© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Nat Hentoff is right about one thing, when you talk with Lennie Tristano as he did in the following interview which appeared in the May 16, 1956 edition of Downbeat, Lennie certainly stimulates the way you think about and listen to Jazz.
Five areas are of particular concern to Lennie as he talks to Nat about the Jazz scene in mid-20th century New York City: the legitimacy of multi-taping, the onerous presence of competition amongst musicians, the overuse of echo in recordings, rhythm sections that impede the flow of the music and growing inability of musicians to play together.
Given our recent feature on overdubbing and superimposition involving the pianist Bill Evans and the photographer Erwin Blumenfeld, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it might be interesting to pursue some aspects of that thread from the vantage point of Lennie Tristano’s talk with Nat Hentoff.
An implied assumption in Lennie’s chat with Nat is how central Jazz was in the popular culture of the time as Rock ‘n Roll had not as yet become a factor and Country and Western and Folk Music were still regionalized phenomena at best.
At the time of this interview in 1956, Jazz still mattered.
© - Nat Hentoff/Downbeat, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“After he made coffee, Lennie Tristano sat and talked in his studio late one afternoon. Except for a small lamp that gave a bare minimum of light by which to scrawl notes, the studio was dark. The room was also curiously peaceful as if it were used to long periods of silence as well as music, and relatively unused to loud, hurried anxiety.
Usually after an interview, I piece together a mosaic of quotes into a monologue that has more continuity than any real conversation short of a visiting clergyman's can really have. This time I decided not to splice the talk as much as usual, and to record instead what an actual conversation with Tristano is like.
I've talked with many people in line of assignments and after hours, and I am rarely as stimulated as by a talk with Tristano. Like the writings of Andre Hodeir, the ideas of Tristano awaken the kind of attention that moves a mind to think for itself. Whether one agrees with all of Lennie's points or not, one is always aware that unusually probing points are being made.
Lennie's Atlantic LP [#1224 entitled Tristano] had recently been released, his first recording in some four years. It had immediately detonated controversy, a phenomenon hardly new to Tristano activities. While there was nearly unanimous agreement that the music was absorbing, there were strong objections in some quarters to Lennie's use of multiple taping on several of the tracks, and some suspected that in two of the numbers, the piano tape had also been speeded up. A similar multi-track controversy had been ignited by a Tristano single record a few years before.
"I remember," Lennie said, "that around 1952, when that last record came out—"Juju" and "Pass-Time"—there wasn't one review out of the five or so that the record received that mentioned that those two sides could possibly have been a result of multiple track recording. It was only six months or a year later that somebody got the idea it might be, and then the talk started. I never really told anybody whether it was or not.
"One of the people who got so hung up on the subject," Lennie continued with amused calm, "was Leonard Bernstein. He and Willie Kapell were over here one night, and Bernstein finally decided it was a multiple track recording. He couldn't stand to believe it wasn't. And then Kapell sat down at the piano and started playing Mozart 16 times faster than normal. Lee Konitz tried to save the situation earlier by telling them it was multi-track. But he didn't know for sure, either.
"The reason I mention this background for the present controversy"— Lennie became more animated—"is to illustrate one of the most surprising things prevalent in music today—the element of competition. It's true of the musicians and non-musicians. They can't just listen to the music. They have to compete with it. If it's not in terms of speed—whether they can play as fast as the record—then it's in terms of finding out what the tune is. It's ridiculous. You can't hear music if you're not able to sit back and listen a few times, just listen. Then, if you can do that, maybe the fourth or the 10th time, you can figure out what the tune is if you want to. It doesn't really matter, anyway. The music does.
"Getting back to an example of competition by speed," Lennie said, "there was a night I was playing at Birdland, and I was playing something pretty frantic. A boy was standing at the bar—he was a pianist—and as he watched me, his hand got paralyzed. He dropped the glass he was holding, and his hand was still paralyzed a half hour later. That's kinesthetic competition, and it's a pitiful commentary on this urge to compete. Some people are affected physically another way. I've seen them get sick and have to leave the room. It gets them in the stomach. They get scared and have to cut out. They can't just enjoy the music; they listen to see if they can do it.
"It's not just me that some people react to that way," Tristano emphasized. "Many piano players, when Bud was playing great, couldn't stand to listen. They gave up, some of them, and became like slaves, like worshippers. That's why the worshipper has to elevate the artist he worships to such a height. If they remove this particular artist from any type of human contact, they feel they no longer have to compete with him. You don't have to compare yourself with God. It's not as if they had kept him on earth, which is where he belongs.
"Another aspect of this whole thing," Lennie reflected, "is the reaction of a lot of people who have played with me. They can't stand to have me pause in my line. The longer I pause, the tenser they get. Once at a concert in Toronto, I'd stopped for 16 bars. The time was going on and I could feel the drummer get tenser and tenser. Finally I hit one chord, and it was as if I'd set off an explosion. He hit everything on that drum set he could, all at once. The drums were all over the stage. It's like he was waiting for me to pounce on him.
"My audience sometimes reacts the same way when I pause. They get tense. What's Lennie going to do now? What's Lennie going to hit us with next? Instead of listening, they're worrying."
The conversation returned to the new LP. According to Barry Ulanov's notes on the set, "Lennie has fooled with the tapes of 'East Thirty-Second' and 'Line Up,' adjusting the bass lines Peter Ind (on bass) and Jeff Morton (on drums) prepared for him to the piano lines he has superimposed on them." Barry went on to mention the paired piano lines in "Requiem" and "the three lines played—and recorded—one on top of the other in the 'Turkish Mambo'... one track proceeds from 7/8 to 7/4, another from 5/8 to 5/4, the last from 3/8 to 4/4."
"If I do a multiple-tape," Lennie said slowly with determination, "I don't feel I'm a phony thereby. Take the 'Turkish Mambo.' There is no way I could do it so that I could get the rhythms to go together the way I feel them. And as for playing on top of a tape of a rhythm section, that is only second-best admittedly. I'd rather do it 'live,' but this was the best substitute for what I wanted.
"If people want to think I speeded up the piano on 'East Thirty-Second' and 'Line Up,' I don't care. What I care about is that the result sounded good to me. I can't otherwise get that kind of balance on my piano because the section of the piano I was playing on is too similar to the bass sound. That's especially so on the piano I use because it's a big piano and the bass sound is very heavy. But, again, my point is that it's the music that matters."
One of the objections voiced to these particular tracks was that whatever Lennie did to the tape made his playing very fast. "It's really not that fast, though," Lennie said. "There are lots of recordings out there that are much faster. I understand some people say that making a record like the one I made isn't fair because I couldn't play the numbers that fast in a club. Well, I'll learn the record so I can play it at that tempo 'live.' But even as is, it's not that fast. Some people are being misled by the nature of what it feels and sounds like rather than by the tempo itself. The tempo, in most jazz joints, in fact, is faster than on the record. And the record was a little above A-flat. That may account for a little of the speed, too.
"Actually," Lennie said, "we manipulated other things electronically. Am I to be put down for adding a tape echo on the blues and adding a tremolo on the last chorus of that number? In essence, I feel exactly this. When I sit down to do something, I can hear and feel what I want. Instead of trying to have three or four people on hand so I don't have the 'stigma' of multi-track recording, there are some things I'd rather do myself because there are some things I want to do that others are not capable of doing with me.
"If someone objects," Lennie pointed out, "to, let's say, the sound on 'Line Up,' that's a matter of taste. But why not hear what's happening in the line to see if that's of any value, and why not hear what kind of feeling the performance has? I have absolutely no qualms about multi-tracking. This kind of thing happens all the time in the recording of classical music, for one example. Are we supposed to give up the typewriter because we've had the pencil so long? Or am I not to use the Telefunken mike and rely instead on a dirt old crystal mike? I'm sure other people have done a lot more multi-tracking than I have. There's nothing at all wrong, for another example, in a pianist recording both parts of a two-piano classical work. Why is it wrong when I do it?"
I mentioned at this point that a recorded case in point is the Heifetz recording on both parts of the Bach Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins (Victor LM 1051).
"Anyway," Lennie said, "I will continue to do anything that will produce on a record what I hear and feel."
The conversation then veered to the problem of recording itself. "Right now in jazz," Tristano came on strongly, "everything is being recorded with a lot of echo, with the illusion of a big room. Even if the recording is done close, the full impact doesn't come through. It may be that people don't want that direct an impact, maybe they prefer to have everything softened by the added echo and want to hear their music in a sweet, mushy context like Muzak. I'm not against reverberation as such, but this excess use of echo points to the fact that a lot of people can't really take jazz in its straight, natural form.
"A little echo is all right, but now it's no longer being used as an effect," Lennie went on. "Now it's the whole thing.
"As for the Atlantic LP, except for the tracks made at the Confucius, where you really couldn't get a good balance—the engineers did a good job considering everything—the rest of the LP I made here at the studio without an engineer. And those tracks came out pretty good.
"I used a Telefunken, a great mike, maybe a foot or a foot and a half over the strings. On the blues I added a little tape echo. There was no echo, I think, on the
others here. I was trying to get a kind of cathedral sound, and I think I made it. There's quite a difference, incidentally, between a tape echo and echo chambers or reverberation generators. Tape echo, I feel, is a little more pronounced and more natural. With tape echo you can actually hear the echo coming through the second time instead of a big hollow, open sound as with an echo chamber."
Since various aspects of recording had dominated the talk up to this point, I asked Lennie why he had waiting so long to record again, even though he had received offers from almost every label in the field. "For one thing," Lennie explained, "I wasn't able to find a rhythm section. I don't mean, let me make clear, that there aren't any good rhythm section men. I just couldn't find one for myself, and I still can't."
Asked what he wanted in a rhythm section, Lennie detailed his requirements: "I want time that flows. I want people who don't break the rhythm section with figures that are really out of context. What figures are used should be in the context of what's happening, so as not to break continuity. A lot of drummers interpolate figures that break the line. All of a sudden, the line stops, and he plays a cute figure on a snare drum or a tom-tom. Some bass players do that, too. They break time to play a figure that doesn't fit with what's already happened and is happening. With rhythm sections I've played with, I don't have the feeling of a constantly flowing pulse no matter what happens. As soon as I feel the pulse being interrupted, my flow is interrupted whether I'm playing or resting, because it's all the same thing.
"I also need in a rhythm section people with feeling for simultaneous combinations of time—people who are able to perceive 5/4 and 4/4 at the same time. I'll probably be doing more and more of that. Working with 7/4 and 6/4 and the double times of those—5/8, 6/8, 7/8, and maybe sometimes 9/8. Occasionally, I've played something and tried to figure it out afterward, and have maybe done some 13/8."
Lennie continued his description of the rhythm section he's seeking: "I'd like to have a rhythm section with a feeling for dynamics. One of the faults of most jazz today is that it proceeds at one dynamic level.
"What I'm after is not an up and down kind of thing but something pretty subtle. Parenthetically, I think that drummers today are doing too much. They play the bass drums, sock cymbal, snare drum, top cymbal—four basic instruments right there. Add to that tom-toms, other accessories, and funny noises like tapping on top of the snare, and it's all much more than one man should be doing.
"Then there's the matter of tempo," Lennie said. "Rhythm sections today like to play a real fast tempo—'cooking' as some people call it. A real fast 2/4. As a result, everything is pat and things go by so fast with generally a good feeling that they don't miss the subtleties, subtleties that ought to be there. Another thing is the ridiculous ballad tempo that's prevalent. They try to get it just right so they can play double time on that, too, so they really wind up in the same place. And the in-between tempos are generally very crude.
"I want to play a lot of different tempos and more of the in-between. For example, many of the early Bird records and the early Pres sides with Basic were played at these in-between tempos. A couple of the Pres records—like 'Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie'—were fast, but he made it. Now 'Ko-Ko' was one of Bird's fastest records, and it wasn't as good as the more in-between 'Warming Up a Riff,' also based on 'Cherokee,' which had more creative Bird.
"Another thing I've missed," Lennie said, "is that people don't seem to have a feeling of playing together. That's a general comment, of course. Some people play together better than others. But a lot of people give the impression of everybody manning his particular gun and shooting wherever he wants to. Remember the old Billie records with Teddy Wilson, Roy and sometimes Pres? The rhythm section on those is sort of old-fashioned now, but they really played together. This is probably true of jazz in general right now. You don't hear the kind of togetherness in the groups that are playing. There's either a neat, commercial jazz sound, or they're trying to improvise and it's a little ragged."
Lennie came back to his specific problems with rhythm sections. "I have trouble with bass players and chord progressions. I've pointed out to them that instead of trying to find out where I'm going, they'd do a lot better and get a better sound by playing the foundation chord instead of trying to get to where I am at the moment. If they're on the fundamental chord, they'll get to relate to what I'm doing and eventually get to where I am sometimes.
"To make another general statement," Lennie said, "everybody's a soloist now.
There are no more sidemen in the world. Everybody is a star. I can't imagine anything more monotonous, for example, than a bass playing two or three choruses on a ballad unless it's a good bass player like Oscar Pettiford who can solo."
"What about the charge," I interjected, "concerning the long time you didn't record, the charge that you didn't want to set down your ideas so people could have them that accessible for copying?"
"I don't think anyone would want to copy me to start with," Lennie answered. "And what I do isn't pat or that perfect anyway. Now the way Bird played his ideas, they were perfect the way they were. Changing some of the notes would have spoiled them. What you can do is mix them up or play them in different sequences but the essential idea was perfect. Another thing you can do with Bird's ideas is play them on a different part of the bar. Instead of one, start the idea on two. Or you can stretch a 4/4 idea into 5/4 or 7/4, lengthen the phrase. I feel that if Bird's situation had been conducive to this sort of thing, he would have done that kind of thing himself. I remember doing a concert with him and we were warming up without a rhythm section. I was playing some chords and he was really stretching out.
"Another factor in my not having recorded in so long a time is that I'm not ambitious. If I don't think I have something to record that means something to me, I don't feel the necessity to release it. At least half the records of mine that are out are rejects from my point of view. A couple of the Capitol sides, for instance, and most of the Prestige, a couple on Disc, and the four on Royale. It's really pretty silly because it means part of my audience likes me because of my bad records. That's why I've felt that as soon as I learned how to play I'd lose a big part of my audience, an audience that's not too big to start with.
"I don't think, by the way," Lennie said, "that I'm the next jazz messiah. The way some people have spoken or written of me pro and con may have created the impression I thought that, but that isn't the way I think, and I've never said it Maybe that impression is also due to the antagonism against me in some quarters. If enough people put somebody down, he assumes a large proportion in some eyes.
"What I am doing is trying within the limits of my ability to develop my capacity to improvise so that I'm really improvising as much of the time as I can. I think I've
done a few things that haven't been done, at least to the extent that I'm doing them, but I don't feel there's anything 'great' about them. It took me a long time, for example, to feel 5/4 and 10/4 on top of 4/4. It's something that can't be done intellectually. It's something you have to get the feel. I am not running some kind of weird laboratory and manipulating scientific gadgets. It's been hard learning how to play what I feel on the piano because the piano is a difficult instrument. There are fingering problems we all have. Other instrumentalists, for example, generally can make the same note with the same finger. With the piano, there are spatial problems..."
There was a visitor downstairs, and this next turn in the conversation had to be postponed. As I was leaving, Lennie said, "There is one other thing I'm looking for, and perhaps the magazine's readers can help. We'll have to be leaving this building soon since they're tearing it down. I haven't found a new location yet. Anybody with an idea can write me at the studio, 317 E. 32nd St.
"I also am thinking of starting a club again. As for working in other clubs, I have offers, but I'm not sure yet what I'll be doing in that regard. Jazz musicians are expected to be entertainers. I'm not. Although I feel I can be very entertaining sometimes among friends."
The following video features Lennie's overdubbed version of Turkish Mambo.