(Lennie Tristano plays Tangerine in Copenhagen in 1965)

In anticipation of tomorrow night’s “Lennie’s Pennies (March 19 2013) performance, a birthday tribute to the great composer, pianist and theoretician Lennie Tristano, the Royal Room’s Wayne Horvitz chats with Seattle based alto saxophonist/composer Jacob Zimmerman about Lennie Tristano’s contributions to jazz music and education:

WH: How did you first hear about the music of Lennie Tristano?

JZ: A combination of fate and unavoidability – I was definitely aware of Lennie by the time I was in high school, though I didn’t really like his music at first. Then when I was in college at New England Conservatory this piano player asked me to play Lennie’s music in a band with him. I remember thinking to myself – “I don’t really like this music, but everybody talks about it so I should probably play it!” I did end up playing in that band, but the real tipping point was a little later, in my lessons with piano player Anthony Coleman, a self-professed non jazz musician, who said to me one day, “if you want to read about an artist who is truly self-aware, who can really articulate himself, you have to read Conversations with the Improviser’s Art – which is written by Lee Konitz, who first came to public attention as one of Lennie Tristano’s most important artistic partners.

I read that book after I graduated, and it made me want to get into playing jazz standards again – something I had grown up doing but had stopped when I got involved with more experimental music in college.  The way Lee Konitz talked about playing standards in that book made sense to me – that you actually could play standards and play something completely new each time. Once I got finished with grad school, that became all I wanted to do. It was 2010 when I really got serious about playing the Tristano approach to standards on my own.

I first heard about Tristano from Anthony Braxton. It’s really interesting to me that the people who seem most interested in avant-garde music are also the ones most interested in Tristano, as opposed to a lot of straight ahead players who are more interested in learning Charlie Parker or Coltrane or Lee Morgan solos. When I moved to NYC and met John Zorn – someone who like me doesn’t consider himself a “jazz musician”, but loves jazz and is interested in jazz – he was the one who said “let’s look at some of this Tristano music”. Do you have any idea why that is?

I honestly don’t know – but I suspect it has a lot to do with that common misunderstanding with Lennie’s music which is that it’s very cerebral and cold which, to be honest, is what I thought the first time I heard it when I was 15 because it wasn’t like anything else I had heard before.

What do you think was his influence? Whether he proclaimed them or not?

 In my opinion the biggest thing he did was not just to come up with the idea, but to actually come up with a way, that jazz improvisation could be taught – a whole educational approach.

So it’s all his fault!

Yeah – he was one of the first people to say: you can take lessons in jazz; learning on the bandstand isn’t the only way. It’s amazing to see how the teaching practices he developed over 60 years ago are still completely relevant and useful today, things I use all the time and that were also the basis for classes that I took at NEC without my knowing it. But a lot has happened in jazz education between Tristano and today that has really messed it up.


Like what? What are some of the things that Tristano introduced to Jazz education, and what are some of the things that came along later, that you think got in the way?

One of the great things Tristano had all his students do was have them sing along with recordings of great jazz soloists and use their ears and voices to replicate. A lot of jazz theory that developed between then and now puts emphasis on being more analytical and theoretical in the way you think about what you play. For Tristano, the emphasis was on getting close to recordings of solos that you knew were great and developing a feeling for how it felt for those soloists to have played like that – not just taking information and replicating it, but really getting close. It’s a little abstract, but also not, because if you internalize those things, you feel the difference. Let’s face it – when you’re improvising, nobody can intellectually think about every single note they play. No matter what, there is a level of intuition that you’re going on.

And patterns that exist – whether you think you’re playing patterns or not.

Exactly. They come out in a way that you’re not completely conscious of in a micro level. When you learn to trust your ear, that’s when you’re really able to improvise and come up with something new each time.

That’s right. I’m always telling my students: look at a Mozart sonata and look at a Charlie Parker solo – ninety percent of the same stuff is going on. So – you’re talking about Tristano teaching through singing, and yet a lot of his music does sound sort of “cerebral” as you say – why do you think it sounds that way? Is it the “cool” aspect of it?

 Part of the aesthetic in the music with Lennie and those guys was that you did not want to “emote”, in fact the word emotion was not a good word with Lennie, he preferred “feeling”, everything was a feeling. The way I understand it – take Bach for example – most of the time I listen to Bach, I don’t hear something specific emotionally. The way Bach’s music sounds is not based on a saxophone player who’s trying to sound like he’s in agony or has the blues. Instead the emphasis is shifted to letting the succession of notes, the lines, the melodies they are playing, create feelings by themselves without musicians putting as much emphasis on the more “expressive” musical gestures.

So in some ways it’s not so surprising that its not the most popular jazz style ever invented.

At the same time, Jerome Gray – a really interesting teacher here in town – told me that one year in the late 50s or early 60s Oscar Peterson won the Downbeat Poll in the piano, and the next year Tristano did. It’s interesting to note that in at least a certain era Tristano really had the attention of the jazz community – but that’s a pretty deep contrast. I mean obviously Oscar Peterson was an incredible pianist, but also a crowd pleaser in a certain kind of way.

In the concert at the Royal Room you’ll be presenting pieces Lennie wrote, some that protégés of Lennie’s wrote, and also a couple of standards that he just liked to do.

Yeah, one of the standards we’re going to play is “Tangerine” which I chose because Lennie played it on his great recording of a solo concert in Copenhagen. In it he does this great thing where he walks a bass line with his left hand. I fell in love with that tune through that recording, it’s a pretty classic one. We’re also playing “It’s You or No One” which Warne Marsh used open sets with all the time, as a tribute to Lennie.

Lennie’s Pennie’s will take place at the Royal Room this Tuesday, March 18th at 8:00pm and will include performances by Jacob Zimmerman (alto sax), Steve Treseler (tenor sax), Wayne Horvitz (piano), Carmen Rothwell (bass), and Greg Campbell (drums). Tickets are $7 advance/ $10 at the door.

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