A Valentine for Fred Katz

Sept variations sur Lennie Tristano

Recorded tributes to earlier musicians are a jazz tradition about as old as the music itself. Everything we know, for instance, about such early jazz legends as trumpeter Buddy Bolden comes from others' versions of their tunes, while you could fill up a small record shop just with discs honoring Monk, Bird, Trane, Miles, Duke and Louis Armstrong.

Yet the CDs here avoid the neo cons' almost trademarked pantheon of great jazzmen, instead recasting the music of one underappreciated one little known jazz musician, who interestingly enough were born less than a month apart in 1919. More appropriately, rather than slavish recreations, the featured bands do what real improvisers do: twist and tweak the tunes to their own ends and add some of their own compositions as a direct homage.

Sept Variations, co-directed by French pianists Stephan Oliva and François Raulin, is an intense reorchestration of compositions by enigmatic pianist/composer/theorist/educator Lennie Tristano (Chicago, March 1919 - New York, November 1978) for two reeds, two pianos, two basses and guitar. Valentine, featuring the trio of Chicago cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, is a more buoyant salute to the work of Fred Katz (Brooklyn, February 1919 and who is still living in California). Katz was arguably jazz's first complete cello master, exhibited in his 1950s work with drummer Chico Hamilton.

Filled out by bassist Jason Roebke, an associate of cornettist Rob Mazurek and reedman Ken Vandermark; plus Wilco and Jim O'Rourke group member drummer Glenn Kotche, the Fred Lonberg-Holm trio approximates the unforced swing of Hamilton's rhythm section of that time. Yet cognizant of Katz's more varied experience and unbeatable craftsmanship -- he backed Ken Nordine on the original Word Jazz LPs, wrote the score for Roger Corman's cult black comedy, The Little Shop of Horrors, played piano for Lena Horne and was on the music faculty of California State University at Northridge -- the band goes beyond cool jazz and bebop when it plays.

Lonberg-Holm, whose playing situations have included rock and near ambient music and whose associates range from microtonalists like German trumpeter Axel Dörner and Boston saxist Bhob Rainey to reed wildmen like Swede Mats Gustafsson and German Peter Brötzmann, can exhibit different persona in different situations. Like Katz he knows how to us the cello's natural mournfulness and its purity of tone to project the underlying melancholy in the blues and on standards like "My Funny Valentine" and "Autumn Leaves," but without getting maudlin. Alternately the oscillating versatility of the cello's four strings, either arco or pizzicato, means that it can become an outright double-stopping swinger on Katz compositions such as "Pluck It" and "The Vidiot."

Except for an expansive arco sweep now and then, Roebke stays in character on bass as the time-keeping bigger brother to the cello, while Kotche steps out to decorate "The Squimp" with what sounds like bare palms striking drumheads and chains clattering on garbage can lids. Lonberg-Holm's own "Mystery Kat" slips right into the middle of Katz's tunes without making waves.

Tristano's work is a whole other story. Possibly jazz's original cult-leader, by the end of the 1940s the prickly pianist had gathered a group of like-minded musicians around him -- most notably saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, guitarist Billy Bauer and pianist Sal Mosca -- and set out to redefine the music. His harmonic language adapted some practices of contemporary classical music including polytonal effects and extensive use of counterpoint. Around that time he also recorded what some regard as the first Free Jazz records with no fixed beat or preconceived ideas. But after he founded one of the first jazz schools in 1951, Tristano performed and recorded infrequently, preferring to disseminate his ideas through his students, who in same extreme cases treated his every utterance as an unbreakable commandment.

Oliva and Raulin have adapted some of his ideas for this program of their own originals and Tristano compositions and rejected others. Considering that the New York pianist insisted that a rhythm section provide no more than a foundation to support the music's melodic and harmonic substance, but not interact with the front line, he demanded restraint from those players and was particularly hard on drummers.

Raulin, who also writes dance, theatre and film projects and is a longtime associate of French reedist Louis Sclavis, and Oliva, who is also part of a trio with American drummer Paul Motian, have followed ideas through by eliminating percussionists. Still, nether bassist on the date -- Frenchman Bruno Chevillon, who has worked with both pianists, drummer Daniel Humair, Motion and Sclavis; nor Briton Paul Rogers, who has a longtime association with pianist Keith Tippet's Mujician and saxophonist Paul Dunmall, among others -- is much of a background man.

Breaking the mould, however, Raulin, who recorded a dual piano album of Tristano compositions in 1998, here give sufficient solo space to French guitarist Marc Ducret, best-known for his highly-electrified, near metallic work with American altoist Tim Berne. He's no laid-back Bauer. Additionally, Marsh and Konitz, in his early role as a Tristano acolyte, aren't the first reedmen that come to mind when hearing the sometimes squealing post-Free Jazz work of woodwind players Laurent Dehors and Christophe Monniot. Dehors, a clarinet, bass clarinet and contrabass clarinetist has worked with Sclavis and leads a band with trombonist Yves Robert. Alto and baritone saxophonist Monniot has played with Humair and is part of the jazz/funk/rock/rap band Monio Mania.

Standard Tristano is most apparent on tunes such as "April," arranged by Raulin, where the rhythmic back up comes courtesy of unison horns and pianos. It's characterized by a gorgeous glissando from Dehors that solidifies in the coloratura register, though Lennie may have found the tinkling piano a little corny. Raulin's arrangement of " 317 East 32nd," a Tristano composition is also sufficiently Lennie-like. Here the cheery melody is again borne by the clarinet, with Monniot's baritone saxophone tone floating beside it and decorating it as it unrolls. Oliva's piano solo is finely shaped and light-fingered, backed at times by what sounds like a reed choir. Oliva's take on "Turkish Mambo/Lennie's Pennies", in contrast, features Ducret at his spikiest, mixing his rock style with what sounds like prepared pianos and percussive bass work. The themes are presented buoyantly enough, avoiding the emotionally detached air for which Tristano was often chided.

The disc's one major misstep, however, is "East Ogan." Here both keyboardists playing together are overly fussy, producing the sort of faux classical pianisms than Tristano never taught. Meanwhile the baritone sax that is alternately mellow and squeaking could be the antithesis of what Tristano wanted from a horn player.

Much better is "Combined Line Painting," written by Oliva and given a bal musette treatment as the pianos and horns intertwine to create a giant accordion sound. With squeezebox sonics providing the underscore, guitar plinks, trilling baritone sax screeches and whistling coloratura clarinet tones move to the forefront. Using four hands to create what Tristano did with double tracking, the two appear to be denting the keys with feisty, rolling notes as the horns weave around one another at different tempos.

Even more impressively, the clearest idea of the concept comes on "Requiem," arranged by Raulin. Written and recorded by Tristano as a solo piano tribute to Charlie Parker, Raulin reorchestrates it for stately piano and heraldic horns. The arco basses join with the low-pitched reeds to advance the melancholy theme, yet before it's reprised as a coda by the pianos, the hornmen play a traditional funeral march.

Because of this solemnity of purpose and inventive rearrangements, the French disc has a slight edge over the American one. Both are enjoyable. And either could serve as an object lesson for younger musicians as how to make another's music your own.

-- Ken Waxman

Track Listing A Valentine for Fred Katz: 1. Lillian; 2. A Mood; 3. I Know; 4. I Know II; 5. Pluck It; 6. The Vidiot; 7. My Funny Valentine; 8. Mystery Kat; 9. The Squimp; 10. The Sage; 11. Autumn Leaves

Track Listing Sept variations sur Lennie Tristano: 1. Tautology; 2. Avant April; 3. April; 4. Combined Line Painting; 5. Gaspation; 6. Requiem; 7. Turkish Mambo/Lennie's Pennies; 8. East Ogan; 9. 317 East 32nd; 10. Victory

Personnel A Valentine for Fred Katz: Fred Lonberg-Holm, cello; Jason Roebke, bass; Glenn Kotche, drums

Personnel Sept variations sur Lennie Tristano: Laurent Dehors, clarinet, bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet; Christophe Monniot, alto and baritone saxophones; Marc Ducret, guitar; Stephan Oliva and François Raulin, pianos; Bruno Chevillon and Paul Rogers, basses