Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Lennie Tristano - His Life and Music - Part 2

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

In our continuing look at Lennie Tristano’s life and music, let’s now turn to Barry Ulanov’s liner notes to three of Lennie’s albums all of which have been issued individually to CD and are also contained in the comprehensive The Complete Atlantic Recordings of Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz & Warne Marsh [Mosaic Records MD6-174].

Barry [1918-2000] was the son of violinist Nathan Ulanov who served as concertmaster for Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra. He graduated from Columbia University in 1935 and while there he wrote about Jazz and Jazz concerts including some early coverage of Billie Holiday’s Café Society performances.

He served as the editor of Metronome magazine from 1943-1955 and wrote articles for Downbeat from 1955-1958. He was an early fan of bebop and championed Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He was also an early and lifelong supporter of Lennie Tristano who wrote the composition Coolin’ Off with Ulanov “ … as a personal testament to the affinity that many Jazz musicians had with Ulanov.”

An erudite man, Barry taught at Juilliard, Princeton and Barnard College [1951-1988]. During his later years, he concentrated on explorations of religion and psychology, topics from which form the basis for many of the books he wrote and co-authored.

The more esoteric and intellectual forms of Jazz also had a particular appeal to Ulanov - he was one of the first to write about the Alec Wilder Octet - and the complexity of Lennie’s music fit in nicely with this orientation. 

Barry wrote liner notes to three of Lennie’s albums, the first of which was Tristano [Atlantic LP 1224].

“A great many people art; going to be surprised by this set. It presents a Lennie Tristano far removed from the figure of their — and the critics' — imagination. Uncompromising he may he, as has been noted many a time, in the public-prints and in private discussions. But remote, inaccessible, recondite he is not, except in the sense that any first-rate artist has ideas to offer which are necessarily his own and nobody else's and hence so fresh, so crisp, so inspired as to seem — or sound — altogether new and quite thoroughly removed from any familiar thinking — or playing-pattern. No, there is nothing really obscure about Lennie's playing here, nothing really beyond the grasp of anybody with any feeling for, or fairly considerable listening experience in, jazz.

This is jazz, no mistaking it for anything else. It meets all the requirements; it is improvised, brilliantly adding ideas to ideas all the way through; it swings, rapturously, whether up or middling-up or slow in tempo; it offers, both in Lennie's playing with bass and drums and with Lee Konitz and rhythm, that delicate internal tension, that collective creativity which is the special identifying mark of the real thing in this music.

And so it is to the jazz in this record that I suggest you listen, forgetting, if you can, any preconceived notions about what Lennie Tristano represents in modern music, anything you may have read about his personality, his ideas, his group, his students or teaching method or anything much besides, no matter how directly relevant it may seem to you. Isn't it, after all, in a man's painting, if he is a painter, in his poetry, if he is a poet, or in his music, if he is a composer, that one should look for his personality, his ideas, or anything else of any sizable significance? And isn't this particularly true of jazz, where a performer composes as he blows, if he is a genuine jazz musician, and therefore exposes himself more honestly than in most arts? And if it isn't true, then why bother — why bother painting or writing or composing or blowing in the first place? — and why bother looking or reading or listening in the second?

After listening to these tracks, I think you'll agree with me that what you have heard is impression enough of the Tristano thinking processes and that, unquestionably, Lennie's ideas must seek musical outlet, must find jazz outlet, and we must pay attention, hard, earnest attention, and do so with every sort of listening ease.

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 upon them. But the mechanical adjustment of tapes is not what you hear. What comes through first of all and last of all is the jazz, uninterrupted and pulsating and overpowering jazz, with that kind of frontal motion which was Bach's in, say, the CHROMATIC FANTASY IN D MINOR, pushing through from beginning to end without any wasted accents or unnecessary halts or repetition. The great day for jazz will be that one when rhythm sections — one or two or three musicians large — will be able to think and play and beat that steadily, with such regularity and rapidity and imagination that it will be possible to record alongside them instead of over them.

Another kind of feat, not really of any mechanical or electronic interest except in the paired piano lines that merge and separate from time to time, is in the REQUIEM Lennie plays here, a heartfelt R.I.P. for the late Charlie Parker. The achievement is in the form, a kind of "prelude and blues'' structure, in which first of all Lennie sets a mood with unexpected Schumannesque figures and then, even as Charlie did, plays a rest into the blues. There is a tender deliberateness about this performance: it is a man thinking grief, feeling deprived, thinking and feeling in the logical medium for grief and deprivation in jazz: the blues.

More of the deliberate, or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say the much-deliberated, makes its way into the three lines, played — and recorded — one on top of the other in the TURKISH MAMBO, which is not a mambo and certainly reveals not one iota or fez of Near Eastern influence but gains its title from Lennie's long, low bow in the direction of the brothers Ertegun, Ahmet and Nesuhi, for whom this album was put together. The times will probably be as hard for the listener to follow as they were at various times for drummers: one track proceeds from 7/8 to 7/4, another from 5/8 to 5/4, the last from 3/8 to 4/4. But one need not attempt to sort out the arithmetical delicacies with which Lennie titillates his mind and fingers and our head and feet to feel the exhilaration produced by the rhythmic point and counterpoint.

Similarly, one can get deeply involved in the intricacies of lines solo or lines duo in the remaining bands, those recorded with Lee Konitz in the Sing Song Room of the Confucius Restaurant, where they and several rhythm sections spent the summer of 1955 together (here it's Gene Ramey on bass and Art Taylor on drums). But better than such involvement, at least at first, I would think, is to let yourself go snapping your thumb and index finger, pecking head, or simply tapping foot — choose your own weapon — allowing the beat to make itself felt, just as Lennie and Lee do. Then look for the little details, listen for the richnesses of ornament, the fine parallel or disjunctive thinking, the developments together or apart which make up the masterful balance here of musicians who know and understand each other and are only too glad to show it in their playing together.

In THESE FOOLISH THINGS, it is the splendidly long line that Lee plays, Lennie's reflective musing, now single-line, now in block chords, and a finish together that puts a glistening coda on both their backs. In YOU GO TO MY HEAD, a longtime favorite of these musicians, it is Lee, thoughtful to a carefully organized conclusion, and Lennie in almost exactly the same groove, more directly following after his student than any place else on record. In A GHOST OF A CHANCE, the elegant touches — and elegant they truly are — are Lennie's, following the chord structure of the Victor Young tune with comparative orthodoxy, laying down counter-melodies, showing himself at his simplest to be the same sort of thoughtful and feelingful jazzman that he is in more complex creations. Last of all, in the romps at middle-tempos that only thoroughly experienced and rhythmically gifted jazz musicians can ever manage accurately and groovily, in IF I HAD YOU and ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE, it's a meshing of both solo gears, with Lennie's entrances in both the clues to the balanced mood (or mood of balance ) of both.

Balance all around is to be found in this collection: a trial balance of tempo and time and personality differences which accounts for the jockeying of tapes and changing of speeds and multiplication of piano lines in Lennie's solo tracks; a tested balance of soloists and tunes and tempos and personalities which accounts for the orderly procedure and unmitigated pleasure of the alto and piano solos and duos in the tracks Lennie and Lee play together. And all of it — and this I cannot insist upon too strongly — comes out jazz, real jazz, great jazz.”

— Barry Ulanov 1956

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