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Lennie Tristano's private stash of recordings reveal a trove of free improvisations

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Jazz pianist Lennie Tristano didn't make many commercial recordings or perform so often in nightclubs. But at home in New York, he taught hundreds of students and recorded myriad hours of his own music. A new box set digs deep into Tristano's private stash of home and live recordings. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF LENNIE TRISTANO COMPOSITION)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Lennie Tristano getting down with the blues, earthy music at odds with his reputation for being a coolly analytical improviser who is a little above it all. His favorite pianist and big influence was bebop giant Bud Powell. But Lennie leaned into longer, busier lines. You could hear the Bach he'd studied come out when he got really busy. He can sound like his right hand is a harpsichord and his left is a jazzy walking bass, two streams flowing together.

(SOUNDBITE OF LENNIE TRISTANO COMPOSITION)

WHITEHEAD: Lennie Tristano in the early 1960s from the six-CD box "Personal Recordings 1946-1970," co-produced by the labels Dot Time and the web order house Mosaic Records. The selection by daughter Carol Tristano aims to show Lennie had more moods that he may get credit for. He could also sound playful and relaxed, letting the music breathe.

(SOUNDBITE OF LENNIE TRISTANO COMPOSITION)

WHITEHEAD: In this new box drawn from Lennie Tristano's home recordings and live dates, he plays in solo duo, trio, quartet, quintet and sextet settings. It all starts in 1946, when his core players start joining up, namely guitarist Billy Bauer and like-minded saxophonists Warne Marsh on tenor and Lee Konitz on alto. Here they all are at Carnegie Hall in 1949.

(SOUNDBITE OF LENNIE TRISTANO'S "SAX OF A KIND")

WHITEHEAD: Lee Konitz - I've buried the lede in this review. What really has Tristano fans buzzing about these basement tapes is a trove of free improvisations Lennie and company recorded at home in 1948. That was a year before his studio tracks, sometimes identified as the first free jazz on record, although saxophonist Bud Freeman and drummer Ray McKinley had beat them to it in 1945 with the duet "The Atomic Era."

Tristano's newly unearthed quartet improvisations are fascinating, despite the poor sound quality caught on a wire recorder. Free jazz can be rambunctious, but these musicians step and listen carefully. You can hear the Bach behind it, one instrumental voice imitating another.

(SOUNDBITE OF LENNIE TRISTANO COMPOSITION)

WHITEHEAD: Even better than those seven free pieces for quartet, we also hear Tristano's sextet slip a more confident free improvisation into a 1950s nightclub gig without shocking the audience in the slightest. Their free play is as orderly as their jamming on standard chord progressions.

(SOUNDBITE OF LENNIE TRISTANO COMPOSITION)

WHITEHEAD: Most of the music in the new Lennie Tristano box was recorded at his home. Jazz is a social music, so working from home has its disadvantages, not least as a career move. But Tristano left behind much valuable work for us to discover. A disc of well-recorded solo music here is a standout.

(SOUNDBITE OF LENNIE TRISTANO COMPOSITION)

WHITEHEAD: Drummer Max Roach once said of Tristano - I'm paraphrasing - we uptown Black musicians and Lennie's downtown white guys admired each other and could play together no problem. But Lennie's crew had their own scene and style, different from what we were doing. It was something, Max Roach said, that you could respect and appreciate. Tristano didn't always get his due, but by now, listeners have come around. Jazz does, after all, have a soft spot for maverick pianists who plow their own furrow, trusting that someday the public will catch up.

(SOUNDBITE OF LENNIE TRISTANO COMPOSITION)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "Lennie Tristano Personal Recordings 1946-1970." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Quinta Brunson, the creator and star of the new hit ABC sitcom "Abbott Elementary" about the teachers in a majority Black, under-resourced elementary school in Philadelphia. Her mother taught in such a school. Brunson got her start as a standup comic and the creator of short comic online videos. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.