JazzTimes 10: Essential Lennie Tristano Recordings

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

  1. Lennie Tristano: “Just Pres” (Note to Note, Jazz, 2000 [originally recorded circa 1964])

Unissued during his lifetime, “Just Pres” was one track that Tristano actually marked for posthumous release. The comparative crispness of the drums is not imagined; Tristano recorded the track in his studio with bassist Sonny Dallas and a metronome, probably in 1964, with his daughter Carol (per his wishes) overdubbing drums in 1993. Her light spang-a-lang style is as clockwork as any metronome, letting us hear how Tristano toys with harmonic and rhythmic possibilities in the relaxed, cool manner of the tune’s namesake, Tristano’s hero Lester Young. The melodic sensibility owes a great deal to Young too, and at times Tristano’s piano touch suggests the same “hollow” timbre as the saxophonist. His improvisation on the “Just Friends” changes is as free of cliché or shortcut as ever, frequently strays outside the changes and off the beat, and even proffers some new surprises: shortly into the piece he throws in a Thelonious Monk-style harmony. It may have been a mistake, but it may also have been an overdue acknowledgment of a pianist he’d once held in open contempt. Either way, it’s a demonstration that Tristano kept on taking risks and developing as an artist, even when no one was listening.

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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.