Lennie Tristano – Personal Recordings 1946- 1970 – Mosaic Records/ Dot Time MD6-272 – 6 CD Box Set – Limited edition of 5000 – 59:28 / 58:09 / 58:14 / 63:35 / 57:47 / 61:34 – ****
(Lennie Tristano – piano; Billy Bauer – guitar; Arnold Fishkin, Sonny Dallas, Joe Shulman, or Peter Ind – bass; Jeff Morton, Tom Wayburn, Al Levitt, or Nick Stabulas – drums; Lee Konitz – alto saxophone; Warne Marsh – tenor saxophone)
Jazz pianist, Lennie Tristano, was a man ahead of his time. Caught between the most active bop period, and well before the onset of “free” improvisational jazz, Lennie was under-appreciated during his prime. He was among the very first pianists to embrace the use of overdubbing and tape manipulation. He fully embraced poly rhythms, and chromaticisms, and often concentrated on contrapuntal arrangements with his sidemen.
Lennie detested “commercial” music, and during the last few decades of his life, he preferred to play only privately in his own studio. During his prime, Tristano had a devoted following, who were taught with a strict regimen. Two of his mentored students, alto saxophonist, Lee Konitz and tenor saxist, Warne Marsh, were featured on his most well known recordings. They were instructed to “play without fixed chord progressions, time signatures, or specific tempo. The only planned structure was the order of their entrance, and a time limit of two to three minutes, to accommodate the limits of a 78 rpm record. They were to simply improvise over what the other band members were playing.”
As a result of childhood glaucoma, Lennie went blind by the time he turned ten years old. After college in Chicago, he spent time in New York City during early bop years with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Max Roach. Parker was impressed with his independent talents. (Tristano wrote “Requiem” to honor Bird after his passing).
Lennie had already begun teaching by the late 40’s.
The first recording of Tristano was an early side in 1949 with Lee Konitz on one of the first Prestige label issues. As a leader, Tristano’s recorded output is fairly spotty, with just a few major label releases. This may have been because his appeal was often highest with other musicians, and less appealing with the general public for which his stylings were not yet in vogue. He was truly “ a fish out of water,” as the beginning of the avant garde (“free”) playing was still several years away.
The boutique jazz box set label, Mosaic Records, has just partnered with Dot Time Records (for their first joint venture) in issuing a six CD box set of Tristano’s “personal” recordings. Tenor saxophonist, Lenny Popkin, who is a primary Tristano historian, working with Lennie’s daughter, Carol, has restored 74 recordings, which range from clubs, wire recordings, radio shots, a VOA Carnegie Hall date, as well as from Lennie’s own studio.
The recording quality ranges from some quite early (’40s), barely passable tracks, to some much higher quality recordings. The archival historical significance of this material outweighs the “distant” sound quality of the earliest included work. The liner notes from Popkin are a labor of love, and there are some nice black and white photos from the time period.
The six CDs cover solo piano, duos or trios with guitarist Billy Bauer, and bassists, Arnold Fishkin, Peter Ind, or Sonny Dallas. Drummers were either Al Levitt, Jeff Morton, or Nick Stabulas. The other tracks include Lee Konitz or Warne Marsh. The two saxophones with Tristano, are often the most interesting, as they highlight the advanced contrapuntal harmonies that Lennie brings out with his sidemen.
There seems to be a close mix of straight ahead jazz sessions, along with the open free quite advanced tracks. Lennie’s dazzling piano playing with long phrases, and double and triple time tempos are on full display throughout the entire set. The comparison to Art Tatum’s prodigious talents for piano wizardry is an apt description. Tristano expanded harmonies, while using unusual meters (7/4 or 11/8 triplets), and complex lines. The improvised counterpoint on his solo recordings (bass line on one hand, and rapid fire delivery with the other) is mind blowing, as is his pioneering use of overdubbing and tape manipulation as his career progressed.
The earliest material from the mid to late 40s (Disc 1) features Billy Bauer on guitar. Billy was fully in sync with Lennie ,and the two trade lines, with Tristano a generous partner, providing more than just “comping” during Bauer’s solos. The weakest sound quality of this set is here, due to the poor miking at the small clubs around Long Island.
Disc 2 is strictly solo recordings from Lennie’s home studio. On “Lennie’s Blues,” the pianist takes the blues idiom, and adds his own creative improvisational skills. I caught a little stride piano riff here. “Dusk” and “These Foolish Things” are a full testament to Tristano’s genius. He improvises on the fly with several lines intersecting.
Disc 3 features the Konitz and Marsh sextets in live performances recorded at The Orchid Room. Soldier Meyers, and Carnegie Hall. They are some of the first live completely “free” recordings. Lee and Warne improvise over Lennie’s lines strictly on intuition like tight rope walkers keeping their balance and relying on their wits. The two tracks from Carnegie Hall have the best fidelity. “You Go to My Head” has Konitz opening with tenderness, then Marsh plays a counter melody, before Lennie steps us for an adventurous solo. “Sax of a Kind” has both Lee and Warne in a contrapuntal symbiotic “duel.”
The fourth disc has Lennie in duos and trios with bassists, Sonny Dallas or Peter Ind, and drummers Levitt, Wayburn, or Stabulas. Here you will find the most “straight ahead” playing, and it is welcoming. Lennie can swing nicely, and in the pocket with the rhythm section. It’s a mixture of slow tempo standards, as well as a few burners for good measure.
Disc 5 finds Lennie with one of his favorite bassists, Sonny Dallas. On “Melancholy Up” there is a stunning triple time passage, both lyrical and almost seemingly effortless in Lennie’s hands. Another highlight is “You Go to My Head,” where Dallas shines.
The final disc (#6) may be the most historically significant CD. Recorded both at Lennie’s house (1948), as well as at the well known Half Note Club in NYC (1962), we have both Dallas and Stabulas at the Half Note; and Konitz and Marsh early on at Lennie’s, and then 14 years later at the club in New York.
The opening seven tracks are a 20 minute free jazz quartet session that was recorded by Billy Bauer. Lennie puts them through an intuitive work out that was well advanced in technique for 1948. The remaining seven tracks are split between the rhythm section and the quartet with Marsh and Konitz. As the ultimate “sweetener” this box set ends with the addition of Zoot Sims(!) on tenor, on a marvelous rendition of “How Deep is the Ocean.” Sims brings out a sensuous blues vibe in the group, and the inspired blowing puts a bow on this package.
For fans of the inimitable Lennie Tristano, this box set is a festival of treats, highlighting the “well ahead of his time” talents of Lennie Tristano.
Disc 1: Trio with Billy Bauer-Live Performances
Day and Night
Three for Tea
Depend on Me
Under Your Spell
Disc 2: Solo Piano
These Foolish Things
Call It Love
C Minor Fantasy
When Your Lover Has Gone
Studio Time Medley
Palo Alto Days
Thursday Suite: Sonnet, Swing Time, Love Chords
Disc 3: Sextet Live Performances
Ice Cream Konitz
You Go to My Head
Sax of a Kind
Disc 4: Trio Sessions
My Melancholy Baby
That Trading Feeling
You Go to My Head
There Will Never Be Another You
Disc 5: Duos and Trios with Sonny Dallas
You Go to My Head
I Should Care
Disc 6: 1948 Free Session / Live at the Half Note
(At Half Note)
Swingin’ at the Half Note
How Deep is the Ocean