When you delve into your studies of jazz piano greats you mustn't forget to investigate Lennie Tristano. A true iconoclast, Tristano straddled various modes of jazz while never really embracing any one style in a stranglehold. Informed by European classical music and bebop, Tristano prefigured both cool and free jazz. While his music falls squarely in the jazz tradition, it remains uniquely Tristano music through and through. As early as 1950, he explained to Downbeat magazine that he was uninterested, unable to acquiesce to a more accessible style of playing. "It would be useless for me to play something I don't feel," he says. 'I wouldn't be doing anything. If I played something that I'd have to impose on myself, I wouldn't be playing anything good."
Tristano's advanced harmonic conceptions pushed at the edges of the bebop terrain as he worked to move his music beyond its trappings. He held Charlie Parker and Bud Powell in high esteem and was always quick to sing their praises, even while instructing his sidemen (famously, Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz) to avoid copying Parker licks in effort to maintain their own originality. He explained, "Then, of course, there’s originality. That doesn’t mean that I am not moved by someone who uses Bird. A good example of that is how Bud Powell used to play. He used Bird’s vocabulary, but with some originality, just as Fats Navarro did. Beyond that, I like to hear someone hearing what he is playing. This is very rare. Jazz is supposed to be the great improvising art, and it is." Tristano's cerebral style was endlessly inventive, showcasing a seemingly effortless flow of notes and this command of his instrument affords him a place among the great improvisers.
His 1949 sessions for an album called Intuition features a few tracks which are now regarded as the first truly "free" improvised sides in recorded jazz, a full decade before others would begin to work in this direction. A 1953 work titled "Descent into the Maelstrom" was a landmark of early multi-track recording and produced a haunting atonal soundscape that, again, was well ahead of its time in the realms of avant-garde jazz.
Time magazine would run article about Tristano titled the "Schoenberg of Jazz" which speaks to how advanced and complex his trailblazing efforts were. If his detractors thought him too cool, too unemotional, they would do well to heed the words of Charlie Parker, “As for Lennie Tristano, I’d like to go on record saying I endorse his work in every particular. They say he’s cold. They’re wrong. He has a big heart and it’s in his music…He can play anywhere with anybody. He’s a tremendous musician. I call him the great acclimatizor.”