JazzTimes 10: Essential Lennie Tristano Recordings

To honor the influential—and controversial—pianist’s centennial, here are 10 of his greatest moments

  1. Charlie Parker with Lennie Tristano: “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me” (Charlie Parker with Lennie Tristano: Complete Recordings, Definitive, 2006 [originally recorded August 1951])

What Parker and Tristano were doing with the music in their prime was not the same thing. But their different things weren’t incompatible, and this private jam tells us that they both knew it. (The two had previously played together in all-star recordings for radio broadcast.) Tristano’s ideals of composition—thoroughly fresh but intricate melodic phrases that disregarded bar lines and obeyed their own whims of structure and pause—were the stuff of Bird’s improvisations. Tristano accompanies him admirably, though for an instant, just a few seconds in, his pacing audibly flummoxes Bird. When it comes time for the pianist’s own solo, he is as forthrightly himself as the saxophonist; his “pure improvisation” avoids the blues as surely as Parker wraps himself in it, and also keeps the groove (supplied by Kenny Clarke, who beats on a Manhattan phone directory) at arm’s length even as Parker feeds off it. (There are a few moments where Tristano superimposes polyrhythms onto Clarke’s time.) Even so, the two great individualists of the era find a curious rapprochement.

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Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.