Jazz music, news and views

Thursday, November 09, 2006


Rifftides reminds us to check out the Lennie Tristano Festival, a marathon broadcast on WKCR, 89.9 FM from Columbia University. Be sure you tune in to hear Tristano's complete recordings and interviews round-the-clock through Saturday at noon.

Tristano, an innovative figure discussed (and debated) in his own time, is underappreciated today. We often associate his name with the "cool" aesthetic, a kind of airy, detached manner of performance, which, contrary to its connotations is hardly passionless. In fact, the oft-mentioned complexity of his lines, phrasing and polyrhythms required deep involvement, and his fellow improvisers followed suit (Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh and Billy Bauer are his most notable sidemen and disciples). The seeming aimlessness of Tristano's playing incited the following commentary from critic Martin Williams during a listening exam at the Lenox School of Jazz (from John Gennari's Blowin' Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics
Mostly fatuous piano doodlings to me -- a man swimming around under water with his eyes shut... No melodic or rhythmic imagination... All harmonic but not arpeggios -- pseudo-melodies. Bauer (not a jazzman, I think) on guitar pleasant and empty. Typical suspended ending -- off into nothing (but from nothing and through nothing, too).
True, one would not often hear the arpeggios of the beboppers like Bird and Diz in Tristano's playing, though Tristano did play with them on some recordings. His improvisations tended more towards lengthy linear statements. They may have been "pseudo-melodies," but Tristano was never lack for imagination. His approach and feel was relaxed, which was due to his intuitive playing rather than nonchalance. Unpredictable does not necessarily mean arbitrary, and "cool" does not necessarily mean cold. (On another note, the "eyes shut" comment was either highly coincidental or malicious. Tristano was blind.)

Saxmen Gary Foster and Mark Turner are a couple Tristano-admirers who come to mind most readily to today's listeners, but shades of Tristano can be heard in his piano confreres: Herbie Hancock's single-note lines (from his days with Miles Davis's second quintet) as well as some of his chords; Bill Evans's restrained but lush voicings; Dave Brubeck's penchant for odd phrasing, meter and rhythmic superimpositions. Pianist Alan Broadbent is a former student of Tristano's and while Broadbent's musical vision is certainly different, his teacher's presence is felt now and again in his playing today.

Hearing Tristano's own music, of course, is the best way to understand his inventions. I'd recommend the compilations Intuition and Lennie Tristano/The New Tristano, but tune in to WKCR's special as well (see their schedule), and view a video from a 1965 performance in Berlin. You can hear some familiar elements like walking left-hand bass lines and swing feel, but his ability to draw new ideas out of himself is uncanny. Brief but inspiring.

Check out:
- The Lennie Tristano Website
- Peter Ind's book, Jazz Visions: Lennie Tristano and His Legacy


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