeing they are among the giants of early 20 Century literature. But Provizer's honestly made statement ironically frames Tristano's whole idea about "emotion" and "feeling" not being the same thing, though one can't really exist without the other. In this case, what we like tends to dominate what we consider to be important, and Provizer, however reluctantly recognizes that, while damning Tristano with faint praise at the same time. If this release of Lennie Tristano's personal recordings achieves anything, it should be that fifty or more years later we can reach a much more objective and appreciative understanding of Tristano's true place in the pantheon of great musicians that he held up to his students to study.

With his long phrases, distinctive but subtle triplet feel, double-time, triple-time tempos sometimes crossing the bar line, expanded harmonies and virtuosic displays of two-handed block chord improvisations, plus a use of unusual meters (like 5/4, 7/8 etc.), his complex lines feel in hindsight like an attempt, at the height of bebop's popularity, to progress the language and form of improvisation beyond Charlie Parker and bebop.

Besides Miles Davis and Lennie Tristano, perhaps three of the Cool School's most well-known proponents were Lee Konitz, Bill Evans, and Stan Getz. Which makes sense in a way if you know that Tristano said he was influenced more by horn players than pianists. Two out of those three were students of Tristano (Konitz for years, and Evans briefly). According to Peter Ind, a young Stan Getz came to several of the loft sessions, held almost weekly in his East 32nd Street music studio in Manhattan during the early 1950s, and then in Hollis, Queens when he moved there in 1956. Those sessions, famously, could last until dawn or later.

Tristano was a good friend of Charlie Parker. Nat Hentoff quoted Bird in a 1953 Down Beat, article: "As for Lennie Tristano, I'd like to go on record as saying I endorse his work in every particular. They say he's cold. They're wrong. He has a big heart and it's in his music . He can play anywhere with anybody. He's a tremendous musician. I call him the great acclimatizor."

An example is "Victory Ball," based on "S'Wonderful," a 1949 Metronome All-Stars recording featuring a host of bop and cool school players. It's a Tristano head without question, and Parker plays the hell out of it, but he is clearly a collaborator here, not the prime originator. It's a true meeting of the minds of two great artists.

Towards the end of Parker's life he told Tristano he was so disturbed by all the musicians who were trying to play just like him, that he started going out of his way to do something new. Hence, Bird with Strings as one example. The two spoke of working together, not just because of Tristano's musicianship, which was remarkable as these recordings clearly document, but precisely because Tristano was not copying Bird's improvisational style. In fact, one of Tristano's more memorable pieces, "Requiem," was written in memory of his dead friend and was first heard on Tristano. To anyone who says the pianist's playing was emotionless, they clearly haven't heard this piece. Here, as Tristano sought in his almost alchemical way, is the fusing of both feeling and emotion in one piece of music. And it is a powerful thing to hear.

Dave Frank said these new tracks give us a deeper understanding of how Lennie's playing got to that point. "It's just like, you know, you look at something with just your eyes and then you look under a microscope, and you see like a hundred thousand more things going on than you thought."

Art Tatum (another blind pianist), and Bud Powell were admitted strong influences on Tristano. Powell in particular instilled in Tristano the need to develop "feeling" while expressing an improvisation. That approach also lay at the heart of Tristano's teaching, which was aimed at helping each of his students find their own improvisational voice. Lennie Tristano was a purist, in constant search of a sometimes wild, sometimes challengingly stern beauty. And he was quite uncompromising. He told one of his students, with a somewhat bemused smile on his face (I won't say who), that he had once been offered a million dollar contract to make him a commercial star and he turned it down, presumably, though he never said this outright, because he didn't care for the artistic restraints and the compromises he would have had to endure. And as outrageous as that story might strike some on first hearing, we forget after all this time, that in the late 1940s and early 1950s Tristano experienced some genuine success and wide admiration for the music he and his group were creating. So it's not quite so outrageous a thought as you might first think given the challenged ethics of some of the people involved in the music industry at that time when it came to taking advantage of and trying to own musicians and their music.

Tristano was a man of great intellect and insight, who nonetheless practiced and taught separating the thinking-mind from the feeling-mind when it came to improvising. As mentioned earlier, he famously pointed out that emotion is generally not the same thing as feeling. According to Tristano, listening to Bud Powell play live gave Lennie an epiphany—he realized one of the things that marked Powell's music was the feeling he got into in his playing. As the great tenor player Warne Marsh explained, "Emoting is not necessarily feeling . . . (F)rom a personal, creative standpoint, feeling must be involved. It is necessarily because as an individual we're expressing ourselves . . . in the language of music, and it's how we feel that identifies us. How we emote is another matter, you see. Emotion without feeling is what we call an ego trip."

All of which is to set the scene for listening to these recordings. The collection of tracks is a remarkable and revealing audio documentation of a piece of music history—-Tristano's evolution as a musician and the birth of the Cool School. In some ways the CDs provide a window into Tristano's playing as it matured, in particular revealing what was going on musically at a point in his career when he almost stopped performing in public.

Dave Frank is among a small handful of Tristano students still around, such as pianist Harvey Diamond, tenor player Ted Brown , drummer Dick Scott (who changed his name to Tox Drohar), and singer Sheila Jordan, whom Charlie Parker called, "the kid with the million dollar ears." Both Lee Konitz and Peter Ind died in 2020. They were in their early 90s. Frank said, "It was amazing, amazing luck that I got to study with Lennie when I did."

Talking about these previously unreleased recordings, Frank said that for fans of Tristano's music this CD collection was hugely important. "You're hearing CDs of new music that's never been heard before, spanning his whole career. I mean, that, that is just monumental."

Tristano has been criticized for a number of things, perhaps the most painful of which is that he was "too white," without anyone really knowing what that means, though perhaps they think they do. At its kindest it implies that Lennie doesn't swing. These tracks certainly put the lie to that myth.

In a New York Times article (Jan 7, 2011) Nate Chinen explained that "Seclusion was one reason for Tristano's obscurity. Another, more complex, was race. . . Tristano played with a number of black musicians, but his inner circle was white, as was the perceived affect of his music." He also quotes tenor saxaphonist Mark Turner, an African-American, as saying about Lennie's music, " 'People thought it was cold. . . The African diasporic rhythmic element was not there, not strong enough." In his own music, notably with his leaderless trio, Fly, he set out to make an adjustment. "That's something that I wanted to do, was bring that into the fold,'" [Turner] said. 'The harmonic information, the melodic information, all of that is so interesting, so why can't it be brought into a warmer place rhythmically?' "

(Turner wrote a tune for Tristano called "Lennie Groove." See below)

Turner grew up in Southern California and discovered Warne Marsh who had moved back there in the mid-1980s, playing with and arranging for the group "Supersax," teaching and gigging with his own group.

Turner said of his interest in the Tristano School, "It was almost like a no-no. No one [I knew] was doing it, no one in the quote-unquote modern mainstream jazz world [anyway]." He told Chinen he responded to the articulate force of the music, but it was more than that. "Something about it spoke to my own personal life and upbringing, being a person of African descent brought up primarily in Caucasian neighborhoods. I felt I was going out on a limb, kind of like when I started listening to rock music and new wave and ska."

Tristano was one of those quietly imposing, uncompromising people who are hard to ignore.. He was a complex man whose personal life could be difficult, but whose students trusted and loved him for who he was and for his advice and insight which was almost unfailingly on point. His blindness likely enhanced his already acute powers of focused listening. It has been debated by medical professionals that blind people may well hear sound differently from sighted people if only because blind and sighted take their cues for understanding what they're hearing from different things.

His sense of humor colored a lot of what he did. One of his students told the story of Tristano and George Shearing, also a blind pianist, eating at the same table in a diner. Each felt the other's food to find out what he was eating. "Oh, you got the fries?" "Yeah man, how're your eggs?"

He was once taught to drive a car in Manhattan by some of his students and ran into the back of a police car. "What is wrong with you, man, are you blind?" the officer said. "Yes," Tristano said, with a kind of Stan Laurel delivery. Nonplussed, the cop stood there looking at him for a minute, shook his head and walked away mumbling, "Don't do it again." Whenever Tristano told that story, he practically cried with laughter.

Peter Ind said he once came for a lesson with Tristanoe and discovered him listening to a book on tape playing at double speed and sounding like Marvin the Chipmunk. "Man, they read so f***g slow," he explained.

The broad focus of Tristano's teaching in terms of craft was extensive ear training and scales. He was one of, if not the first teacher of jazz improvisation to talk about the relationship between chords and scales, specifically the major, melodic minor, and harmonic minor. These three scales practiced in all twelve keys provided the basic material for all the other exercises, as was ear training centered around learning to sing the solos of great jazz musicians before you started to play them.

Tristano would usually sit on a couch in his studio and, for example, in the case of a piano student, from across the room he would call out chord tone numbers one after the other.. Dave Frank, said, "Lenny, didn't play for you very much as a teacher. I think in about seven years, he played for me specifically, maybe three times. But I used to hear him play every week. And when I say play, I mean, play like you're hearing on these records. He didn't do that typically. But it depended on when your lesson was. When he had lessons with students who played bass and/or drums, he would play with them, and that would be a part of their lesson. And if you were lucky enough, like I was, to have a lesson right after he taught a bass lesson or a drum lesson, then you could hear him turn it loose. Me and the other students waiting for lessons used to listen to it every week and just sit there, amazed listening to him."

Nate Chinen quotes Ted Brown as saying, "Right at the beginning he told me he didn't want students who were coming in for a few lessons and popping out on the road." Brown studied with Tristano for seven years, and helped establish a rehearsal studio above an auto shop at 317 East 32nd Street in Manhattan. A Tristano contrafact on "Out of Nowhere" celebrates the address.

Of Tristano's imperious, aloof reputation, Brown said, "It's gotten blown out of proportion. He was strict, but he also had a very human side."

Dave Frank added, "Lennie taught people on a very individual basis but he had a pedagogy for piano players. Lessons could be very free flowing, and he would go where you wanted them to go to a degree. He was very open to whatever you were doing, but part of the pedagogy were the scales. He had a chord list that he gave everybody. He had a list of dominant chords, for example. It had over a hundred in every key, and we had to practice them in all the keys. He was very thorough and way ahead of his time.

"All he asked was that you practice. If you did that he just took you under his wing and was like a very fatherly influence in a positive way. And, we were his kids, you know? Yeah. He was just tremendous, tremendous in every way. I mean, he was a great teacher, great person, great thinker, you know, funny as hell. It was just an incredible experience to grow up in his living room."

Music teachers face similar problems to therapists: how long should your student (or patient) stay with you? In Tristano's case, some of his students studied with him for years. Because Tristano understood that to become a great improviser, you had to understand yourself well enough to bring feeling to how you played your instrument. What we are listening to in these recordings is in part the journey that Tristano, the self-taught student, took that informed Tristano the teacher and band leader.

Disc One covers the earliest material from the mid to late 40s and features Billy Bauer on guitar. Tristano was looking at a different way to use the guitar-bass-piano trio from say, Nat King Cole. Although he could play the melodies to tunes, he often preferred not to. He would instead start improvising immediately on its harmonic progressions. He asked Bauer not to play rhythm guitar or straight melody, so Billy had to come up with counter harmonies and melodies. And we can hear that in these early recordings. It was much more freedom than Bauer, or most any other jazz guitarist, was used to at that time, and it demonstrates Tristano's early commitment to the art of improvisation over commercial presentation. So Bauer evolved the role of the guitar to suit Tristano's musical ideas. Not until Jim Hall and Bill Evans years later have a guitarist and a pianist sounded so in sync with each other. They trade improvised lines, and Tristano proves he is a generous partner, whether as a lead voice or an accompanist. As perhaps an unintended but welcome bonus, there is more Billy Bauer on these records than has previously ever been available. Drummer Dick Scott said years ago that at these sessions Billy Bauer was a "monster" player, but in performance he could be overly cautious sometimes. Here we get to hear Bauer more as he sounded when just playing sessions and gigs. "Three for Tea" sounds years ahead of its groove.

Birth of the Cool also featured one of Tristano's earliest and in some ways his most popular student, Lee Konitz. The audio on Disc One is not something that will excite stereo enthusiasts. But for a jazz history enthusiast, the sound quality is perhaps less important than what was actually being recorded. (It improves distinctly as the sides move into the 1950s.) Some of it, such as early experimentation with free jazz both in his studio and on a gig, was recorded for the first time anywhere.

Disc Two is taken up with 15 solo recordings from the East 32nd Street studio, and the Rudy Van Gelder Studio, in the 1950s and 60s. There aren't too many recordings of Tristano playing the blues, but here is one of them—"Lennie's Blues." "These Foolish Things" shows off the man's virtuosity with block chords that are essentially four or five improvised lines at once.

Disc Three was done mainly in 1949 and features the Konitz and Marsh sextets in live performances. It opens with "Live Free," and we are suddenly plunged into this new universe where the only rule seemed to be the order of entry of the various musicians. Tristano's other "rule" was the track should not be long. They are possibly the first live completely "free jazz" recordings.

Not included on these recordings, but setting a tone nonetheless with which to try and understand them, Lennie's recording of "Descent into the Maelstrom" (recorded in the early 1950s but not released until 1976 by East Wind, a Japanese record company), was inspired by the Edgar Allen Poe story and interestingly treads the same kind of territory as the avant-garde classical music of John Cage, but improvisationally. And it paved the way for pianists like Cecil Taylor.

Disc Four has Tristano in duos and trios with bassist Peter Ind mainly, and drummers Levitt, Wayburn, or Stabulas. This is perhaps the most "straight ahead" of these recordings. Tristanp could swing, and here are some good examples. He's right there, in the pocket with a rhythm section that is playing without restraints. Peter Ind never sounded better.

Disc Five features Tristano with another of his regular bassists, Sonny Dallas and a drummer. A highlight is "You Go to My Head," where Dallas takes a great solo, and "Lennie's Groove" has perhaps a slightly different Tristano to the one you thought you knew.

Disc Six is the payoff CD as we've worked through these sides. It is perhaps the most historically significant of the CDs and was recorded both at Tristano's house in 1948, and the Half Note Club in New York in 1962. Konitz and Marsh can be heard early on in their partnership at Tristanos's, and then 14 years later at the club in New York. The first seven tracks on this CD are examples of free improvisation. Improvisations, in effect, where the only "rules" were "listen to your band mates" and "remember when it's your turn to come in, or leave." These tracks trace the beginnings of a free jazz movement that predates Archie Shepp and Ornette Coleman by almost ten years. It comes close to a place where avant-garde jazz and avant-garde classical music could see each other. On these sides we can hear how Tristano and his sextet were preparing to perform free jazz live, and then what eventually that gig sounded like.

The remaining tracks are split between trios and quartets and quintets with Konitz. As what they call in the restaurant trade an amuse bouche (literally, entertain the mouth) the producers of the CDs include a great track of Tristano, Konitz, and a rhythm section playing with Zoot Sims on tenor, on "How Deep is the Ocean." Zoot Sims' bluesy vibe seems to mellow his bandmates, it feels like.

Dave Frank said, "I heard the tracks and I never heard Lennie play like that, you know. That's because we just had a limited number of recordings of him. So, when you hear these tracks with all this music you hadn't heard before, you realize, well, he was so creative. He was doing all kinds of things on these tracks that I hadn't heard before. He was playing some melodies in the left hand, he was a lot looser with these double lines. He was really going all over with the locked hands. And he would just do things spontaneously that would occur to him. And then it occurs to you that this was just what he did that night!

"Part of the reason the release of these recordings is so astounding is that some of them feel like they are or should be alternate takes to the New Tristano and almost certainly must have been done around that same period. So, we're hearing all kinds of new baseline stuff from his prime. The New Tristano was like the greatest thing ever. But then here, here there's another whole 60 minutes of recordings from the same period. So, the way the recordings were put together, it was done historically. And It certainly was done intentionally to paint a more complete picture of every one of Lennie Tristano's, primary periods.

"Lennie told me once, uh, we were having a discussion about something and somehow the topic came up of being happy with your performances or your recordings or something like that. And he said, 'I've never been really, really fully satisfied with any of my recordings.' I looked at him and I said, 'Even the New Tristano?' and he goes, 'Yes. I always thought I could do better.'

"That's really—you know, that was profound."

I want to give the last words on Tristano to Stanley Crouch, the famously curmudgeonly African-American jazz critic (and one of my hero's). Pianist Ethan Iverson reproduced on his Home Page (https://ethaniverson.com/) quotes from part of an email to him from Crouch: "Lennie Tristano found his own way as did Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. Finding your own way is the hardest thing to do in the arts and maybe even in life, but they all did it and that is the most important statement about the Tristano school. It was started by a great original and it produced two great originals. As for influencing the whole of jazz, there was little of that, but the most dynamic influence can be heard in Wayne Shorter's playing with Miles Davis at the Plugged Nickel: Listen to those "Rhythm" changes, which deeply influenced Branford Marsalis and Joe Lovano . . ."

The only thing that I would quarrel with Crouch about, and these recordings establish, is that Tristano's influence, while subtle, has been anything but "little."

Track Listing

DISC ONE: Trio With Billy Bauer – Live Performances

1.Rhythm (A) 3:22 2. Lennie’s Song (A) 4:12 3. Surrender (A) 3:14 4. Stream Line (A) 2:42 5. Day And Night (A) 3:12 6. Rhapsody (B) 3:16 7. Three For Tea (C) 4:42 8. Streamin’ (C) 7:09 9. Depend On Me (C) 7:19 10. Just Fine (C) 5:59 11. September Rain (D) 4:21 12. Mystery (E) 2:04 13. Under Your Spell (E) 3:19 14. Cosmology (E) 2:34 15. Restoration (F) 2:33

DISC TWO: Solo Piano

1.Spectrum (G) 1:52 2. New Pennies (H) 5:14 3. Lennie’s Blues (H) 4:18 4. Dusk (H) 2:39 5. These Foolish Things (H) 3:04 6. Tania’s Dance (H) 1:51 7. Call It Love (H) 4:36 8. C Minor Fantasy (H) 1:48 9. No Foolin’ (H) 3:34 10. When Your Lover Has Gone (H) 2:32 11. Bud Line (H) 1:39 12. Studio Time Medley (H) 4:42 13. Palo Alto Days (H) 2:52 14. Foolish Again (H) 2:17 15. The Avenue (H) 1:43 Thursday Suite: 16) Sonnet (I) 4:35 17) Swing Time (I) 3:26 18) Love Chords (I) 3:57

DISC THREE: Sextet – Live Performances

1.Live Free (J) 1:58 2. Sound-Lee (J) 9:47 3. Lennie’s Changes (J) 10:27 4. Ice Cream Konitz (J) 10:03 5. Fishin’ Around (J) 11:15 6. Band Excerpt (K) 5:17 7. You go to my head (L) 4:39 8. Sax of a kind (L) 5:20

DISC FOUR: Trio Sessions

1.Lennie’s Lines (M) 5:36 2. My Melancholy Baby (M) 7:45 3. Oceans Deep (M) 4:04 4. That Trading Feeling (M) 5:48 5. You Go To My Head (M) 6:55 6. London Blues (M) 4:19 7. There Will Never be Another You (M) 5:12 8. Session Wave (N) 5:59 9. Movin’ Along (N) 3:51 10. Trio Lines (N) 7:42 11. Lennie’s Place (N) 6:41

DISC FIVE: Duos And Trios With Sonny Dallas

1. Duo Days (O) 4:55 2. Dream Sequence (O) 7:09 3. Melancholy Up (O) 5:08 4. Forever Lines (O) 10:18 5. Friends (O) 4:16 6. You Go To My Head (O) 9:45 (J. F. Coots-H. Gillespie) 7. I Should Care (P) 7:18 (Cahn-Stordahl-Weston) 8. Lennie’s Groove (P) 9:14

DISC SIX: 1948 Free Session

1. Transformations (Q) 2:30 2. Dialogue (Q) 2:28 3. Digression Expanse (Q) 3:11 4. Pinochle Jump (Q) 2:00 5. Story (Q) 3:12 6. Ensemble Tune (Q) 2:17 7. Formation (Q) 3:30 Live At The Half Note 8. Sonny’s Variation (R) 1:07 9. Swingin’ at the Half Note (R) 8:41 10. Lennie’s Dream (R) 7:09 11. Smilin’ Groove (R) 5:09 12. Mine (R) :51 13. Hudson Street (R) 9:06 14. How Deep is the Ocean (S) 10:41


Lennie Tristano: piano; Billy Bauer: guitar; Arnold Fishkind: bass; Lee Konitz: saxophone, alto; Warne Marsh: saxophone, tenor; Jeff Morton: drums; Peter Ind: bass, acoustic; Sonny Dallas: bass; Tom Wayburn: drums; Al Levitt: drums; Nick Stabulas: drums; Zoot Sims: saxophone, tenor.

Album information

Title: Lennie Tristano Personal Recordings, 1946-1970 | Year Released: 2022 | Record Label: Mosaic Records

Post a comment about this album

Get the Jazz Near You newsletter All About Jazz has been a pillar of jazz since 1995, championing it as an art form and, more importantly, supporting the musicians who create it. Our enduring commitment has made "AAJ" one of the most culturally important websites of its kind, read by hundreds of thousands of fans, musicians and industry figures every month.

To expand our coverage even further and develop new means to foster jazz discovery and connectivity we need your help. You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky ads plus provide access to future articles for a full year. This winning combination will vastly improve your AAJ experience and allow us to vigorously build on the pioneering work we first started in 1995. So enjoy an ad-free AAJ experience and help us remain a positive beacon for jazz by making a donation today.



Conversation Starter
Willie Morris
Melodies of Light
Omri Mor / Yosef-Gutman Levitt
The Quietly Clouds And A Wild Crane
Yuji Takahashi / Sabu Toyozumi


Double Portrait
Giuseppe Millaci and the Vogue Trio
Afro Futuristic Dreams
Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids
Dynamic Maximum Tension
Darcy James Argue's Secret Society

On the record

Vibes on a Breath
Ted Piltzecker
Jonathan Karrant
Brazilian Match
Luiz Millan
Double Portrait
Giuseppe Millaci and the Vogue Trio

Get more of a good thing!

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories, our special offers, and upcoming jazz events near you.