Tristano’s Free Jazz (& POEtry)

Ethan Iverson returns this week to conclude the blindfold test he initiated here at Destination: Out over a week ago.

In a few minutes more, there came over the scene another radical alteration. The general surface grew somewhat more smooth, and the whirlpools, one by one, disappeared, while prodigious streaks of foam became apparent where none had been seen before. These streaks, at length, spreading out to a great distance, and entering into combination, took unto themselves the gyratory motion of the subsided vortices, and seemed to form the germ of another more vast. Suddenly – very suddenly – this assumed a distinct and definite existence, in a circle of more than a mile in diameter. The edge of the whirl was represented by a broad belt of gleaming spray ; but no particle of this slipped into the mouth of the terrific funnel, whose interior, as far as the eye could fathom it, was a smooth, shining, and jet-black wall of water, inclined to the horizon at an angle of some forty-five degrees, speeding dizzily round and round with a swaying and sweltering motion, and sending forth to the winds an appalling voice, half shriek, half roar, such as not even the mighty cataract of Niagara ever lifts up in its agony to Heaven.
– Edgar Allan Poe, “Descent Into the Maelstrom” (whole short story here)

“Free jazz” is commonly held to be improvised music without a chord progression. “Descent Into the Maelstrom,” last week’s mystery track, is therefore “free jazz,” although Lennie Tristano worked pretty hard at assembling the finished product; it wasn’t a “free” or unfettered process.

Tristano was an avid experimenter in his home studio, producing several early examples of overdubbed and altered tracks long before such studio magic became common in popular music. According to the sleeve note, “Descent Into the Maelstrom” was recorded in 1953 (although it was unreleased until 1977). The piano is triple- or quadruple-tracked, and it seems like the speed is adjusted, too.

On his famous bebop performance “Line Up,”
Tristano recorded his overdubbed piano at a slower speed than the rhythm section. His technique has been fiercely debated, but he probably used the common “half-speed” setting on his home recorder. (After listening to “Line Up” on a computer program, I have tentatively concluded that the half-speed theory is correct, but probably no one will ever know for sure.) One of the lines in “Descent Into the Maelstrom” is so fast and brilliant that it also seems like it was recorded at half-speed.

Those fast lines
have an artificial evenness that recalls the player piano music of Conlon Nancarrow. The very beginning of the piece suggests Cecil Taylor, especially the harsh attack on the lowest note on the piano.

Nancarrow – Taylor -Tristano: all creators of maverick American piano music that utilizes blazing virtuosity without almost any reference to the European tradition of classical composition.

Lennie Tristano
Capitol : 1949

LT, piano; Lee Konitz, alto sax; Warne Marsh, tenor sax; Billy Bauer, guitar; Arnold Fishkin, bass.

Back in the late forties, Tristano and his students would toke weed during their constant practice sessions. One day Tristano suggested that they all “just play” without thinking of a chord progression.

They were initially excited about the result: For a short time in 1949, this kind of piece was added to their set lists in clubs. “Intuition” and “Digression” are the recorded examples. (“Intuition” was recorded on May 16, 1949.)

In some circles “Intuition” was celebrated as a masterpiece. Tristano’s chief booster, Barry Ulanov, wrote at the time of the recording:

These adventures in jazz intuition may very well be the high point of all jazz until now…It marks a strong parallel to the development of the twelve-tone structure in classical music…”Intuition” is the peak of modern jazz.

A better comparison than Arnold Schoenberg to “Intuition” is Paul Hindemith, a prolific classical composer admired by the Tristano school. (Ulanov once even excitedly wrote the phrase “Hi-yo Hindemith!” when talking about the future of jazz.) Both “Intuition” and numerous pages of Hindemith feature contrapuntal streams of vaguely atonal eighth notes at mid-tempo and mid-volume.

That “improvising without a chord progression” would begin and end in 1949 – rather than becoming an integral part of the Tristano school – seems to suggest the musicians themselves knew that something was missing. Warne Marsh has said that the first times they tried the experiment were the best, and that by the time of recording something was already lost.

Still, Tristano does have bragging rights: he did free jazz first, before “free jazz” was even a term. When free jazz started happening for real a decade later, Tristano wanted the credit:

In view of the fact that 15 years later a main part of the jazz scene turned into free form, I think this incident is very significant. These two sides were completely improvised. A lot of people who heard them thought they were compositions. To my knowledge, Miles Davis is the only noted musician who acknowledged in print the real nature of the music on those sides.

Tristano is a bit pompous here. The best free jazz of the 1960s and later has so much more drama, melody, and rhythm than “Intuition” that it’s like they aren’t even the same art form. Some Tristano acolytes have even proposed that musicians like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, or Archie Shepp knew, studied, and learned something from “Intuition” and “Digression.” This proposal can be safely dismissed.

Anthony Braxton has repeatedly said the Tristano school is a major influence on his own work, but what Braxton admires is the playing of Tristano, Warne Marsh, and Lee Konitz on chord changes; as far as I know, he doesn’t have a serious relationship to “Intuition” and “Digression.” (Braxton’s own fiery free-form saxophone playing would lay waste to this tentative music in an instant.)

The Tristano free sides of 1949 remain just a historical curiosity. “Descent Into the Maelstrom” is far more powerful – drama is inherently built in the work’s conception – but even “Maelstrom” remains a footnote compared to Tristano’s passionate innovations when working with chord progressions.

For more on Tristano when he wasn’t playing free, go to this post at Do The Math (and don’t sleep on the related, digressive posts, either).

& & & & &

Many thanks, Ethan. And thanks to all who participated in the two contests. The winning number was 19 (after Bicycle Day and in remembrance of the late Dr. Hofmann), as cited by hreb. There were many correct guesses for the tune; we know that at least a few entrants were aided visually by some information that we accidentally left attached to the track, as they fessed up to the fact. Everyone was included in the drawing, though, and Mr. Bradley Sroka was randomly selected as the winner. Congratulations to the winners, and better luck next time to the rest. We also extend our thanks to the wonderful folks at Reel Recordings, who came through with some amazing prizes, namely:

Discussion5 Comments Category Lennie Tristano

5 Responses to Tristano’s Free Jazz (& POEtry)

  1. please return to your old lay-out!! the new one isn’t as visually pleasurable as the old.

  2. The new set-up is bad news for users of older/slower computers and the browsers that work best with them. Initial loading is faster, but you end up having to reboot a frozen computer. It seems to be a by-product of the default settings of a particular blogging template (which I have come across elsewhere).

  3. Yeah Destination-Out and Ethan Iverson! This post and the Do The Math essays have been a real education for me. Ethan, you write well and you clearly did your homework for these essays. Thank you. For whatever reason, I have never really listened to much Tristano beside the Requiem on an Atlantic Jazz compilation record I have. I had no idea that Tristano was such a polarizing figure – at least from a critical perspective if not from a musical one. I will try to get my hands on the books that Ethan cites.

    Thanks again for Layin’ a Strip for the Higher-Self State Line!


  4. First, it’s great that you’re discussing this. I’d add at least one word to your definition of free jazz: no *predetermined* chord progression. Certainly there are some implied chords that progress in some passages of free jazz, but they’re improvised. Some people will quibble about the definition of progression (“succession” gets around their objections). One could say “no predetermined form” but only if by form we mean specific numbers of beats and measures, phrase lengths. Lots of “free” music has predetermined formal aspects, but they’re usually of less specifically determined duration.

    Funny that the anti-spam word of the day is arkestra. Among other things, I wanted to point out that Sun Ra deserves some credit in relation to the early exploration of “free jazz,” though probably not before 1949. Sun Ra had his musicians doing improvisation without known, given chords at least by 1955 and probably several years earlier. This wasn’t fully documented on recordings (“Ancient Aeithopia” [sic] ) until 1958, though. He also should get credit for the first recorded “modal jazz” piece — over 100 bars of open playing on an Eb-6 chord in 1956.

    I believe “Intuition” and “Digression” weren’t released any time close to their 1949 recording date (1950 and ’54 respectively, according to Eunmi Shim’s book), thus limiting their timely influence as recordings. However, the fact that they were doing this must have been known to other musicians. I don’t know why you say they stopped doing it — Lee certainly was playing free now and then, and Lennie did on and off, too.

    There are stories that Roy Eldridge did free/no changes improvisation with Mary Lou Williams and/or Clyde Hart as early as the 1930s, and Yusef Lateef said he played free with Sun Ra, apparently no later than 1949. (I can supply more info on these stories if anyone is interested.)

    -Allan Chase, New England Conservatory

  5. Hi. I am just reading this post later than everyone else and enjoying the music. In response to the last post by Allan Chase, I would be interested in hearing more info on the roy eldridge and Sun Ra stories

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