What comes through above all else in these three extremely different sets of duets—first with saxophonist Lenny Popkin, then pianist Connie Crothers, and finally drummer Roger Mancuso—is Lennie Tristano’s generosity of spirit. These musicians understood that they were privileged to be in a one-on-one situation with such an acknowledged piano virtuoso, but to Tristano they were all equals: his interest in these pieces is not to dominate, not necessarily even to lead, but to share moments. He’s as much a good listener as he is a shaper of the music, approaching these sessions first and foremost as new learning experiences.
The earliest of them, featuring Mancuso, are dated circa 1967/’68. The drummer kicks things off fiercely on “Palo Alto Street,” soloing for more than a minute before Tristano hits a note. Having picked up the direction from his collaborator, the pianist whips together a swinging groove that doesn’t let up. As on most of these tracks, the music is largely improvised, and Mancuso, who served in Tristano’s band for a decade, is confident from the get-go that he’s free to travel wherever the muse takes him.
The Popkin sessions, six tracks in all, are from 1970, and are the most professionally recorded of the bunch. The saxophonist’s warm tone meshes seamlessly with Tristano’s bold attack and broad wanderings—they too were bandmates—and tunes like “Chez Lennie” and the sprightly “Melancholy Stomp” are highlights. The two-part, improvised (circa 1976) dual-piano “Concerto” with Crothers is the most adventurous music here but ultimately the least satisfying: due to somewhat muddled sonics, it often feels muted and directionless, despite the handful of sparks that shoot out every now and then.