Sunday, June 12, 2011

Free Improvisation Series: Lennie Tristano

The next couple of posts will be a series based on research into free improvisation in recordings, which I undertook for my work at Hillsdale College as adjunct lecturer in music. Basically, my point of view is that free improvisation is an approach to music-making, not a style per se. Recorded evidence makes obvious that it developed spontaneously across several styles of music, in several different countries at about the same time, without any apparent communication between the people who engaged in it.
Therefore, this series is chronological, but this is not meant to imply a continuity as if this were a style like "jazz" or "baroque" or "reggae". These styles could be considered culturally-based, and are thus canonical; free improvisation is unique in that it is not.

Lennie Tristano

Photo credit: William P. Gottlieb

Given the integral role that improvisation plays in it, it was inevitable that jazz music would eventually lead to completely free improvisation. Although he has been overshadowed by the reputations of his contemporaries, Lennie Tristano was a significant figure in the jazz world in the late 40's. His approach to composing, often re-writing jazz standards with radical new melodies (i.e. "317 E. 32nd St." and "Lennie's Pennies"), foreshadowed future experiments with tonality by Andrew Hill and George Russell. He performed and recorded with Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, both of whom he profoundly influenced.
In 1947, Tristano was named “Musician of the Year” by Metronome magazine (thanks no doubt to the support of his friend Barry Ulanov, who edited the journal during this time). With this honor came the invitation to contribute to the magazine. Tristano did so with a pair of articles: "What's Right with the Beboppers" and "What's Wrong with the Beboppers". In the latter, Tristano expresses that mere imitation of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker would lead to stagnation of jazz as an art form. But while his convictions were clear, Tristano was no hyper-modernist, emphasizing the value in “contributing” to the music that came before, rather than diverging from it.
Tristano pontificates that “[p]erhaps the next step after bebop will be collective improvisation on a much higher plane because the individual lines will be more complex.” During the next two years, Tristano and his group played some of the first known experiments with free improvisation, even performing it at Birdland. Tristano, and later Konitz, used the term “intuitive” to describe such playing. Sometimes they blended free improvisation with tunes, a la Ornette Coleman, sometimes they just played without any theme at all. These eventually culminated with a recording session with Capitol Records, where these free improvisation experiments were finally documented.
On May 16th, 1949 (the Blackwell guide to jazz says April 23rd, 1949), Tristano and his group recorded “Intuition” and “Digression” for Capitol Records. Now, strictly speaking, these are not totally free improvisations because decisions were made beforehand about the order in which the musicians would begin playing, and the time span between entrances. (One may consider the 3 1/2 minute time limit allowed by the recording medium to be another limitation, though a less controllable one.) However, since it was established that they "were going to improvise strictly from what [they] heard each other doing", it is still worth noting these sessions in a chronology like this.
When they began to play "intuitively", Tristano indicated that the engineer “threw up his hands and left his machine”. Tristano's management refused to pay him for the recordings and the company threatened that they would not release them. Barry Ulanov, who was present at the recording session, publicly challenged Capitol to demonstrate “courage and … enlightenment” by releasing the recordings. This coming from the editor of a major music magazine! Capitol eventually issued “Intuition”, the more upbeat of the two, as a single in 1950 (Capitol 7-1224, backed with a solo piano version of "Yesterdays"). "Digression" stayed in the can until this 10" EP came out in 1954 (Capitol EAP 1-491):

"Classics in Jazz" indeed.

Tristano was a critically-acclaimed jazz musician, written about frequently by major music magazines. He played on Symphony Sid’s popular radio show. Capitol, one of the "Big 6" record companies in 1947, also had Stan Kenton, Peggy Lee, and Bennie Goodman sides in its catalog. (To put it in perspective, this is exactly the kind of exposure being given to Miles Davis at the time.)
The 1950 release of “Intuition” received mixed reviews. Ulanov to describe the new recording as a “[revivication of] the contrapuntal form which underlies the great years … of Johann Sebastian Bach.” Billboard Magazine called it "Tristano's weirdest yet - only the most advanced tastes will appreciate the subtle work of Konitz, Marsh, Bauer and the rest of the group. This is bop to the nth degree." in 1953, Charlie Parker commented that “rather than to make the melody predominant … in the style of music that Lennie and them present, it’s more or less heard or felt.” (There are several recordings of Tristano playing with Charlie Parker between 1947 and 1951.) Of the EP which contained "Digression", critic Nat Hentoff lauded the group's “fascinating study in presumably ad lib counterpoint.” Even composer Aaron Copland weighed in, stating that "something has been developed here [in America] which has no duplication abroad]."
Of course, Tristano also had his detractors. Nat Cole, Tadd Dameron, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, and others, felt that the improvisations were esoteric, and criticized their self-conscious experimentalism.
It's no surprise that free improvisation didn't catch on of course: it's far too experimental and unpredictable for mainstream radio and club performance, but at least Capitol records took a risk by releasing it. I don’t know of any earlier recorded free improvisation, but it would indeed be exciting to discover free improvisation in ethnographical recordings, some unique home recordings, or long lost Louis Armstrong sides.

You can hear "Intuition" and "Digression" for free on Grooveshark.

Part Two of the series will be George Gurdjieff.


Shim, Eunmi. “Lennie Tristano: his life in music.” Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007.
Kernfeld, Barry. "The Blackwell guide to recorded jazz."
“What’s Wrong/Right with the Beboppers” June/July 1947 Metronome

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