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“A pioneering individualist, he transgressed the boundaries of jazz as well as conventional style categories of jazz history through a succession of innovations. However, his historical significance has been largely overlooked, as he is misleadingly labeled as a "cool" jazz musician.
Tristano's music exemplifies a rare achievement of individuality, characterized by his advanced harmonic language, rhythmic complexity, and linear construction of the melody.”
- Eunmi Shim, Professor of Harmony, Berklee College of Music
Lennie Tristano occupies a rare position not only in jazz history but in the history of twentieth-century music. Emerging from an era when modernism was the guiding principle in art, Tristano explored musical avenues that were avant-garde even by modernism's experimental standards. In so doing, he tested and transcended the boundaries of jazz.
In 1949, years before musicians such as Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor took credit for the movement, Tristano made the first recordings of "free jazz," a new kind of group improvisation based on spontaneous interaction among band members without any regard for predetermined form, harmony, or rhythm.
Then, in the 1950s, Tristano broke new ground by his use of multitracking or overdubbing. Tristano was also a pioneer in the teaching of jazz, devoting the latter part of his career almost exclusively to music instruction. He founded a jazz school—the first of its kind — among whose students were saxophonists Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz and pianist Sal Mosca.
Eunmi Shim points out in the Epilogue in Lennie Tristano: His Life and Music :
“An unfortunate problem with many writings on Tristano is that they perpetuate misconceptions and prejudices, exhibiting a limited knowledge of his music and ignoring the cultural and historical context of his life and work. In particular, he has greatly suffered from the tendency toward categorization and canonization in jazz writing, and has been left out of the "jazz classics." Even when acknowledging his innovations, writers often do so in a backhanded or cursory manner. "Historians of modern jazz have been curiously and almost unanimously parsimonious in their appraisals of Lennie Tristano," wrote Robert Palmer, trying to explain his exclusion from "so many jazz critics' pantheons": "Most critical accounts of the development of modern jazz in the 1940s and 1950s treated him as an interesting but minor footnote, more impressive as the mentor of first-rate improvisers like Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh than as a musician in his own right."
Palmer also accounted for the historical evaluation of Tristano's free improvisations: "Most histories note in passing that on May 16, 1949, Mr. Tristano and his group recorded the first free-form improvisations. . . . But according to the most prevalent line of reasoning, these were isolated experiments, historical oddities that had no impact on or organic connection to the sort of free improvisation that Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor introduced 10 years later."
A case in point is the British critic Max Harrison who considered Tristano “a
marginal figure because, on the stylistic level, his work has exerted little influence on later jazz."- Harrison's assessment of Tristano's music is indeed negative: "Tristano's position in jazz and his contribution to it were inconclusive. The technical skill and wide musical horizons evinced by his work were clear enough, but the emotional impact was slight and he had scant influence beyond his immediate circle."
Or Tristano is understood to have been awkwardly caught between two eras, as Bill Coss stated in 1961: "(During the 1940s) the name Lennie Tristano was enough to send almost every jazz critic into a dither of denunciation. . . . The controversy was equal to the furor nowadays caused by Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane in combination. . . . Tristano is a strong individualist who was out of place in the strangeness between two eras."
There are a relatively small number of writers who acknowledge Tristano's significant role in the development of jazz. Palmer was one: "Mr. Tristano was hardly an isolated or marginal figure. ... He was an important thinker and doer who provided a crucial link between the modern jazz of the i94o's and freer forms of the late 1950s and after."
Thomas Albright also argued for Tristano's historical importance in his influence on Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley, Andrew Hill, and Mai Waldron, among others: "Today, Tristano is something of a legend in his own time. In retrospect, it is apparent that the territory which his innovations helped to open—along with the ground that was broken by Thelonious Monk—has nurtured some of the most significant developments in contemporary jazz. ... In fact, Tristano's influence has been pervasive."
In order to objectively assess Tristano's contribution, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it might be interesting to bring up a series of posts about Lennie that offer various perspectives on his life, music and its significance to Jazz.
Yet as Larry Kart admonishes in his booklet notes to The Complete Atlantic Recordings of Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh [Mosaic MD6-174]:
“... But before we look back, I would ask the reader to stop right here and listen to two of this set's acknowledged Tristano masterpieces, Line Up from 1955 and C Minor Complex from 1960-61 — the assumption being that afterwards one will know something crucial about this music that no amount of testimony or critical hectoring can replace, namely that Lennie Tristano was an improvising artist of great forcefulness, that the power of his music arises from (and to some extent is about) underlying principles striving to realize themselves, and that the various elements of this musical "complex” (the felt and expressed forcefulness; the sense that underlying principles are striving, or are being driven, to realize themselves) made it virtually inevitable that a school of some sort would coalesce around Tristano.
This is not to deny that the pedagogic impulse lay deep within the man and the musician nor to claim that his tutelage, in every case and at all times, furthered the artistic growth of those within his orbit. The point, instead, is that Tristano's music was compelling in itself, and that the reasons that two of jazz's major artists (Konitz and Marsh) and many other gifted players were drawn to, and drew so much from Tristano, are not necessarily more mysterious than the reasons such non-pedagogically inclined jazz masters as Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker spawned so many vital disciples. To paraphrase novelist Gilbert Sorrentino, people like lo think that artists have complicated personal motives for doing what they do, when in fact they have complicated artistic motives.”
You’ll find videos of both C Minor Complex and Line Up in the sidebar of the blog. Should you later access this feature from the archives, both examples are available on YouTube.