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Lennie TristanoIn an early chapter of Words Without Music, his new autobiography, Philip Glass remembers how, soon after his arrival in New York in 1957, while waiting for a place at the Juilliard conservatory, he called the pianist and teacher Lennie Tristano from a phone booth on the Upper West Side to ask for lessons. Tristano himself answered the phone.

“Mr Tristano, my name is Philip Glass. I’m a young composer. I’ve come to New York to study, and I know your work. Is there any chance I can study with you?”

“Do you play jazz?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Do you play the piano?”

“A little. I came here, really, to study at Juilliard, but I love your music and I wanted to be in touch with you.”

“Well,” he said, “thank you for the call, but I don’t know that there’s anything I can do for you.”

He was kind, almost gentle. He wished me luck.

Fifty years later, while listening to the section called “Train” from his opera Einstein on the Beach, the work that eventually made him famous, Glass found himself wondering about the source of inspiration for the piece:

A part of the music was almost screaming to be recognised. I began looking around in my record library, and I came upon the music of Lennie Tristano… I found what I was looking for. Two tracks: the first, “Line Up”, and the second, “East 32nd Street”. I listened to them and there it was. No, the notes weren’t the same. Most listeners would probably not have heard what I did. But the energy, the feel, and, I would say, the intention of the music was completely and accurately captured in the “Train”. It doesn’t sound like him, but it shares the idea of propulsion, the self-confidence, and the drive. There’s an athleticism to it, a nonchalance, an “I don’t care if you listen to it or not — here it is.”

By coincidence, I was in the middle of reading Glass’s book when a package arrived containing a two-CD set featuring a newly discovered live recording of Tristano and his sextet — Willie Dennis (trombone), Lee Konitz (alto), Warne Marsh (tenor), Buddy Jones (bass) and Mickey Simonetta (drums) — from the Blue Note club in Chicago in the spring of 1951. Tristano’s discography is sufficiently thin to make this album, with its excellent sound and impeccable annotation, a major event.

The mood is relaxed, the playing intense. Tristano was a Jesuitical figure whose insistence on technical and conceptual rigour from his students was legendary. Only the best survived. Konitz and Marsh were the best known of his acolytes, and they are close to top form here. Tristano’s own playing is as densely figured as usual, whether soloing or comping behind the horns. Dennis is the surprise: somehow he makes the trombone achieve the cliché-free agility required of Tristano’s improvisers.

All the tunes, as was Tristano’s wont, are based on his favourite chord sequences, whether he wrote them or not: “Fine and Dandy” for Marsh and Konitz’s “Sax of a Kind”, “All of Me” for Marsh’s “Background Music”, “Idaho” for Konitz’s “Tautology”. The leader’s suave spoken introductions are almost worth the price of admission alone, as when he follows Konitz’s swift, knotty “Palo Alto” (based on “Strike Up the Band”) with this: “I hope this gentlemen down here right in front enjoyed that more than he might have enjoyed ‘The Tennessee Waltz’, which he requested.”

Glass’s book provides a charmingly unpretentious portrait of an artist’s life, from the studies with Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar which shaped his conception to his productive acquaintanceships with Samuel Beckett, Merce Cunningham, Richard Serra, Chuck Close, William Burroughs, Jasper Johns, Allen Ginsberg, Joseph Papp and many others. There’s a valuable account of how he turned away from the post-war orthodoxy of 12-tone composition, including the following passage:

When I had returned to New York in 1967, I had discovered that the people around me at the time — painters and sculptors like Bob Rauschenberg , Sol LeWitt and Richard Serra — all listened to rock ‘n’ roll. They did not listen to modern music. It was not in their record collections.

When I asked them, “Do you listen to modern music?” I found that they weren’t interested at all. None of them listened to modern music: Stockhausen, Boulez, or Milton Babbitt — forget it. You’d never find that music there. There was more of a connection, for example, between artists and writers. What Ginsberg was doing in poetry and what Burroughs was doing in literature were not that different from what was going on in the art world.

“Why is there a disconnect here?” I asked myself.

Consciously, or to some degree unconsciously, I was looking for the music that should be in their record collection. If Rauschenberg and Johns were looking at paintings and saying, “What could go into a painting and what goes on in a painting?” I asked myself, “What is the music that goes with that art?”

I started going to the Fillmore East…

* The photograph is from the cover of Lennie Tristano: Chicago April 1951, released on the Uptown label. Philip Glass’s Words Without Music is published by Faber & Faber.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Colin Harper #

    Raja Ram from the mighty Quintessence purported to have studied with Tristano. Could you hear any of Lennie in Ram’s flute playing, Richard?

    April 7, 2015
    • I wouldn’t say so, Colin — but Raja Ram (or Ron, as he was better known) did lend me Warne Marsh’s Atlantic album. I still have it…

      April 7, 2015
  2. Jon Ramsey #

    Hi Richard, I saw Lee Konitz play with Dave Douglas in New York recently, a gig of great humour and fantastic ability. I see that they are playing together at Ronnie Scott’s at the beginning of May and more than worth the ticket.

    April 7, 2015
  3. crocodilechuck #

    “But the energy, the feel, and, I would say, the intention of the music was completely and accurately captured in the “Train”. It doesn’t sound like him, but it shares the idea of propulsion, the self-confidence, and the drive. There’s an athleticism to it…” [snip]

    Reminiscent of Miles Davis’ take on ‘A Tribute to Jack Johnson’ in his autobiography.

    April 8, 2015
  4. Tony Dudley-Evans #

    Great post. Lee Konitz and Dave Douglas are also at Cheltenham Jazz Festival on Saturday 2nd May. It’s an excellent band with Jakob Bro on guitar, Linda Oh on bass and Jorge Rossy on drums.

    April 8, 2015
  5. Anthony #

    This is an incredible CD. To hear Marsh and Konitz play these intricate unison lines is always a pleasure, but extra special with Willie Dennis keeping up on trombone. Marsh Konitz and Tristano are at an absolute peak here. Was great to hear Konitz still ripping through Subconciouslee at Cheltenham in his 80s recently. Have been struggling to play that for years…..

    May 28, 2015

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