One of the best, if slightly exasperating, things about taking stock of the year in music is discovering things that you missed previously, which certainly applies to a killer archival title from Uptown Records that dropped quietly in October and that I only became aware of when I started noticing it on multiple year-end lists. Chicago April 1951 is a remarkable live recording of the Lennie Tristano Sextet made during the peak of the pianist’s creativity, when he was working with a rich front line that included his two most famous acolytes: saxophonists Lee Konitz (who will be in town on February 20 to play in a duet with pianist Dan Tepfer at Constellation) and Warne Marsh (trombonist Willie Dennis is also an acolyte, though not on the level of Marsh and Konitz). The 14 tracks on Chicago April 1951 (spread across two discs) were recorded by the owner of Chicago’s Blue Note Jazz Club (located at the corner of Madison and Dearborn) and aside from the crappy piano Tristano was forced to use (which occasionally sounds closer to a harpsichord than a piano), the sound quality is quite remarkable and clear, even if the rhythm section of bassist Burgher “Buddy” Jones and drummer Dominic “Mickey” Simonetta sound rather muted.

As elucidated in the excellent, detailed, and authoritative liner notes by veteran critic Bob Blumenthal, Tristano was celebrated (or excoriated) for the rigor of his vision and the stubbornness of his pedagogy (two months after these performances the native Chicagoan opened a jazz school in Manhattan), and too often his actual playing has been obscured by the potency of his concepts. This dazzling set offers strong evidence of his skill and the special rapport he had with his disciples—Konitz and Marsh, in particular, sound fantastic throughout. There are very few live documents of the group from this period, so this set kind of blows the doors open.

Tristano and his cohorts were masters of understanding the myriad possibilities of harmony within set chord changes, and some of the “original” tunes here are little more than melodic lines written with the changes of more famous works: Tristano actually introduces a reading of “Background Music” as a Warne Marsh composition called “All of Me” (which is a pop standard from the early 30s). As you can hear on the version of the Konitz-Marsh piece “Sax of a Kind” below, the group dynamic was truly special.


Today’s playlist:

Per Henrik Wallin Trio, Coyote (Dragon)
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away (Bad Seed)
Stefano Battaglia Trio, Songways (ECM)
O’Jays, We’ll Never Forget you: the Imperial Years 1963-1966 (Shout!)
Wolf Eyes, Slicer (Hanson)