Jazz pianist Lennie Tristano died on Long Island in 1978 at the age of 58; but he'd withdrawn years before into a self-imposed semi-isolation that was punctured regularly by the visits of the many jazz musicians, professional and amateur, whom he taught and tutored in improvisation. They included most famously saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, both celebrated along with Tristano himself in The Complete Atlantic Recordings of Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz & Warne Marsh, a new six-disc set issued by Mosaic Records.
Tristano was the last of the hipsters, a musician once told me admiringly, someone "too cool to go out." He was never disengaged. A friend of mine went to Tristano for a piano lesson, and found the blind pianist practicing scales at impossible tempos while listening to a book on tape, with the tape set at double time, because he found the reading too slow. The narrator sounded like a castrato. Later they talked genially and Tristano shared a turkey sandwich.
In his last decades, Tristano was best known as a teacher who played a radically individual kind of bebop while encouraging his students to memorize solos by swing-era stars like Billie Holiday and Lester Young, as well as Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong. As a teacher, he focused on melody, not the bare bones of the written melodies, but the infinitely detailed expressiveness one finds in the greatest improvisations. Learn that in even one chorus by Billie Holiday, he implied, and you will know something essential about the heart of jazz. And yet he kept practicing his scales.
He was a complex man, a white hipster who emerged in the postwar bebop era with his own take on what the new music meant. He admired the virtuoso pianist Art Tatum, the elegant swing pianist Teddy Wilson, and the bebop piano, with its startling accents and reliance on powerfully played left-hand lines, of Bud Powell. But Tristano's models also included the saxophonists. He played long-lined, subtly accented solos on standards that drew on Lester Young. Instead of Young's insouciance, his laid-back approach to swing, Tristano substituted an almost compulsive-sounding insistence. He was peculiarly free with rhythm; to ensure that freedom, he hired drummers who would stay in the background, often playing on brushes. This was at a time when most bebop percussionists were dropping bombs and playing explosive accents on snare as well.
Tristano's early records included 1949's Wow, whose chorus for two horns is impossibly fast and yet cleanly played by Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz. Tristano believed in precision, wherever it was possible, but he also recorded several completely free group improvisations in 1949.
The Atlantic recordings collected on the new box all came later, between 1955 and 1961: They include 21 tracks by the Tristano quartet featuring Konitz, these the last surviving recordings of the band's famous gigs at the Confucius Restaurant in Manhattan; several solo and trio dates by Tristano; and projects that Konitz and Marsh did on their own. Mosaic has assembled the music that was found on eight separate LPs and has added four previously unissued cuts.
By the mid-'50s, Tristano's playing no longer seemed so startling, but he managed to remain controversial. On the LP Lennie Tristano, he overdubbed the solo on "C Minor Complex," supposedly raising it an octave by speeding up the tape. Some critics cried foul. And yet, listening to the relentless, dark-toned walking bass of this tune, and the constantly inventive right-hand lines, one realizes that trickery has nothing to do with this music. Instead we find an austere approach to melody and a purist's idea of improvisation.
Tristano recorded this session at home: When this and other numbers came out, he had carefully faded the tune away at the point when he felt the improvisation was no longer interesting. That's true even of the touching blues, called simply "Requiem," recorded several months after the death of Charlie Parker. It starts disturbingly, with a couple of resonant chords that don't seem to lead in any particular direction. Eventually Tristano slides into a deep-felt, almost country-sounding blues, as if he were finally able to organize his initial shock and express his grief.
Tristano might play on one number Bud Powell-ish right-hand lines, but he has mastered other techniques as well, including block chords. On "You Don't Know What Love Is," he plays two-handed chords that seem to dance and then suddenly thicken and darken as if in horror at their own frivolity. He moves from heavy chords to a walking bass and back again, and he changes rhythms and tempos with casual ease. The improvised "Turkish Mambo," annotator Larry Kart points out, "shifts from 7/8 to 7/4, 5/8 to 5/4, and 3/8 to 4/4." It seems hardly necessary to point out that the piece is not a mambo, nor does it sound Turkish.
Tristano's mates here, Konitz and Marsh, are forever linked in jazz history. (Ruefully, perhaps: By the end of Marsh's career -- he died in 1987 -- they weren't getting along.) Yet they sound different. Alto saxophonist Konitz plays with a thoughtful lyricism and tart tone, able to express yearning and bittersweet irony simultaneously. By the mid-'50s, he was teaching himself to play the melodies of the best standards virtually as a singer might render them, albeit a singer with a wry sense of humor. He was a forward-looking player with a repertoire that included chestnuts other bopsters wouldn't touch, like "Melancholy Baby," and "Just Squeeze Me." Konitz can be heard here with Tristano, and on three of his greatest records as a leader: Lee Konitz Inside Hi-Fi, The Real Konitz, and Worthwhile Konitz, previously issued only in Japan. One hears his new preoccupation in the touching-ly straightforward way he plays Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain."
Marsh is a more perplexing figure. He plays tenor with a vulnerable, shyly garbled tone that seems to come from his throat as much as from his saxophone. He's the most elusive of the three, a Lester Young-derived player whose lines seem to push at rhythms and limn melodies chastely. When on the last disc here he plays Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite," he pokes out the melody quietly in a series of short statements, articulating every phrase with little accents that, in the subdued context, sound almost like squawks. He's a melodist, but hardly a romantic. The improvisation that follows is based on short phrases, logically linked, but distinct, as if he were afraid of falling into the cliches of swing. There was nothing cliched about him. It's hard to imagine anyone playing "Melancholy Baby" with less swagger. And yet he had a sense of humor as well: One of his tunes is "Background Music," a self-deprecating title that reflects the atmosphere of many clubs.
All three of these jazzmen have been revered for decades by other musicians. Not even Konitz, who survives and plays as expressively as ever, has received much of the attention, let alone the adulation, of the general public. They are thought, perhaps, to be too rigorous, too intellectual, too guarded in their expressions. They are serious, all right, but there's wit and charm here as well. And joy -- listen to Marsh and Konitz play "Topsy." While celebrating their common hero Lester Young, they bounce off each other like schoolchildren out on recess. Tristano himself may never rise to that level of effervescence, but he never played a note he didn't mean, and you hear soul as well as body in the work reissued here.