Lennie Tristano: Cool Reputation, Hot Jazz

Feb 4, 2015

Lennie Tristano had a cool, egghead reputation — Time called him the "Schoenberg of Jazz" — but he could play pretty hot. Fresh Air jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a newly released 1951 live recording by the pianist's sextet at Chicago's Blue Note club.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. A 1951 live nightclub recording by pianist Lenny Tristano's sextet at Chicago's Blue Note club has been released for the first time. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says, Tristano had a cool, egghead reputation. That same year, Time magazine called him the Schoenberg of jazz. But Kevin says he could play pretty hot. Here's Kevin's review.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LENNY TRISTANO: We'd like to play "Sax Of A Kind."

(SOUNDBITE OF LENNY TRISTANO SEXTET SONG, "SAX OF A KIND")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Lennie Tristano's sextet with Willie Dennis on trombone in 1951. "Sax Of A Kind" is by band saxophonists and Tristano star pupils, Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. Lennie told them to write lines that sounded like how they wanted to play - in their case, fast and fleet, with plenty of complications, like their teacher. When Tristano solos on piano, his right hand sings like a horn, or jumps into hyperspeed, or hints at Bach keyboard inventions. But he also knows piano is a percussion instrument.

(SOUNDBITE OF LENNY TRISTANO SEXTET SONG, "ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE")

WHITEHEAD: Funny to hear Tristano shrink into the background whenever the horns speak up - he didn't like a rhythm section to upstage a soloist. This is from the nightclub recording "Chicago April 1951," on two CDs from the Uptown label. As ever, Tristano used the chords to familiar pop tunes as grist for improvisation; here they improvise a little counterpoint too, though not in the Bach style. Dave Brubeck once trashed Tristano's casual approach to such interplay, and for sure this sextet's free-for-alls are less tidy than Brubeck counterpoint. This is from "All The Things You Are."

(SOUNDBITE OF LENNY TRISTANO SEXTET SONG, "ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE")

WHITEHEAD: The Tristano gang's cool reputation owes a lot to his thoughtful tenor saxophonist, Warne Marsh. His prime inspiration was Lester Young, the epitome of cool, who could make a few well-chosen notes swing like crazy. Marsh could do that, too. Here he takes off from his own soloistic written lines.

(SOUNDBITE OF LENNY TRISTANO SEXTET SONG, "I CAN'T BELIEVE THAT YOU'RE IN LOVE WITH ME VARIATIONS")

WHITEHEAD: Warne Marsh made an excellent fit with alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, who’s still out there exploring the same tunes 64 years later. Marsh is great, but Konitz moves me more. In 1951 he had his partner's unflappable cool, but his tone had more bite - had some of that Charlie Parker cry in it. It still does.

(SOUNDBITE OF LENNY TRISTANO SEXTET SONG, "I'LL REMEMBER APRIL")

WHITEHEAD: All those standard chord progressions and the string-of-solos format get confining after a while; you wish they'd break up the routines a bit. Lee Konitz has spoken of Tristano gigs where the counterpoint would break into free improvisation sometimes. They don’t get up to that here, but we'll take what we do get - Tristano and company narrowly focused and burning bright - jazz laser beams.

(SOUNDBITE OF LENNY TRISTANO SEXTET SONG, "I'LL REMEMBER APRIL")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point Of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Chicago April 1951," the live nightclub recording by pianist Lennie Tristano's sextet, released for the first time on the Uptown label. For those of us who are fans of "Breaking Bad" and have been waiting for the spinoff "Better Call Saul," the wait is about to end. Coming up, our TV critic David Bianculli reviews the premiere. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.