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Lennie Tristano: Personal Recordings 1946-1970 (Mosaic/Dot Time)

A review of the six-disc set from the pianist spanning formats and environments

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Lennie Tristano: Personal Recordings 1946-1970
The cover of Personal Recordings 1946-1970 by Lennie Tristano

Conventional wisdom says that Crosscurrents, a collection of 1949 sextet sessions, is the quintessential album by pianist Lennie Tristano. Personal Recordings 1946-1970 is a rival to that title. In addition to time periods, these six discs span formats (solos, duos, trios, quartets, quintets, sextets) and environments (airchecks, live hits, home recordings, unreleased studio sessions), all of them brimful of Tristano’s innovative, still controversial ideas.

This set also spans fidelities, so be forewarned: The tracks one hears first—i.e., disc 1—are among the worst in terms of sound quality. It bottoms out on disc 3, a 1950 wire recording awash in pitch warble. Even this, though, is invaluable: the Tristano sextet (with guitarist Billy Bauer, saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, bassist Arnold Fishkin, and drummer Jeff Morton) live at New York’s Orchid Room, plying its polyphonic, polyrhythmic trade with thoughtful gusto. And oh, by the way, the first ever document of free jazz before an audience (“Live Free”).

Disc 6 has an even earlier free session: a quartet with Konitz, Marsh, and Bauer, recorded at Tristano’s home in 1948, that now becomes the oldest known example of free jazz. That alone makes this set essential. (It also happens to be beautiful, introspective music, with “Digression Expanse” a slow but stunning example of Tristano’s group interplay.) But there’s more: a cluster of trio studio dates, two of which—with bassist Peter Ind and Tom Wayburn or Al Levitt on drums—could have made a fine album on their own; a circa-1962 live date with Konitz and Zoot Sims; a duo with bassist Sonny Dallas that singlehandedly justifies the pianist’s insistence that the bass be as metronomic as possible; and a 1970 studio solo that features a splendid, swinging three-part suite (“Suite Thursday”). Sure, buy Crosscurrents, but let this set be your Tristano bible.

Learn more about Personal Recordings 1946-1970 on Amazon.

JazzTimes 10: Essential Lennie Tristano Recordings

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.