Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Greenberg Recommends — Lennie Tristano

It was as a result of my lessons with Lee Konitz that I was first exposed to the music of Lennie Tristano (as well as Tristano’s teaching method, which Konitz employed pretty much verbatim). Along with my discovery of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”, Tristano’s compositions and style of playing was the great musical revelation of my late teens. To repeat an assertion made in my previous post, along with J. S. Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Béla Bartók, Lennie Tristano is my single greatest influence as a pianist and composer.

Leonard Joseph Tristano was born in Chicago on March 19, 1919 and died on November 18, 1978. Mention his name to most jazz fans (to say nothing for most concert musicians) and you will draw a blank. Part of that is Tristano’s fault; though he complained endlessly about his lack of recognition, he hardly ever played in public and did next-to-nothing to create a rapport with a fan base. Blind since childhood and rather thorny of temperament, he instead devoted himself to his teaching, to practicing, and, later in his life, making recordings in his home studio.

We are told that “unfortunately, Tristano’s esoteric style of playing and improving often confused and even irritated ordinary listeners.” Yes, and so did Johann Sebastian Bach’s keyboard playing and improvisations. The implication, that “esoterica” (and its presumed lack of general appeal) is somehow a bad thing (“unfortunate”) is, of course, completely idiotic. If it took a couple of generations for listeners to come to appreciate the beauty, majesty, virtuosity and incredible compositional integrity of Bach’s keyboard music, so be it. And if Lennie Tristano’s music isn’t for everybody, so be it as well.

I would prefer to put it this way. Tristano was an utterly uncompromising composer and pianist whose music departed from a language formed by bebop and went it’s own way, out-bopping most bebop in terms of its linear intensity and harmonic complexity.

The comparison made above between Bach and Tristano is in truth extremely apt. Like so much of Bach’s music, Tristano’s is about counterpoint, in which extraordinary walking bass lines played by Tristano’s left hand underpin metrically shifting lines in the right hand. Like Bach’s music, Tristano’s harmonic language is extremely sophisticated, particularly in its handling of dissonance. Like Bach’s music (and, we would rightly hazard, his improvisations), Tristano’s improvisations display an extraordinary degree of structural integrity and design. Tristano doesn’t just blow through chord changes; no, he builds and develops and intensifies. His solos are closer to “spontaneous compositions” than any others I know. On top of everything else, Tristano’s playing swings like nobody’s business. (I love that phrase “like nobody’s business”, even though I’m not exactly sure what it means. When my then twenty year-old daughter Rachel visited Esterháza, the Esterhazy family castle in Hungary where Josef Haydn lived and worked for decades, she enthusiastically described it as “shabby chic like nobody’s business”, the best application of the phrase I have yet to hear.)

A video is worth ten-thousand words (though admittedly I’ve only written just under 600 here). The following comes from a concert performance in Copenhagen’s Tivoli Recital Hall, recorded in 1965. Tristano plays ”Tangerine” by Victor Schertzinger and Johnny Mercer (1941). He sits high at the piano and plays with relatively flattened fingers. While listening/watching, be aware of the wonderful architecture of the solo, the variety of pianistic textures Tristano employs, and the fact that this music swings like nobody’s business!