I recently discovered a treasure chest – a BBC radio series called ‘Castaway’ or ‘Desert Island Discs’ (they’re surprisingly fuzzy about the actual name) in which a whole passle of famous people are interviewed about their lives and the 8 musical tracks that they would take with them to a desert island. The program (programme, actually) has been running since 1941, with almost 3000 episodes available on-line.
They’ve been busy with people like Aaron Copland, Alan Alda and Alfred Eisenstadt, so I understand why they haven’t gotten around yet to calling me. But I figure I’d better be ready when they do, so I’ve been working on my list.
Many of the interviewees choose music they associate with landmark events in their lives. Not I, said Jeff. Music’s too important to confuse it with life. My conundrum would be of a different sort – to go for the music I most esteem, or that which I listen to most, or that which I most enjoy. The first would include “John Wesley Harding”, for example (or Dylan in general), which I esteem at the top of the pile but listen to relatively infrequently. I listen to a lot of Renaissance liturgical music as background music to sleep on the train, but I’m guessing I wouldn’t have that issue on a desert island. What do I do about The Beatles? I rarely actually bother to play their music anymore – I just press a button in my cerebral jukebox and let it run through my synapses.
So one of my leading candidates for a cut I’d like to spend the rest of my life with is ‘317 East 32nd’ by the Lennie Tristano quintet from their album “Live in Toronto 1952”.
Lennie Tristano’s music never fails to transport me. It’s pure and abstract and riveting. It’s like watching an imagined river, a mental act of divine creation. It transcends life. It never gets bogged down in the messiness of human intercourse. It’s beyond what one Danish prince called ‘the whips and scorns of time’.
Lennie Tristano (1919–78) is no household name, and I understand why. Most people don’t get his music. There’s nothing to get, really. It’s an abstract. Like watching mathematical patterns unfold. So what? Well, I’ll tell you so what: Ice Also Burns.
Way back in SoTW 027 I wrote about Tristano and an even more obscure cut, ‘Wow’ live from 1949. I can’t improve on what I said there: Tristano forced his rhythm section to serve as a metronome, providing a regular, mechanical pulse. Remarkably, such creative musicians as bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach were Tristano supporters. Because on top of that pulse, he would reorganize the bar, displace the metric system, create a disjointed and constantly surprising world. You can count tick-tick-tick without problems, but try one-two-three-four and at some point you’ll find yourself in a world of temporal relativity. It’s a shame Tristano never invited Einstein to sit in on violin. He would have felt very much at home, I think.
Eunmi Shim wrote in her musical biography of Tristano: Mingus and Max Roach were quite enamoured of Tristano’s approach, which restricted the rhythmic contribution of bass and drums quite severely. [But] they approved of such consciously articulated developments as that of emasculating the rhythm section in order to free the front line. Mingus said, “Indiviuals can swing alone like Bird, and groups can swing collectively like Tristano’s”.
Tristano is often presented as the antithesis of the great Charlie Parker. Where Bird was the ultimate pour-it-out faster-than-the-ear-can-hear no-holds-barred improviser, Tristano was a proponent of strict discipline. He trained his students to take responsibility for every single note. The gut and the mind. But Bird and Tristano had great respect for each other. One Sunday Bird drove out to Tristano’s house on Long Island, where they recorded two cuts – ‘All of Me’ and ‘I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me’. That’s the great Kenny Clarke tapping on the phonebook!
Mingus is the source of another famous tale about Tristano: “Woody Herman, who’s supposed to be a very nice guy and a funny one, came over to Lennie. He asked Tristano if he were really blind. ‘Yes,’ Lennie said, ‘I can’t see anything.’…’Good,’ said Woody. ‘Good, you motherfucker. I’m glad you can’t see!’…I knew Lennie; I knew how destructive he could be. And I asked him, ‘But what did you do to get that guy so hurt and angry?”
Irascible, perhaps, but Tristano left a legacy. Two great saxophonists were his best-known disciples, Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, both of whom we’ve written about at length. On this version of ‘317 East 32nd’,Konitz (alto sax) plays the first solo, Tristano (piano) the second, Marsh (tenor sax) the third.
The song, like many Tristano ‘originals’ is a reworking of a standard, this time ‘Out Of Nowhere’. Here’s a version by Ella Fitzgerald for comparison. And here are a few more versions of ‘317 East 32nd’ for your listening edification:
And here’s a 40-minute solo concert of Tristano in Copenhagen, in a video I recently discovered: Copenhagen concert
They’re all great. But it’s the ‘317 East 32nd’ from Toronto that I’m taking with me to Bali Hai. I’m going to sip on coconut milk and watch the waves and escape into the very pure beauty of this cut. It’s perfect music.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:027: Lennie Tristano, ‘Wow’