Lennie Tristano, c. August 1947
|Birth name||Leonard Joseph Tristano|
March 19, 1919|
|Died||November 18, 1978
New York City, New York
|Genres||Cool jazz, bebop, post bop, avant-garde jazz|
|Occupations||Pianist, composer, music teacher|
|Associated acts||Lee Konitz
Leonard Joseph Tristano (19 March 1919 – 18 November 1978) was a jazz pianist, composer and teacher of jazz improvisation. He performed in the cool jazz, bebop, post bop and avant-garde jazz genres. He remains a somewhat overlooked figure in jazz history, but his originality and work as an improviser have long been appreciated by knowledgeable jazz fans. In addition, his work as a jazz educator meant that he has exerted a substantial influence on jazz through figures such as Lee Konitz and Bill Evans.
Tristano was born in Chicago into an Italian immigrant family from Aversa. At six years of age he suffered an attack of the measles. His eyesight weakened at birth by influenza grew weaker. Adept at mathematics and placed in classes where finally he studied piano and music theory from pre-teen years, he graduated with a bachelor's degree from his home town's American Conservatory of Music in 1943.
Tristano's interest in jazz inspired a move to New York City in 1946. His advanced grasp of harmony pushed his music beyond even the complexities of the contemporary bebop movement, though Tristano was always explicit about acknowledging his enormous debt to Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. Other key ingredients in his style were Nat King Cole and Art Tatum, influences most audible in his early drummerless trio recordings. Though he and his followers remained at something of a slant to mainstream bebop, Tristano did on occasion play and record with bebop's preeminent figures such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and he was a pallbearer at Parker's funeral. The "Tristano school" has often been contrasted with bebop, by being labelled "cool jazz", though this risks lumping his music in with unrelated styles like the West Coast cool jazz of the 1950s.
Among Tristano's most important earlier recordings was a 1949 sextet session with his students, saxophone players Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. After recording a number of conventionally structured compositions, Tristano had the group record "Intuition" and "Digression". Both pieces were completely improvised, with no prearranged melody, harmony or rhythm. These two songs are often cited as the first recorded examples of free jazz or free improvisation.
His 1953 recording "Descent into the Maelstrom" is especially significant: an experiment in overdubbing which in its harsh atonality anticipates the much later work of players like Cecil Taylor and Borah Bergman (who specifically mentioned the piece as an important influence on his work).
Tristano released two important albums on Atlantic Records, which remain his best-known work. Lennie Tristano, from 1955, is famous for including innovative experiments with overdubbing ("Requiem" and "Turkish Mambo") and altered tape-speed ("Line Up" and "East 32nd"). The second side is a straightforward club gig in the company of Lee Konitz. "Requiem", a tribute to the late Charlie Parker, is notable for its deep blues feeling – a style not usually associated with Tristano. However, perhaps the most significant work lies in the composition "Line Up", a spiralling linear improvisation based on the changes to "All of Me".
The New Tristano (1962) remains a landmark in solo jazz piano. Though on this occasion no overdubbing was used, the music is just as densely conceived, especially the classic "G Minor Complex", an improvisation on the changes of "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To". Tristano's mimicking of a jazz bassist's accompaniment with his left hand on these recordings is distinctive and often imitated. The combination of this line with the dazzling line-spinning of his right hand also gives the music a contrapuntal flavour explicitly paying homage to Bach.
Tristano's distrust of jazz record labels and increasingly infrequent public performances meant that his recordings are comparatively scarce, and many of them are concert recordings of very variable fidelity. Some of his live performances were recorded and have been released, including those from the Half Note Club in New York from the 1950s, and concerts in Europe from the 1960s. He was one of the first musicians to start his own record label, Jazz Records, which is still in existence and is run by his daughter, the drummer Carol Tristano. The label Inner City released a compilation of various Tristano recordings, Descent into the Maelstrom.
By the mid-1950s, Tristano focused his energies more on music education. He can be regarded as one of the first jazz teachers to teach jazz in a structured way, beginning in the late 1940s and continuing to his death in 1978.
Tristano approached each student individually and hence lessons were structured to meet the needs of each individual; however, each student was challenged in ways that would allow the student to find and express their own musical feelings, or style.
Tristano would often have his students learn to sing and play the improvised solos by some of best-known names in jazz, including Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. Solos were often learned by first playing them along with the original recording, from a phonograph record or magnetic audio tape, at half the normal speed, hence the pitch would drop by one octave. Eventually the student would learn the solo at normal speed. Tristano stressed that the student was not learning to imitate the artist, but rather should use the experience to gain insight into the musical feeling conveyed by the artist.
One of the key teaching tools used by Tristano was the metronome. In practicing fundamentals such as scales, the student would set the metronome at or near to its slowest setting and play the scales and arpeggios in a legato fashion covering the full range of their instrument with very even dynamics. Developing a strong awareness of the beat was a key element of his teaching philosophy.
A book by bassist Peter Ind, Jazz Visions: Lennie Tristano and His Legacy, was released in October 2005. The book documents and discusses Tristano's contributions to jazz music.
- Ind, Peter (2005). Jazz Visions:Lennie Tristano and his legacy. Equinox. p. 56. ISBN 978-1-84553-281-9.
- Berendt, Joachim (1976). The Jazz Book. Paladin. p. 20.
- Harrison, Max (1991). A Jazz Retrospect. Quartet. p. 70. ISBN 0-7043-0144-X.
- Yanow, Scott. "Descent into the Maelstrom". Allmusic. Retrieved 2010-09-15.
- Jurek, Thom. "Lennie Tristano Collectables". Allmusic. Retrieved 2010-09-15.
- Ind, p63
- Coltrane, Mingus, Tristano Recordings Honored by Grammy Hall of Fame: Louis Jordan, James Brown, Ray Charles also awarded, JazzTimes, By Jeff Tamarkin, 11/21/12 
- The Lennie Tristano Experience
- New Artists Records
- Jazz Records
- Lennie Tristano Symposium collection (Ignore the apology and scroll down to "Events")
- "Twelve Essential Lennie Tristano Tracks" by Ted Gioia (Jazz.com)