Whither Ted Brown? The answer to that question can be found in my feature in Arts & Leisure this weekend, which uses Brown’s return -- at the Kitano Hotel this Wednesday, in case you didn’t know -- as an excuse to reflect on the growing influence of the Tristano School.
I suspect hardcore Tristano fans will find plenty of fault with the piece, which takes a rudimentary approach to a fairly complex set of issues. This was the necessary tradeoff for a general-interest readership, though I do worry about one thing: I hope my characterization of Tristano’s music doesn’t make it seem like rhythm itself was M.I.A.
Anyone who has attempted to transcribe these tunes can attest to the subdivisions and superimpositions that Tristano could inflict on a 4/4 bar; that’s one reason for Larry Kart’s assertion, in The Complete Atlantic Recordings of Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz, and Wayne Marsh, that “Rhythm is the paramount issue in Tristano-related music.”
Still it’s demonstrably true that Tristano subordinated the bassist and drummer in most of his available music, at a time when the rhythm section was king. (Here is where I steer you to Ethan Iverson’s post on Tristano; scroll down, if you must, to the sections on drummers and bassists.) What interested me here was the thought that improvisers now in their 20s and 30s are willing to look past the non-dynamic rhythm sections and embrace Tristano’s music for its considerable strengths. If anyone is responsible for this, it’s Mark Turner.
When I spoke with Turner about the historical chill between Tristano and so much of the jazz world, he was quick to point to the drums:
I wouldn’t call it a good or bad thing, but in general the drummer had a pretty restricted role, particularly when Lennie was the leader. Not so much when Warne was. From what I’ve heard of people who played with him, he was really clear about what he wanted. Part of the reason is just some of the things they were doing, particularly certain accents. For example, certain ways that they would practice. Spending a certain time on eighth notes in groupings of threes, fours and twos, and then in fives and sevens. In order to get that to sound, and displace your phrases particularly -- but also in the larger sense of where you start your phrase and end your phrase-- in order for it to sound in the most strong and obvious way, the rhythm section needs to lay pretty straight.
As I mention in the piece, Konitz says something to the same effect in Conversations on the Improviser’s Art. “With the rhythm section playing straight time, with not much rhythmic counterpoint,” Konitz explains, “his lines were really clearly articulated.” I think this is an extremely sound defense of the simplicity in Tristano’s rhythm sections, and I also think it’s a valid reason to be put off by that music.
(Side note: while poking around the New York Times archives, I stumbled across a John S. Wilson review of a Ted Brown Quartet gig at Willy’s, a Greenwich Village club. “The rhythm section -- Ron Gruberg, bass, and Roger Mancuso, drums -- followed the bland, unaccented style that Mr. Tristano seemed to prefer from his rhythm men,” Wilson writes. “The best that can be said for this style is that it does not interfere with the Tristano ensemble manner but that it scarcely adds anything to it.” Gruberg? Mancuso? This review, incidentally, was published in the paper the day before I was born.)
But let’s get back to Mark Turner. I think it’s safe to say that his endorsement of the Tristano School, as an important young African-American jazz musician, paved the way for others, black and white, to seek out the same. (Is that not safe to say? I guess I’ll find out.) Here is saxophonist Ben Wendel, of Kneebody, on the subject: “It’s my impression that a lot of folks discovered the Tristano school through the work of Mark Turner and possibly Kurt Rosenwinkel. I know I have had at least a dozen conversations confirming this general theory.”
Of course there have been other saxophonists of color who picked something up from Marsh and/or Konitz. “I had an email conversation with Branford Marsalis,” Iverson told me, “where he said he wished Wayne would say a bit more definitively in print how much he was influenced by Warne. The more intellectual black players like Steve Coleman and Greg Osby and Branford, all those guys who have systems in their stuff, where they really try to avoid playing pure bebop, they’re all indebted to it.”
What differentiates Turner in this regard, aside from his candor, is the way he incorporated Tristano School protocols into his own music -- with a rhythm-section upgrade. Consider this concert footage of his meaningfully titled tune “Lennie Groove,” with Chris Lightcap on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums (the 1998 studio version, featuring Brad Mehldau in his Tristano bag, is also worth seeking out):
Ted Brown’s indebtedness, of course, runs deep. He studied with Tristano from 1948 to ’55, paying for lessons, during one lean stretch, by helping out with housework at Tristano’s home in Flushing, Queens. (He met his wife, Phyllis, around this time; she was also a Tristano School student.)
There wasn’t room in the piece to get into Brown’s discography, so I’ll just mention a few things here. He’s featured throughout the 1956 Warne Marsh album Jazz of Two Cities, which was named after one of his tunes and leads off with another one (“Smog Eyes,” probably his best known.) Today that album comes as a package deal with some Tristano sessions from the ‘40s.
Dig It, credited jointly to Ted Brown & Lee Konitz and released on Steeplechase in 2000, is a good representation of Brown’s present-day sound. (The rhythm section there is Ron McClure on bass, Jeff Williams on drums.)
Brown also appears as a guest on Lee Konitz Meets Jimmy Giuffre, a Verve album recorded in 1959 with a coterie that includes Bill Evans; and on Konitz’s Sound of Surprise, made 40 years later with the rhythm section of guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joey Baron.
This week Brown will be playing with a bass-and-drums team of Murray Wall and Taro Okamoto. The pianist is Michael Kanan, who met Brown last spring and has played a handful of private sessions with him since. (Brown has also sat in with Kanan at Sofia’s.)
“I feel that something that’s become attached to the Tristano approach is abstraction,” Kanan said, “and this is just my opinion, but it doesn’t seem to be where Ted is coming from at all. He’s so into swing and lyricism, in the most beautiful way, as somebody from that generation would be.”
Iverson said something similar, though a bit more explicitly critical of the Tristano School: “Warne and Tristano and the whole world of Tristano-ites kind of gave up on -- like, they love Lester Young so much but they never played anything that had that sort of clarity. It was more of this super-virtuoso super-advanced harmony pretty constantly. To me that’s a dead end in the Tristano-ites, those weirdos out there. Konitz and Ted somehow, because of their love of Lester Young, at some point went much further in a simpler vein, really trying to swing.”
Kanan, Iverson and Turner all agreed when I suggested that renewed interest in the Tristano School might have something to do with the increased nightclub presence of Konitz in the last decade or so. (Of course Iverson and Turner are not entirely objective here.) The impact of hearing Konitz playing “Body and Soul” a different way every night should not be understated.
The same could well prove to be true for Brown, which is yet another reason to take note of his return to active duty. “That quality that I was talking about with Ted,” Kanan said, “I think it’s the same thing with Lee. As much as they want to be as free as possible, they’re still ultimately connected to their ears. They’re not just throwing notes around for the sake of coming up with weird sounds. They’re playing very singable, melodic ideas. It’s so important for the younger players to get connected to that again.”