Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

September/October 2016: Robi Botos

Lennie Tristano (1919-73) Lennie Tristano

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Pianist Lennie Tristano was born in Chicago in 1919 at the peak of the influenza pandemic that infected much of the world. The ‘flu came close to killing Tristano in his first year but instead it left him blind. His mother, a pianist and opera singer, taught him to play piano, and at a school for the blind in Chicago, he learned music theory. Later, he attended Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music before moving to New York City in 1946.

Tristano is an overlooked figure in jazz, partly because his critics thought that his playing was too technical and devoid of emotion. But his fans appreciated the absence of flash in Tristano’s style and believed his use of counterpoint (a technique involving the simultaneous playing of separate musical ideas) was ground-breaking. It was. Tristano was a shy man whose experiments with free improvisation were some of the first recorded moments of what later became known as free jazz. He might have been better known if he had concentrated on recording and performing, but instead he devoted his life to teaching.

In 1951, in New York City, he founded one of the first jazz schools. The faculty featured some of his students, including saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. Tristano closed the school in 1956 but continued teaching from his home on Long Island. He loved the early jazz recordings of Louis Armstrong and Lester Young and demanded his students study the important solos so they would learn how improvised solos are constructed and unlearn the poor musical habits they had already developed.

He was an innovative teacher, and his advanced understanding of music theory made him an interesting choice for students. At various times, Phil Woods, Bill Evans, Sheila Jordan, Herbie Hancock, Charles Mingus, Warne Marsh, and Lee Konitz all studied with Tristano. And such artists as Charlie Parker and Bud Powell used his innovations in harmony and counterpoint in their own work.

Two albums he recorded for Atlantic Records, Lennie Tristano and The New Tristano, are considered important because the music is complex and interesting. They constitute the material on the 1994 release Lennie Tristano (Rhino/Warner) [Rhino #71595]. The first four selections were recorded in his home studio in 1955. The first song, “Line Up,” and the fourth, “East Thirty-Second,” are pulsating numbers with Peter Ind on bass and Jeff Morton on drums. Tristano overdubbed several pianos and played with the speed of the tapes. The plaintive ballad “Requiem,” the second track, is a beautiful piece written as a tribute to Charlie Parker with just Tristano on piano. The third selection, “Turkish Mambo,” has no eastern flavour, but was named as a salute to Ahmet and Neshui Ertegun, co-owners of Atlantic Records. Here, Tristano overdubbed three pianos to achieve the effect he wanted. From a 1955 gig at the Sing Song Room of the Confucius Restaurant in New York come five bewitching standards: “These Foolish Things,” “You Go to My Head,” “If I Had You,” “Ghost of a Chance” and “All the Things You Are,” with Lee Konitz on sax, Art Taylor on drums, and Gene Ramey on bass. These are the most conservative tracks on the entire album and provide a glimpse of the more structured, less improvisational side of Tristano.

The remaining six tracks were first recorded on Tristano’s 1962 release The New Tristano. They are remarkable solo piano improvisations that provide insight into where some of Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett’s musical ideas come from.

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