Tuesday, April 26, 2022

CD Box Review: Lennie Tristano - Personal Recordings 1946-1970

Lennie Tristano
Personal Recordings 1946-1970

Not long ago I was listening to another Mosaic set, their massive collection of Charlie Parker recordings made by Bird fanatic Dean Benedetti. For anyone who doesn't recall, that box consists of nothing but Parker alto solos - in other words, incomplete songs - recorded in clubs with extremely lo-fi means, paper recorders and record cutters. Some of it sounds awful, some of it sounds not bad. 

One definitely has to be in the right frame of mind of enjoy the set. (The late Phil Schaap's detailed notes helps fire up the obsessive minds by setting the scene, musically and historically.) But what got my ears that day was to imagine what it might have sounded like right in the room when Parker was playing, thinking past the limited recording to imagine witnessing those revolutionary lines emanating from his horn. Even without the whole performance, you come away with an appreciation for how great Bird was.

Charlie Parker loved Lennie Tristano and the feeling was mutual. They understood each other. While the pianist's career was markedly different from his saxophone colleague, a similar feeling of history can be felt with Personal Recordings 1946-1970. The music on these six discs was never intended to be released. The varying sound quality and the similarity between tracks in some sessions bear this out. They were merely recorded to document performances, maybe to offer reference or personal critiques during playback. Though he played in very conventional jazz situations (relatively speaking), a greater appreciation of Tristano's technique comes with deep listens rather than casual ones. One inside the music, things get pretty fascinating.

On the subject of "conventional," Tristano preferred rhythm sections that kept strict time, rather than swinging hard. In some ways it made perfect sense, giving the pianist the chance to lift off in whatever rhythmic grouping that struck him. Bassists like Arnold Fishkin, Peter Ind and Sonny Dallas (Pittsburgh's own!) hold the tempo down with some steady walking, often without the help of a drummer. 

Disc One features a series of live recordings with guitarist Billy Bauer. Fishkin appears on many of them, though the bassist is unknown on several tracks. The performances, at least some of them coming from wire recordings, vary widely in sound quality. Many have a lot of hiss, and several are marked by distracting quick fades that fade back up seconds later. Regardless, we're dropped in immediately into the creative mind of a pianist who seems like he could spin endless variations on some familiar chord sequences. "Surrender" finds Tristano getting a little exotic. "Three for Tea" (there are many title variations on classics, with changes under the surface offering hints) finds Butler on equal ground with the pianist. 

Disc two presents the pianist on his own, mostly in his home studio. The exception is the all-too-brief "Spectrum" recorded with overdubs by Rudy Van Gelder. Here, upper register lines cascade over a melody, with ideas that were pretty advanced for 1952. Several of the other tracks sound rather similar on the surface, with Tristano in the same key (probably C) walking at various paces in the left hand. His right hand gets pretty rich melodically and each track has a lot going for it. "Studio Time Melody" breaks away from this standard, adding an almost classical touch while maintaining plenty of jazz edge. These recordings incorporate the span of time listed in the album title, including the few tracks made as late as 1970. 

Disc three returns to the live setting from 1949 and 1950. Tristano and Bauer are joined by Lee Konitz (alto saxophone), Warne Marsh (tenor saxophone), Jeff Morton (drums) and either Fishkin or Joe Shulman (bass). This was a fertile period for everyone involved, coming right around the time that Konitz recorded several tracks for Prestige, many of which appear here: "Ice Cream Konitz," "Sound-Lee," "Fishin' Around" among them. It also includes a two-minute track titled "Live Free" in which the sextet does actually play freely before eventually shifting into a chordless tempo. (Around this time, Tristano also recorded "Intuition" and "Digression," the first document of jazz musicians playing free.) Aside from what sounds like varying pitch on "Ice Cream Konitz" and the multiple fades that make "Band Excerpt" a little frustrating, this is arguably the strongest music in the set. Over the steady rhythms, the horns, piano and guitar spin a steady web of melodic lines that are fascinating. 

Disc four features trios with Ind and either Tom Wayburn or Al Levitt on drums in recordings from the mid ''50s. While the sonic contrasts of the horns is missed after the last disc, this session benefits from the improved sound quality of Tristano's recording in his 32nd Street studio. In this setting, Ind gets some time to solo in addition to the leader, with "Oceans Deep" and "You Go To My Head" proving him to be an economical soloist who makes it count. Dallas also does a lot of walking on Disc five, but he gets a few opportunities to stretch out as well. "You Got To My Head" was clearly a favorite vehicle for Tristano, as this set features its third appearance.

Disc six begins with a session from Tristano's Hollis, New York home with Konitz, Bauer and Marsh. Recorded in 1948, it features seven tracks of free playing. Although things definitely sound loose and unstructured, each of the brief pieces (only two last more than three minutes) sound as if a tonal center is established, making them nothing like the adventures that Cecil Taylor or Ornette Coleman would take in the following decades. Sometimes things sound more like examples of musical counterpoint as the group stays fairly neat, never stepping on any toes and ending neatly. But each player clearly relishes the freedom, knowing exactly what direction they'd like to take, and balancing those choices with the contributions of everyone else.

The second half of the final disc takes it back to the clubs for a few songs with Dallas and drummer Nick Stabulas. The energy that Tristano puts forth in "Smiling Groove" almost seems like it has been brewing throughout the entire box set, reaching a climax. He thunders on his keys, feeling even more inspired to add some dynamics range that aren't always there in earlier tracks. The set closes 10-minute reading of "How Deep Is the Ocean" that brings Konitz back, along with tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims, for a solid send-off. Konitz's tone really approximates Bird, but the way he utilizes pauses during his solo proves how he took Tristano's lessons to heart to find his own voice.

Tristano - and Konitz as well - improvises in a way that's often been called "cerebral," which ruffles the feathers of the pianist's followers. Taken as an insult, it's interpreted to mean that Tristano's approach to the piano is more about technique than feeling. I've always felt that "cerebral" implies deep thought, which results in engrossing solos, which is exactly what comes across on this set. The tapes might have been rolling, but the pianist wasn't concerned with recording history. He was simply working things out, or playing for the people. It was swung but it had a lot of depth, so calling it "cerebral" isn't a crime.

Lenny Popkin's liner notes go a long way towards saluting the pianist. While he is justified in the work, as Tristano is misunderstood to this day,  he sometimes goes pretty far on the defensive side, with continual references to the "Intuition" and "Digression" sessions, and how they predated all the other free jazz recordings.  He also emphatically states that Konitz and Marsh were not disciples of Tristano. "In fact, they are two distinct originals," he says. That's true, but the difference seems to be a more about semantics than cold hard facts.

Popkin, who played tenor with Tristano, also derides critics who have reviewed Tristano albums in the past, saying they follow a particular formula that says very little about the music. Hopefully this review doesn't include the same oversight but, as one of my teachers once told me, you can't write everything. 

The truly unique artists are often misunderstood. Like the Benedetti box  - with much better sound -  Personal Recordings definitely offers greater insight into this player who fell victim to that. Time for new discoveries.

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