Volumes have been written about pianist Lennie Tristano’s singular impact on jazz, whether his imaginative use of early stereo and studio technology, or his bristling, disquieting harmonic sensibility. Any time someone announces that they’ve unearthed new, previously unheard material by a jazz icon, there’s reason to be skeptical: that material may have never seen the light of day for a good reason. But the Tristano archival collection, the Duo Sessions – dating from the 1970s and streaming at Spotify – has plenty of fascinating moments and historical value.
For example, this is the only known recording of Tristano playing as part of a piano duo, in this case jousting with another formidable improviser, the late Connie Crothers. Their two-part Concerto begins with thumping waves between the two, reaches a momentary plaintive phrase and then follows a twisted boogie-woogie march. Lingering quasi-whole tone scales flicker off into the abyss, Crothers having fun with lively embellishments, playing off Tristano’s lefthand rumble. They reprise the march just as steadily but with more of a jagged, insistent attack that coalesces to a triumphant anthem of sorts before disintegrating for good in the second part.
The album opens with half a dozen much more traditional duets between Tristano and tenor saxophonist Lenny Popkin, sax typically casual and matter-of-factly out front. Tristano comps stabbingly behind his bandmate’s jaunty phrasing in Out of a Dream, a jarring contrast, but maybe that was the pianist’s point here – and maybe why Popkin drops out all of a sudden. He gets on the page quickly in their pensive second number, simply titled Ballad, Tristano’s uneasy close harmonies even more insistent (and back in the mix), rising to his signature blend of lyricism and fanged unresolve.
The two hit a steady, optimistic swing shuffle in Chez Lennie, Tristano sticking with a more restrained stride and continue in the same vein with the miniature Inflight, while Ensemble swings just as hard but much more adventurously. If you want to hear Tristano put his signature spin on the blues, check out their final number, Melancholy Stomp.
There are also eight tracks worth of Tristano with a longtime Crothers associate, drummer Roger Mancuso. When the piano finally joins in the swing shuffle Palo Alto Street, it’s vastly more spare yet regally Ellingtonian at the end. Tristano’s persistent, volleying attack is in top shape in the two’s second number, and later on in My Baby. Other than in the gritty, cascading Minor Pennies, the rest of the recordings don’t really engage either musician’s strengths, such as they are.
The recording quality is all over the place. Endings get cut off, and it would be nice to be able to hear more Tristano in the sax duets. Sometimes that’s the price of history.