Friday, March 5, 2010

Theory & Eccentricity: Lennie Tristano

Anyone reading this blog should understand that I write about jazz with no kind of authority.  I have only dipped into writings about jazz.   I cannot play the music or even read music.  I have half an idea what a quarter note is.  Compare me to a sports writer and I would be not even a particularly well informed amateur.  I just love the music and enjoy thinking about it and writing about it.  

I mention this because it occurs to me that sometimes genius and virtuosity get in the way of genius and virtuosity.  Piano player Lennie Tristano may be a case in point.  Tristano was one of the more intellectual of jazz geniuses.  He devoted most of his life to teaching about jazz.  His structured, theoretical approach attracted a number of students whose devotion makes them seem rather like disciples.  Horn men Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh are the most notable.  Tristano recorded with Konitz and Marsh, but his recordings are very sparse.  He seems to have had a profound distrust of the music industry. 

I can hardly complain about someone who spent his time teaching something rather than practicing it.  I am political theorist!  However, Tristano's few recordings are delicious and it makes one wish fervently that he had done more.  The only two that are readily available are Intuition, with Warne Marsh, and Lennie Tristano/The New Tristano

Here is a sample from the latter.  It is uncharacteristic in so far as it has a strong bluesy feel.  Tristano apparently taught his students to avoid emotion in their playing in favor of a strict attention to musical patterns.  I ask: whatever are the patterns for?  Here is what they are for.  
Lennie Tristano/Requiem (1954)
Tristano recorded in his home studio, and was a pioneer in overdubbing.  Next is a sample from the same disc, this one recorded at the "The Sing-Song Room, Confucius Restaurant".  You gotta love that venue.  Konitz plays alto, Gene Ramey bass, and the great Art Taylor beats the skins.  
Lennie Tristano Quartet/These foolish thing (1955)
 Finally, here is a piece from Intuition.  It is commonly cited as one of the first examples of free jazz.  The musicians play without any score or melody; they just play.  Of course, that's misleading.  It is hard to begin from scratch.  Ask anyone who has tried to do zazen.  But it is interesting for that very reason.  Just playing means that all the melodies already written into the synapses become the guides.  
Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh/Intuition (1949)
From the Jazz Discography Project: Lee Konitz (as) Warne Marsh (ts) Billy Bauer (g) Arnold Fishkin (b) Denzil Best (d ).  

Okay, that's enough for tonight. If you are still reading, post me a comment. 

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