Lennie Tristano

The Duo Sessions
Dot Time Records DT8016

One of the most controversial figures of post-war Jazz, pianist Lennie Tristano (1919-1978) was more than an early opinionated Wynton Marsalis because he coupled outlier opinions with a refusal to publicly perform. Instead during years as a teacher he moved from encouraging players like Lee Konitz to forge a parallel, more restrained variation of improvisation to become an absolutist insisting that playing variations on a set of tunes was the only way. Tristano students dutifully follow his lead and rarely worked with others outside the designated circle.

This is why the most memorable improvising on this disc of newly-discovered duets are the most recent from 1976, a two-part “Concerto”, with Tristano playing alongside pianist Connie Crothers (1941-2016). Not only was Crothers arguably his most accomplished student after Konitz and Warne Marsh, but she was also the one with outside contact, even recording with Pauline Oliveros and Jamal Moondoc. An exceptional dual piano work “Concerto: Part 1” begins with one pianist creating a bass line ostinato as the other decorates the theme with rhythmic swirls and stretches. Upping the tempo, the ending emphasizes tougher patterns including clicking staccato runs. Picking up the tempo on “Part 2”, darkened tones with a pronounced backbeat energetically reverberate against swelling variations before reaching a swinging conclusion.

Despite his reputation for coldness and formalism, Tristano’s interaction during the six tracks from 1970 with tenor saxophonist Lenny Popkin and eight with drummer Roger Mancuso – both born in 1941 – emphasize assertive swing. However the effect is lessened as many compositions are contrafacts of Tristano’s favored songs with the original melodies peeking through palimpsest-like. Popkin, whose loose effervescent tone appears to be an amalgamation of Konitz’s alto and Marsh’s tenor saxophone, responds best when challenged. For instance he squeezes expressive twitters and trills while locked in a tonal exchange with the pianist on “Ensemble” and moves from staccato pressure to a groove emphasizing chord changes on “Chez Lennie”. Other tracks feel unfinished but the concluding “Melancholy Stomp” is the most realized. As Tristano skims the keys with a poignant pitch exploration, a brief detour suggests the boogie-woogie he would have played in his teens.

Contrafact bones are more obvious on the Mancuso tracks from 1967-1968, with brief performances halting as if waiting for a non-existent bass solo to begin, The drummer’s clanks push the pieces forward, but the improvisations are held back when “It’s All Right with Me”, “That Old Feeling” or “Chicago” become obvious. Overall, the excursions on “Imagery” and “Minor Pennies” come off best. Pianos cascades and slides are aptly paced by percussion shakes on the former to create multi-fold swing. As for “Minor Pennies”, Mancuso’s swift press rolls build up the excitement from the stop-start exposition as the piano solo includes rapid segues and repeats.

Considering his importance and limited recording legacy additional Tristano tracks are worth exposure. But the unfinished nature of some of these won’t covert many neophytes to an appreciation of the pianist’s unique gifts.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Out of a Dream 2. Ballad 3. Chez Lennie 4. Inflight 5. Ensemble 6. Melancholy Stomp 7. Concerto: Part 1 8. Concerto: Part 2 9. Palo Alto Street 10. Session 11. Changes 12. My Baby 13. Imagery 14. That Feeling 15. Minor Pennies 16. Home Again

Personnel: Lenny Popkin [tracks 1-6] (tenor saxophone); Lennie Tristano, Connie Crothers [tracks 7, 8] (piano); Roger Mancuso [tracks 9-16] (drums)