Misunderstanding Tristano: the trend continues

Antidote to Dave Nathan's review (www.allaboutjazz.com)

There is a wonderful scene in W. Allen's classic 'Hannah and her Sisters' where Lloyd Nolan (playing thé father) plays a chorus of 'You are too Beautiful'. A textbook example of a song the harmonic changes of which allow the overall result to stand on its own feet, unaided by embellishment (although Nolan manages, to his credit, to bring Teddy Wilson to mind).

But there is a school of thought, prevalent among jazz hacks, that 'it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing'. Tristano has been the proverbial 'whipping boy' of this mentality. To my knowledge nobody ever tarred Paul Bley's later work with the same brush. Maybe there were no bristles left on it.

Reviewer Dave Nathan is bewildered by the decision of Scott
and Tristano to record their private work over a 10 year period towards the end of the great pianist's life. Moreover, Mr. Nathan had never heard of Scott. He tells his readers that the Internet revealed nothing. I'm surprised. From a brief 'google' I learned that Ms. Scott studied and taught advanced voice technique to (e.g.) Cyndi Lauper, a fact which sits rather nicely alongside Tristano's supportive work with another pop idol, Billy Joel. There is even 'you-tube' footage of Scott! But let's not over-egg this particular souffle. Whether or not an artist is known to a reviewer couldn't possibly bear on the issue of aesthetic merit.

One of the tenets of the Tristano musical conception (call it jazz or improvisation) is counterpoint. No secret there. Scott's role on this album is to anchor the melodic structure of the material. To this extent I disagree with Eunmi Shim's analysis of the same recording. In Shim's excellent analysis of LT she suggests that the pianist "does little to alter the harmonic and phrase structure of the tunes" (Shim, 2007: LENNIE TRISTANO, his Life in Music. University of Michigan Press, p.114). Scott provides the vocal analogue of bass. This is easily accomplished by singing each song 'straight'. Tristano's accompaniment effectively reharmonises the original melodies, many of which fall outside of Tristano's relatively restricted répertorie.

The result is more than a curiosity to stretch the analytic skills of those who take it upon themselves to condemn or commend. It is, if you like, an highly original valedictory farewell to an era of songwriting.

Let us briefly (on account of the pain it provokes) imagine an album by a first-rate jazz pianist and singer of your choice; an album which renders the songbook of, say, Andrew Lloyd-Webber in a fairly straight-laced fashion. Ghastly thought.

This one-off collaboration between Tristano and Scott is, admittedly, probably not for those whose conception of the tin-pan alley tune, the evergreen, the jazz standard (call it what you will) extends no further than Ella, Sarah V, Anita O'Day, (&c). But that market is, to take the art of understatement one stage further, well catered for.

On the other hand, for those who relate to the vocal idiom of Lady Day and even Norma Winstone - two genuine artists who allow good songs to stand firm without crutches - I recommend this lovely of an age which has slipped by with few mourners.

Final word: no disrespect is intended to the aforementioned great dames of vocal jazz. Not my cup of tea but what does that matter.
If any at JAZZTIMES are interested I'm currently writing an article on the démise of thé golden era of song-writing and the challenges it threw up to jazz musicians.

2 Comments

  • Jul 11, 2010 at 10:09PM Robby Johnson

    Ralph, maybe you gave the antidote a little late. That review is dated 2/1/2002.

  • Jul 12, 2010 at 04:28AM Ralph Brooker

    Robby, thanks for thé courtesy of your response and point taken wirh thé following provisos. Mr. Nathan's review is still there. Perhaps the Internet wouldn't have yielded the Scott info in 2002. Fair enough. But the Tristano/Scott disc has a pedagogic value which in my opinion heightens its appeal.

    As a pianist I have struggled to find straight-laced versions of these beautiful songs. From an improvisational perspective one needs to know the bare tune. (I'm no fan of fake books.) I felt that Mr. Nathan could not really see aesthetic merit beyond the crooner/lounge-pianist format. In any event, I love that album and it remains an interesting fact that their collaboration lasted so long. But there's another issue of provenance which ought not to have eluded a well-informed jazz writer: Betty was the wife of Dick Scott (later known as Tox Drohar!), another Tristano alumnus.

    Thanks again for commenting. Best wishes, RB

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Ralph Brooker