Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz, and Warne Marsh

Changing The Shape of Music
Another View of Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz, and Warne Marsh

By Art Lange
copyright © 1999 Art Lange

Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz, and Warne Marsh: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (Mosaic MD6-174)

Lee Konitz: Motion (Verve 314 557 107-2)

Warne Marsh Quartet: The Unissued 1975 Copenhagen Studio Recordings (Storyville 8259)

Warne Marsh Trio: The Unissued 1975 Copenhagen Studio Recordings (Storyville 8278)

"The historian's objectivity is essentially that of the artist, not the scientist . . . history itself is pure story, fabulation, myth conceived as the verbal equivalent of the spirit of music." (Frederich Nietzsche, translated by Glenn Watkins)

Though much has been written about Lennie Tristano over the years, it's not surprising that there are still so many contradictions and misunderstandings about his personality, his teaching methods, his influence (and his influences), his music. He's been variously characterized as a Svengali, a charlatan, and a genius. Part of the problem is that, for an artist of his theoretical importance and creative abilities, he made relatively few recordings, and thus much of his reputation is based on memory, speculation, and word-of-mouth. And there have been, since the 1950s, two decidedly opposing opinions towards Tristano and his theories -- his detractors meant to denigrate his music by labeling it "cool," "cerebral," and "non-swinging," while his followers heard in the music elements which may have sounded unorthodox or advanced for the time but have since come to be commonplace in the music of the 1990s.

The largest, most lingering -- and highly unfair -- criticism of Tristano, and that of several of his better-known collaborators like saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, is that their music is over-intellectualized. This has become a code word for cold and unemotional. At least a portion of this type of controversy, emerging back in the late 1940s and '50s, may have been due to non-musical reasons, having to do with personality cliques, racism, snobbism, musicians afraid of losing jobs or their audience to something different, critics unable to understand something outside of their (limited) area of experience. Whatever the reasons then, it is illogical today to assume that the method of structuring one's art is an accurate reflection of the motivation behind its creation. The idea that intellectual acuity or refined organizational principles -- or, conversely, the lack of them -- in the making of one's art precludes passion and intensity, or that some musical styles or forms are more or less emotionally-motivated than others, is ridiculous.

Moreover, the suspicion that Tristano's music was a radical departure from traditional jazz values and procedures was not based in fact. Many accounts of his teaching methods reveal that Tristano started out each student, regardless of instrument, the same way -- learning by ear recorded solos of Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker. Only after a musician had a working knowledge of the individual solutions that these artists brought to the patterns of chord changes in popular songs was one allowed to play his or her instrument and begin the process of creating their own personal approach. Even though the influence of Bach (and, by extension, Paul Hindemith, who adapted aspects of Bach's harmonic and melodic relationships to 20th century compositional strategies) is an indisputable presence in Tristano's own playing, echoes of the technical and harmonic advances of Earl Hines, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and jazz stylists are equally audible.

It's true that Tristano, Konitz, and Marsh used to play Bach's Two-part or Three-part Inventions -- sometimes on the bandstand. Konitz and former Kenton-composer/arranger William Russo (another of Tristano's students in Chicago) have both related how listening to the Bartok string quartets was an important part of their ear-stretching exercises. But these were used in order to find similarities of expression and organization that would expand the musician's understanding of melodic contour and coherency over an advanced harmonic idiom. Charlie Parker listened to Debussy and Stravinsky, and reportedly desired to study with Edgar Varíse or Stefan Wolpe, but no one has questioned his jazz credibility. Actually, the use of oblique intervals, asymmetrical and circuitous phrases, and irregular accents in the extended melodic lines (while still based upon the chord changes of Tin Pan Alley songs) of such dazzling compositions as "April", "Lennie-Bird," "Wow," or Konitz's "Subconscious-Lee," are not primarily derived from Bach or Bartok, but can certainly cite established precedents in bebop, which Tristano admired. (Though in fact, as Tristano was well aware, these ideas did not originate with bebop but even earlier, with several interweaving strains of a kind of "renegade Swing" developed by musicians as diverse as Lester Young, Chu Berry, Mel Powell, Red Norvo, Shorty Rogers, Ralph Burns, and others.)

In any case, there is a simple way to disarm many of the lingering misconceptions about the music of Tristano and his collaborators (I prefer to use this term when referring to Konitz and Marsh especially, rather than "follower" or "disciple," since that would lessen their own considerable achievements; though both acknowledged that they learned a great deal from Tristano's teaching, they were hardly clones, and both developed their own musical conceptions in separate, distinctive, and non-Tristano-like ways in the years after they stopped playing with him) -- and that is to listen to it. Fortunately, record companies are at last beginning to issue some crucial, long out-of-print material, including some previously unreleased performances. Mosaic's six-CD collection The Complete Atlantic Recordings of Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz & Warne Marsh fills in a number of discographical gaps. Included are the live 1955 quartet performances featuring Tristano and Konitz; Tristano's famous solo, over-dubbed, and trio home studio recordings from 1954-61 originally released on the Atlantic LPs Tristano and The New Tristano; plus several albums' worth of 1955-58 material without Tristano -- The Real Konitz, Lee Konitz Inside Hi-Fi, some tracks led by Konitz previously available only in Japan, and the tersely titled albums Lee Konitz & Warne Marsh and Warne Marsh.

After arriving in New York from Chicago in the summer of 1946, Tristano wasted little time in making his mark on the city's music scene, which was in the middle of the Swing-to-bop tug-of-war. The recordings he made for the Keynote label later that year are among the most harmonically daring of his entire career -- in fact, Gunther Schuller has called his version of "I Can't Get Started," with its passages of bitonal counterpoint between Tristano's piano and Billy Bauer's guitar, " . . . one of the most prophetic recordings in all jazz history." Equally impressive is the extreme chromaticism and harmonic construction of tunes like "Atonement," which lay the groundwork for the unusual melodic contours of Tristano compositions soon to come. Coaxing Bauer towards atonality, goading him with dissonant chords and wildly clashing note substitutions, Tristano finds artistry in the friction between their relative tonalities. The influence of Tristano's ideas shortly thereafter can be heard in Lee Konitz's debut as a leader for Prestige in early 1949, where Konitz- and Marsh-penned pieces like "Palo Alto," "Tautology," and "Marshmallow" reflect the same twisting melodic character and ambiguous harmonic framework, though with a smoother, more polished surface. Only two months later, in March 1949, Tristano brought a sextet into a Capitol recording session and produced the classic sides that for many listeners came to epitomize the real "Birth of the Cool" -- "Wow," "Marionette," and "Sax of a Kind" among them -- as well as the first documented examples of ensemble-oriented "free jazz," "Intuition" and "Digression."

By 1955, Tristano was an established if controversial figure, and the twenty-one tunes he recorded with Konitz, bassist Gene Ramey, and drummer Art Taylor live at the Sing Song Room of the Confucius Restaurant (!) not only give a clear view of his philosophies in action, they help strike down some misconceptions and present us with some remarkable music in the process. One longstanding fallacy, for example, is that Tristano's demanded his drummer serve as a metronome, quietly, subordinately presenting the "regular" passage of time against which he and his saxophonist(s) could set contrasting metrical patterns. Art Taylor was no shrinking violet, and his presence -- not just suggesting a pulse, but creating his own variations and interruptions of the beat -- is strongly apparent throughout these performances. Doubters should listen once more to "All The Things You Are," which frees up his bop chops, lets him slide in and out of mambo rhythm, at times hammering his point across, or "My Melancholy Baby," where he wallops a backbeat worthy of an r&b band. Along with the unflappable bass of Kansas City veteran Ramey, he provides a propulsive undercurrent that allows Tristano and Konitz the choice of digging into the rigorous swing or gliding across the beat effortlessly as if floating, weightless above the chords -- a kind of idealized improvisation that Lee approaches in "These Foolish Things."

Even in the context of Taylor's variable bebop drumming, Konitz's saxophone solos are marvelously unpredictable -- asymmetrical phrases that sail right through bar lines, long episodes of exquisite lyrical abandon. When they play unreconstructed standards -- "Ghost Of A Chance," "My Melancholy Baby" -- he studiously avoids playing the theme "straight," and melody just flows out of him on "If I Had You." His familiarity with a piece like "317 E. 32nd" frees him for his most adventurous interval leaps and unexpected turns of phrase. And he sounds positively joyful on the second version of "Background Music," grabbing on to the swirling melody (on "All Of Me" chord changes) and refusing to be shaken loose, countering with serpentine lines that alternately wind and uncoil. (How playing this enthusiastic could ever be described as "cerebral" is beyond my understanding.)

But the most revealing moments belong to Tristano. By playing "Donna Lee," he acknowledges Charlie Parker's influence on the extended line of his own reconstituted "standard" themes, but at the same time announces a debt to the "feel" of Swing, exploring a style of pianism that balances precariously between the restrained "cool" of a Teddy Wilson and the formal distortions of Art Tatum's free-flowing harmonic modulations. This can be heard on "317 E. 32nd," where the relaxed feel at certain points in the theme suggest hot and cool contrasts -- a Swing equivalent of tension and release -- that owe little to the bracing accents of bebop. Similarly, "Lennie-Bird" could have been devised as a bop-flavored line but, cushioned by the tone and phrasing of Konitz's alto and Tristano's touch, is again softened with Swing nuances. Tristano's solo here is thoroughly pianistic -- since there's no need to breathe, as on a saxophone, his lines can continue unbroken according to the flow that results from an almost tactile response to the layout of the keyboard. At times, Tristano's technical prowess is all but obscured by the expressiveness of his ideas, and he often shifts between episodes of octave doublings and block chords with these long lines of pure melody that would soon become an obsession for him. Drawn to linear exposition and development by his love of Bach, Tristano would gradually come to concentrate more and more on the concept of "pure" melody, and you can hear the first steps on this search within the remarkable invention of details and sculpting of melodic shape in the second version of "April," the intense, sustained solo on "Pennies In Minor," and his momentum and exciting modulations on the second version of "Donna Lee." This type of focused improvisation is difficult to maintain over nearly two-and-a-half hours of music, so there are occasional missteps, like the energy drop in "Mean To Me" and the unfortunate solo in "Whispering" where Tristano adopts Earl Hines' trick of holding a simple pattern (or tremolo) in one hand and adding a second line above it. But overall, the quality of music heard in these live performances are a vindication of Lennie Tristano the jazz musician.

The quest for "pure" melody blossoms in Tristano's home studio recordings dating from 1954-55 and 1960-61. These could be considered the most architectural music he recorded, since they are painstakingly constructed according to his theoretical blueprints, including overdubbing and tape speed manipulation to intensify the mood and metrical variety. Criticism of these pieces usually complains about the lack of a rhythmic emphasis equal to the focus on melody, and it seems as if Tristano did believe that strong rhythmic accents might distract from the melodic flow. But there's also a curious reminder of Tristano's devotion to Bud Powell, whom he praised for his ability to "give every note his complete attention." Bud Powell, and Bach, appear in these works not as direct quotational material but rather as stylistic intimations -- Tristano uses selective allusions to their melodic ingenuity in order to imply that musical shape need not result from rhythm but from the linear propulsion of a fluent melodic line. Which is not to say that rhythm is completely ignored, especially in the earlier trio pieces; "East 32nd" is animated by stabbing right hand accents that do not shatter the extended line until it is consciously broken by chordal episodes, and for all his poise and harmonic sophistication there's a chunky rhythmic feel reminiscent of Jimmy Yancey or some country pianists of the '20s in the blues of "Requiem." For the solo sessions of 1960-61, Tristano exploits even more ambiguous tonality. "Becoming" (note the title) incorporates thick, dark chords that cloud the harmonic progressions, and "You Don't Know What Love Is" offers a structural fantasy la Erroll Garner (though with little of his rhythmic flexibility). "Deliberation" is a deliberate reworking of Indiana alluding to Parker's "Confirmation" (again, note the play on words in Tristano's title), compressed into an almost claustrophobic constraint of slow-motion stride bassline and carefully articulated melody. On the other hand, "C Minor Complex" revels in its complexity of melodic impetus and fully deserves Barry Ulanov's comparison with Bach's "Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue" (I especially think of Glenn Gould's idiosyncratic, totally personal, and thoroughly involving approach to Bach); likewise, after a construction of dense chords worthy of Monk (of course, working with an entirely different premise of timing and space) in the first section ("Carol") of "Scene And Variations," Tristano spins a fabulous spider web of melody in the third section ("Bud") where the form is solely determined by the contour and direction of the melodic line, and rhythmic momentum builds from a kind of centrifugal force. Despite the wealth of fascinating music, there is a kind of analytical ambiance to these home recordings, and if they do not convey the sheer exuberance of spontaneity and imagination as in the live performances, it may be because Tristano was motivated by an introspection that isn't possible in the company of others.

Happily, history may be in the process of being rewritten once again. Tristano's music seems to be in the ascendancy, and traces of his influence, in varying ways and degrees, can be found among such wide ranging musicians as pianists Martial Solal and Pandelis Karayorgis, Georg Grwe and Guus Janssen, saxophonist/composers Guillermo Gregorio and Anthony Braxton (and not only in Braxton's alto saxophone, but certainly in his piano playing -- where Tristano rubs shoulders with Dave Brubeck, another pianist with at least a partial debt to Lennie). And the list goes on.

* * *

Where did Lee Konitz go from here? Three days after his Chinese restaurant gig with Tristano he was in an Atlantic studio with cohorts Warne Marsh and Billy Bauer, plus pianist Sal Mosca, bassist Oscar Pettiford, and bebop drum innovator Kenny Clarke. Though the resulting album was not up to the level of invention of their previous work together on the aforementioned Prestige and Capitol dates (nor for that matter the lovely 1959 Live At The Half Note performances which were finally released on Verve in 1994), this is a likable, lyrical session which illustrates the almost telepathic compatibility of the two saxists. There are times -- especially when Marsh's tenor is playing in a higher register than Konitz's alto -- when it's difficult to tell who is playing what, as on the aptly titled "Two Not One," where they seem to breathe as one, and their lithe lines intertwine in equal proportion and fluid counterpoint. The choice of material is telling -- another version of Bird's "Donna Lee," Marsh's "Background Music," and "I Can't Get Started" (remember Lennie's radical version back in '46?), a nod to the Count Basie rhythm section (the true point of origin for much of the West Coast "cool" school's insouciance, concision, and uncluttered textures) with "Topsy," and even a blues, Pettiford's "Don't Squawk." Over the next couple of years Konitz continued to record for Atlantic, once on tenor sax (Inside Hi-Fi), where he plays more notes and swings with less inhibition; once with a rhythm section including bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Shelly Manne that seems too detached; and a fine, live club date from '57 (The Real Konitz) where Konitz sheds whatever was left of his so-called ethereal style and offers bright, spirited "singing" alto sax solos like an avant-garde Benny Carter -- most notably on "You Go To My Head" (it's easy to imagine a teenaged Anthony Braxton digging this one), "Easy Living," and yet another version of "Melancholy Baby" where Lee arrives at some gutsy chromatic note choices. All of these sessions find Konitz calmly taking stock of his abilities, experimenting with various ways in which to deal with different rhythm sections without losing his own unique approach to chordal, song-form improvisation, and basically having fun. But there was nothing here to prepare us for his next masterpiece, Motion.

1961 was a good year for jazz. Freedom was in the air. Ornette Coleman had been recording since 1958 and people were beginning to pay attention. The previous year Charles Mingus' quartet with Eric Dolphy walked a tightrope without a harmonic safety net and John Coltrane stretched out on a modal ballad, "My Favorite Things," accompanied by a dynamic young drummer from Detroit who had previously made his mark with Sonny Rollins, Elvin Jones. As has always been his nature, Lee Konitz was looking for a new challenge. For the previous few years he had been recording for Verve, and among the more conventional sessions had waxed a particularly effervescent album backed by a section of saxes arranged by Jimmy Giuffre. Now, apparently, he wanted to just blow, unencumbered by charts and additional personnel. So late in the summer he took bassist Sonny Dallas and drummer Nick Stabulas into a studio, started the tapes rolling, and with no preparation or rehearsal began calling off standard tunes to play. They played for a couple of days, and for the first time we can hear the twenty-nine pieces they played on the new three-CD release of Motion . There was an illusion at the core of Konitz's playing in this period: he seems to be standing still, but actually he is dancing rings around the song with the grace of Fred Astaire and the athleticism of Gene Kelly. The invention and breadth of his lyrical abilities are simply stunning. His phrasing expands and contracts in completely unpredictable fashion, yet there is a definite logic to every pause and acceleration. The sound of his saxophone is not the transparent, lighter-than-air tone of 1949, but a biting, sinewy sound that isn't afraid to occasionally rasp like a cigarette-and-whiskey-aged vocalist. There may be a touch of irony in several of the song selections -- why else tackle chestnuts like "Imagination," "That Old Feeling," and the by-now-hackneyed "Melancholy Baby"? -- leading to moments of an uncharacteristic expressionistic harshness and a few phrases born out of frustration. But when things click, they are marvelous. "All The Things You Are" builds gradually and only finds the melody at the very end (an old Tristano trick). "Pennies From Heaven" is used as a canvas for a collage of free-associative quotes and comments. He stretches the melody of "What's New" like taffy, shrewdly seduces "Embraceable You" with a laidback demeanor the antithesis of Bird's full-frontal assault, double-tracks altos on "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You" as if trying to trip himself up. Had a selection of these tracks been issued at the time, the album would have been another plus on the credit side of Lee's ledger, but little more. It was obvious that something was missing. That something was Elvin Jones. About a week later Elvin replaced Stabulas behind the drums, and magic happened. Altering accents, shifting beats, Jones sometimes gives the impression of two drummers playing at once, but thanks to his supple handling of an implied and not consistently stated pulse, there are always open spaces in which Konitz may perch, plummet, and soar. With bassist Dallas walking heroically around and through the chords without overly asserting them, Konitz is free to follow the implicit chord changes of these songs, alter them, sustain them, suggest new ones, or ignore them completely. He does all of the above.

The key word here is "free." Tristano taught that only with a complete, almost subconscious, understanding of a song's structural parameters could a soloist ignore the form at hand and invent something musical from deep within his or her own consciousness -- the true meaning of improvisation. For Konitz in this case the material is so familiar to him -- "I Remember You," "All Of Me," "I'll Remember April," "Out Of Nowhere," and the like -- both in their original state and as Tristano-style reconfigurations, that he seldom touches upon the actual themes. Thus the combination of rhythmic flexibility, harmonic ambiguity, and melodic (not thematic) development and variation here affords Konitz a freedom he had possibly never previously experienced. (Outside, of course, of his earlier experiments in freedom with Tristano and friends.) Challenged to the maximum, Konitz responds with improvisations that are every bit as free as anything Ornette Coleman was playing at this time. His selection and placement of notes in these nine performances are rarely related to the underlying (even implicit) harmonic movement of the chords, as they drift in and out of the tune's given tonality according to his spontaneous thought patterns. He shapes his solos with little regard for barlines or verse-chorus structures, with continuously curving, often highly chromatic phrases in a free-flowing fabric of alternately strong and weak (masculine/feminine, yin/yang) attacks that envelope their own formal and tonal gravity. This is the "pure" melody that Tristano sought, and a comparable solution to the tyranny of the harmonic system that Coleman similarly rejected. Konitz's solos on Motion come equally from his intellect and his heart.

Konitz didn't arrive at this vortex of freedom solely through his own devices, nor from those of Tristano alone. No doubt years of playing with Warne Marsh influenced at least some of Konitz's musical choices in this direction. For the still-undervalued Marsh was, beginning in the late-'40s and proceeding on to his death in 1994, a master of what Anthony Braxton has called "gravillic weight and contour" -- that is to say, the angularity of his intervals, especially those outside of the orthodoxy of diatonic chordal construction, and the ametrical proportions of his phrasing create a melodic contour that is like a three-dimensional shape in space, with a weight, density, and balance that contribute to its own unique identity and logic.

Marsh's own album included in the Complete Atlantic Recordings of Tristano, Konitz & Marsh is the product of two sessions from late '58 and early '59. The first is a quartet with Ronnie Ball on piano, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones (Art Taylor, Kenny Clarke, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe -- does anyone find a pattern here? What was that about Tristanoites wanting only unobtrusive drummers?), the second a minimal trio with Chambers and drummer Paul Motian. Marsh's playing is ear-catching as always; suave and yet incisive, rhythmically solid and melodically elusive on "It's All Right With Me" and "Just Squeeze Me." But, ever the perfectionist, Marsh often seemed to be struggling against himself as well as his accompanists, and so the ensemble doesn't seem to hang together or flow in the most favorable of ways. Still, listen to the delightful, amazing, tonally ambiguous line he conjures re-entering his version of "Melancholy Baby" (was recording this tune some kind of an in-joke among them?) following the bass solo, to hear one of the source points for the playing of slippery tenor saxists like Archie Shepp, David Murray, Bennie Wallace, and Ellery Eskelin.

As late as 1975 Marsh had never toured Scandinavia, so a group of his fans in Denmark brought him over in order to be reunited with Lee Konitz. Three volumes of their club dates together were previously issued by Storyville Records. Now Storyville has released two CDs of never-before-available studio material featuring Marsh in trio and quartet settings recorded over two days. Guitarist Dave Cliff is a fortunate find for the quartet date; even if he is a busier player than old cohort Billy Bauer, without the latter's keen sense of open space and note placement. Cliff is nevertheless an effective soloist in the Tal Farlow/Jimmy Raney mode. Both dates benefit greatly from the flexibility of bassist Niels-Henning rsted Pedersen. As for Marsh's playing at this stage of his career, he exhibits a drive, an urgency, double-timing most of his solos even in uptempo pieces like the scorching "Lennie-Bird" (which turns into "Ornithology" almost unnoticed), the trio "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" which erupts into a quiet torrent of notes, and the ferocious tempo of "Just One Of Those Things," where Marsh is like a butterfly that seldom touches down on the "proper" notes of the melody.

Perhaps due to his involvement with Supersax during this period, Charlie Parker seems to be much on Marsh's mind, and amidst the questionable repertoire choices of -- and casual, off-hand response to -- tunes like "The More I See You" and "When You're Smiling" are Bird-related songs like "Confirmation," "Little Willie Leaps," and "The Song Is You." Even moreso there is a rare boppish tinge to some solos, including a turn on "I Should Care" with the kind of rhythmic quirkiness that calls to mind Dexter Gordon, and a touching vocal quality, full of nuances and an unusual husky tenor sax tone, on "God Bless The Child" that offers it as an homage to Billie Holiday. Here too the long Tristano-influenced line is everywhere in evidence, full of oblique twists and turns, notes that sting and soothe. Yes, the song may be ended, but the melody lingers on.


This article previously appeared in Coda Magazine, Jan/Feb 1999 (thanks to Bill Smith and John Norris).


C o m m e n t s

where can I buy this compilation 1 of 1
John D'Andrea August 18, 06

I can't seem to find this 6 cd compilation anywhere

[<<] [<] [>] [>>]