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Lennie Tristano
Lennie Tristano Personal Recordings 1946-1970
Mosaic/Dot Time MD6-272

Sometimes the key to understanding an artist’s innovations is simple and does not require an extensive discourse drawing upon social practices, cultural theories, and the like. To understand Lennie Tristano’s groundbreaking late-1940s experiments in free improvisation – as well as what came before and after – one needs to look no further than the first page of the booklet included in the 6-CD Lennie Tristano Personal Recordings 1946-1970. Granted: it was taken more than twenty years later. Tristano is playing his piano in his Hollis, New York home, presumably deep in the moment. Typically, performance photographs of Tristano have him facing the keyboard; but here his head is turned pronouncedly to his right. A metronome sits innocuously on top of his instrument.

That metronome objectifies the limits of what Tristano would forgo in the pursuit of a new freedom in jazz. Rhythm is the spine of the newly unearthed 1948 “intuitive music” session with the confoundingly underappreciated guitarist Billy Bauer, Lee Konitz, and Warne Marsh, which predates the iconic “Intuition” and “Digression.”  Tristano jettisoned bar lines and chord changes, but he fiercely retained metronomic time. “There was no two and four accent in the way Lennie conceived of playing,” Konitz told John Litweiler and Terry Martin in a 1973 interview referenced in Larry Kart’s invaluable annotations for Mosaic’s The Complete Atlantic Recordings of Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz & Warne Marsh. Tristano made equally accented 4/4 swing by maximizing its implicit forward motion, and it proved to be the glue on this session and the tracks selected from contemporaneous performances.

Lennie Tristano, © 2022 Carol Tristano

Many of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s tracks were salvaged from wire recordings, a medium hostile to dynamics and resonance. Despite these deficits, they document Tristano bringing the same incisiveness to both restaurant gigs with Bauer and bassist Arnold Fishkin, and sextet concerts with Konitz and Marsh in the front line, playing now-classic Konitz lines like “Sound-Lee” and “Ice Cream Konitz.” The old adage about committed listening yielding rewards empathically applies, as these recordings have enough detail to appreciate Tristano as guiding band pianist as well as pioneering soloist. Both Konitz and Marsh are coming into their own, delivering nuanced, capering solos.

Of Tristano’s trio mates from the mid-1950s through the early ‘60s, it is Peter Ind who particularly stands out for stoking the straight-four swing. Presumably, Tristano tips his hat to the English bassist with the scampering “London Blues” (a misleading title in that it is not a blues), one of the finer trio outings in the collection. But it is bassist Sonny Dallas who is featured – and more than acquits himself – on a LP’s worth of duets, which like several of the sessions included in the collection, are not firmly dated. It is one thing for the date of an informal session from 75 years ago to be in question; but, in the case of an initially smoldering, ultimately steaming “How Deep is the Ocean” from a unique quintet date with Zoot Sims joining Konitz in the front line at the well-known Half Note, “c.1962” is wanting.

Additionally, there is the curious choice of placing the ‘48 free session at the end of the collection. Not frontloading it with other late ‘40s and early ‘50s performances by overlapping personnel deny listeners an easy way to compare and contrast Tristano’s private experiments with his public performances. There is one masterful stroke in the chronological sequencing of solo tracks from 1952, ‘61, and ‘70 onto a single disc. Bach is occasionally referenced in discussions of Tristano’s intricate linearity and use of counterpoint; and the cracking “C Minor Fantasy” from c. 1962 is an obvious example, the sibling of “C Minor Complex” and “G Minor Complex,” both recorded for The New Tristano in February of that year. However, the uncharacteristically rubato “Spectrum,” the sole track from a 1951 Van Gelder Studio date, suggests that Tristano was also absorbing the work of 20th Century classical composers, and at least dabbled in a post-Impressionism that would prompt comparisons with Olivier Messiaen if it had been recorded 20 years later. Recorded in 1970, the tripart “Thursday Suite” finds Tristano freely roaming through various figures and chord patterns, throwing sparks with every pivot. Tristano’s infrequently cited ability to give tenderness an undercoat of pain and longing is exemplified on “Love Chords,” which concludes the suite and the solo disc with an unanticipated depth of feeling.

Lennie Tristano Personal Recordings 1946-1970 is an important addition to the pianist’s legacy, in substantial measure because the abundance of material recorded at home emphasizes the everyday nature of his practice. Presumably, this box set represents a small fraction of the Tristano family’s holdings. Future releases would continue to reinforce Tristano’s singular stature in 20th Century music.
–Bill Shoemaker

Hat Hut Records

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