Jazz Pianist Lennie Tristano Finally Gets His Due Via 6-CD Limited Edition Box Set ‘Lennie Tristano Personal Recordings 1946-1970’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Just last week it was announced that John Coltrane’s iconic A Love Supreme went platinum after 56 years. Now we have one of the underrecognized innovators of jazz piano finally getting his own due after some fifty-plus years of recording. Dot Time Records and Mosaic Records, in their first-ever partnership, have produced a 6-CD set of over two decades of amazing output from Lennie Tristano, by any measure a visionary well ahead of his time. There are several configurations herein from solo to sextet recordings, from interpretations of standards to the first free jazz of its kind, all from Tristano’s personal tape collection.

Engineered and mastered by acclaimed tenor saxophonist and longtime friend, Lenny Popkin, who also delivers a mammoth, defiant, let-me-set-the-record-straight on Tristano’s personality and music in the liners, this should shed a long-overdue positive light on the widely misunderstood jazz luminary. Popkin provides commentary on every single track, all 74 of them. The project is a result of tireless work from Executive producer Michael Cuscuna and co-producers Jerry Roche, Carol Tristano (Lennie’s daughter), and Popkin.

Disc One features Tristano in trio with guitarist Billy Bauer and bassist Arnold Fishkin in live recordings from 1946/47. We can observe that a drum-less trio was rather unique at the time although Nat King Cole had the same instrumentation in his trios from almost a decade earlier. Nonetheless, it’s immediately apparent how prodigious Tristano’s piano chops were even then as improvisation, energy, and playfulness never obscure his mastery of the piano, with each note ringing clear and purposeful. Here’s an example of Tristano’s technical expertise in “Lennie’s Song” as described by Popkin,”…this one featuring his ability to play a solo in block chords, sometimes referred to as “locked Hands” style. A melody is played as a top line in the right hand with the other fingers filling out a chord. The left hand doubles the melody one octave below. I know of no other pianist who could improvise a line in that manner.”

Disc Two has fifteen tracks of solo piano recorded at both Rudy Van Gelder Studio and at Lennie’s East 32nd Street studio, a mix of standards and originals, all played emotively spanning periods in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Here his melodicism and improvisation are on full display. His feeling for the blues is deep In “Lennie’s Blues” while for example in “These Foolish Things” Popkin provides another style insight, “…begins with Lennie playing a line – all in all chords. He is improvising 4 or 5 lines at once -voices of a chord – and another line in the bass – all moving together in perfect harmony. Following that is a free-flowing melodic line in double-tempo-with a bass line harmonizing the increasingly complex top line.”

Disc Three is a collection of live sextet recordings featuring Lee Konitz (alto), Warne Marsh (tenor), Billy Bauer (guitar), Arnold Fishkin and Joe Shulman (bass) and Jeff Morton (drums). This is the first recorded performance of a group playing “free jazz” in front of an audience at a club in “Live Free.” Nothing is composed, it’s all spontaneous playing but with a clear link between swing and free playing, rather astonishing considering it takes place around 1949. Although, it’s free, it has almost no parallel to so-called later “free jazz,” sounding somehow more organized. The remaining seven tracks are not “free jazz” but highly improvisational bebop with plenty of call and response, point-counterpoint, and remarkable chord changes.

Disc Four goes the other direction – straight ahead. Tristano leads two conventional trios, both with Peter Ind on bass and drummers Tom Wayburn on one with Al Levitt on the other. These tunes, again a mix of standards and originals, reveal the lyrical side of Tristano, who is better known for more angular, improvisational fare. This is superb trio work with terrific connectivity among the three, with Ind’s bass especially impressive throughout. 

Disc Five is a collection of duos and trios with bassist Sonny Dallas and drummer Nick Stabulas. These tracks are very loose and mostly swinging, revealing strong interplay and harmonic exploration, the latter especially true in the trio settings. “You Go to My Head” highlights the duo tracks while “Lennie’s Groove” showcases the trio’s swinging style.

Disc Six begins with a groundbreaking free jazz session from 1948, recorded in Tristano’s house in Queens, featuring Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, and Billy Bauer for the first seven tracks, an entire set. Note the absence of a drummer. This predates the historic Capital sides Intuition and Digression. Much of Tristano’s work here is inventive comping as we hear impressive solos from Konitz, Marsh, and Bauer – 1948 (let that sink in). The remainder of the disc are live recordings form the Half Note club in NYC where Tristano often appeared in the ‘60s for two weeks at a time. Most are with the trio of Dallas and Stabulas with the highlight as the final track in the collection, a ten-minute version of “How Deep Is the Ocean” with Zoot Sims at his expressively soulful best and a similarly inspired Konitz. Dallas matches their fervor in his bass solo, supported by Stabulas’ nimble brush work, setting up a rousing climax authored by the pianist and the two horns. 

The importance of this collection cannot be overstated. It is one giant exclamation – “Give Lennie Tristano his due.” Amen.

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