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Pianists Born 100 Years Ago Prove: There's No One Way To Play Jazz

Both Lennie Tristano and Herbie Nichols were active on the New York scene in the 1950s. Though worlds apart stylistically, their music demonstrates how the piano accommodates myriad personalities.



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Other segments from the episode on March 20, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 20, 2019: Interview with Heidi Schreck; Tribute to Lennie Tristano and Herbie Nichols.



This is FRESH AIR. Jazz pianist Lennie Tristano and Herbie Nichols were born a hundred years ago. Both were active on the New York scene in the 1950s although both found nightclubs inhospitable to their own music. Tristano, born March 19, 1919, made the rent by becoming an influential teacher. Nichols, whose hundredth birthday was January 3, took odd jobs in Dixieland and cabaret bands. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says stylistically, these piano modernists were worlds apart.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Starting in the 1940s, Lennie Tristano found his voice as a pianist, improvising long, intricate singing lines rather like a horn player. The songs he improvised came from Broadway and the movies. But Tristano is happy to skip the melody and get straight to the solos. Charlie Parker was a fan, and cool saxophonist Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz were his proteges.

But Tristano came to hate nightclub work. In the 1950s, he became the jazz musician who worked at home where he'd teach and record his own music, exploring tape technology in the process. He might overdub his piano to play complex cross-rhythms. Or he might tinker with the tape speed.


WHITEHEAD: To make the piece line up, Lennie Tristano first recorded bass and drums alone, then slowed them down and recorded piano over that track using the low end of the keyboard. Speeding it all back up to bass and drums' original tempo gave his piano an unnaturally quick attack and a darker, more percussive sound.


WHITEHEAD: Some musicians accuse Tristano of cheating as if a recording should only document a real-time performance. Still, Tristano said he learned to play such snaky runs and cross-rhythms in real time. He just about did just that on his 1962 solo album "The New Tristano." On "C Minor Complex," he improvises a winding top line over his own fast, walking bass. It's busy, but there is an austere purity to it. He knows exactly what he wants to do and does only that.


WHITEHEAD: In the 1950s when Tristano wanted out of New York nightclubs, fellow modernist Herbie Nichols very much wanted in. He was an adaptable pianist who'd play an almost comic variety of jobs for hire in his time, including a lot of Dixieland bands. He rarely got to showcase his own terrific tunes even after Billie Holiday made his "Lady Sings The Blues" her theme song. Nichols got his big break when he signed with Blue Note Records in 1955. Lennie Tristano liked the long, lean line. Herbie Nichols went totally the other way. His short, punchy phrases might erupt from any point or points on the keyboard.


WHITEHEAD: Where Tristano might skip the melody to get to the improvising, for Herbie Nichols, improvising celebrates a melody and no wonder given how many good ones he wrote. He breaks all kinds of rules - might write a nine-bar phrase instead of the usual eight. And the chords might go one way where the melody goes another. But Nichols' tunes are so catchy he keeps dipping back into them in his solos, staying close to the melody. This is the last great tune he recorded in 1957, "Portrait Of Ucha."


WHITEHEAD: Where Lennie Tristano liked a smooth, flowing, undistracting rhythm section, Nichols wanted accompanists to play with the same lively, percussive beat that he did. His pieces often spotlight the drums. Nichols' parents were from the West Indies, and echoes of calypso rhythms and steel drum sonorities turn up all over alongside audio impressions of street noises, tap dancers, other musicians and loud audiences. He got an opulent range of bright and dark colors from piano. This is "Hangover Triangle" with drummer Max Roach.


WHITEHEAD: If Lennie Tristano was too uncompromising for stardom, Herbie Nichols was too shy, unsuited to the schmoozing he thought necessary to get ahead. Tristano made few public appearances in later years, dying in 1978. But nowadays we can more easily hear how his horn-like improvising pointed the way for, say, Herbie Hancock playing piano with one hand in the '60s. Herbie Nichols was almost forgotten when he died in 1963, but a few disciples and admirers went on to champion his compositions, which get played more and more.

The extreme stylistic contrast between these hundredth birthday pianists reminds us there's never just one right way to play jazz. A music that prizes individual voices will accommodate myriad personalities and approaches even when listeners don't catch on right away.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and The Audio Beat.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll start with something Donald Trump Jr. wrote this week - that in a way, Brexit and his father's election are one and the same. We'll talk about that comparison with British journalist Ed Caesar. His article in The New Yorker is about the man who funded the most extreme end of the leave campaign and the question of whether he did it with Russian assistance. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


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