What is a Jazz Record Anyway? Lennie Tristano And The Use Of Extended Studio Techniques In Jazz


In 1956, jazz pianist Lennie Tristano released an eponymous LP on Atlantic Records that for the first time made use of overdubbing and the manipulation of tape speeds in a jazz context. The resulting tracks “Line Up,” “Requiem,” “Turkish Mambo,” and “East Thirty-Second Street” created a watershed moment for the creative use of extended studio techniques in jazz, but also sparked an angry backlash from both critics and fans. Though Tristano had been experimenting with such techniques as early as 1951, he had been able to avoid such a critical response to his techniques largely by evading the question. However, his more overt use of in-studio manipulation in 1956 (Tristano) prompted such controversy that Atlantic records was prompted to issue a disclaimer on Tristano’s follow up record (The New Tristano, 1962) which promised that techniques such as multi-tracking, overdubbing, and tape speed manipulation had not been applied.

Though now generally celebrated as quite a singular achievement in jazz, the contemporary controversy that surrounded the album’s release raises several interesting questions about the function of recording and the nature of the recorded artifact in jazz. What exactly is a jazz recording, anyway? What does it seek to capture, and what functional use does it fulfill for the jazz fan?

Functional Staging

The final class for the coursework portion of my PhD led me to read Simon Zagorski-Thomas’ The Stadium in Your Bedroom (2010) as well as Ruth Dockwray and Allan Moore’s Configuring the Sound-Box (2010), both of which were something of a revelation to me at the time, and without which this paper would not have been conceived. Dockwray and Moore, through their examination of the “sound-box” in popular music, started me thinking about the ways in which jazz recordings were structured and mixed, and the reasons behind such decisions. Though I had listened to thousands of jazz records and had spent hundreds of hours in jazz clubs making decisions about which venues, albums, labels, and players were my favourites, I’d never considered recorded sound in such a way before with regard to jazz. Similarly revelatory was Eric Clarke’s work (Clarke: 1999) on subject-position, and the ways in which this relationship is mediated by the recording and engineering process. This was again something that I had simply not considered before in a jazz context.

The concepts of sound-box and subject position are, of course, largely determined by what Zagorski-Thomas has called Functional Use, and Functional Staging (Zagorski-Thomas: 2010).  To the best of my knowledge these concepts have not been much explored in the area of jazz studies, which is odd when you consider the extent to which jazz has always relied upon its recorded artifacts for pedagogy, not to mention the widespread existence of fan and collector clubs which revolve almost exclusively around recorded, rather than live, jazz.

So what is the functional use of a jazz record? What is it that the consumers of recorded jazz are seeking when they drop the needle or press play? What evidence might there be toward this? It is my assertion that in a way which is distinct from rock / pop, and perhaps even from classical recordings, the jazz recording has functioned for its audience not as a complimentary yet distinct sonic experience from concert going, but rather as a stand-in for concert going. The record is held to be an artifact of a live event, and even if it were not recorded in a “live” setting complete with audience, but rather “live in-studio,” the general assumption has been that the musicians were subject to the same constraints – the same improvisational demands – as they would have been in a club or concert setting.

I base these assertions largely upon the ways in which jazz has historically dealt with issues of technological mediation in recording. Though numerous examples of technical mediation in jazz recording exist and may be touched on here, I have chosen to focus upon Lennie Tristano, whose groundbreaking 1951, 1953, and 1956 recordings made extensive use of multi-tracking, manipulation of tape speed, and overdubbing in ways which were considered highly controversial at the time, and which are in many ways still unorthodox for mainstream jazz recording.

Zagorski-Thomas tells us that the staging of sounds on a record is functional if the reason for the manipulation of said sounds is tied to issues of audience reception – the extent to which the end use of the product by its consumers has influenced the methods of its recording (Zagorski-Thomas: 2010). Audience reception is of course determined by culturally constructed notions of authenticity which may exert enormous influence upon recordings within certain musical communities. In order to be deemed “authentic,” functional aspects of staging must “be situated within the relevant musical community’s collective representation of creative authenticity” (Zagorski-Thomas: 2010, 252).

Technological mediation, or what I shall refer to henceforth as “extended studio techniques”1 had existed in jazz recording well before Tristano’s first experiments in 1951. The first known instance of such extended studio techniques is Sidney Bechet’s 1941 recordings of “The Sheik of Araby” and “Blues of Bechet” on which he recorded all of the instruments – clarinet, soprano, tenor, piano, bass, and drums – by himself. It was, I believe, the first overdubbing of this type, and drew the ire of the AFM who saw Bechet’s accomplishment only as lost jobs for sidemen. Though groundbreaking, the technology at the time meant that the resulting sound quality was quite poor. For the purposes of my discussion, it’s also worth noting that the sides were marketed as novelty items and sold under the heading Sidney Bechets One Man Band.

Though Sidney Bechet was the first to have a commercial release using these techniques, guitarist Les Paul had been experimenting with multi-tracking since the 1930s, and released “Lover (When You’re Near Me),” which featured him playing on eight-different guitar parts, in 1948. In 1950, he released “How High the Moon” with wife Mary Ford, a cut which also featured techniques such as close miking, delay, and phasing in addition to overdubbing.

Jumping ahead a bit in the historical chronology, I should also briefly mention the 1957 album Miles Ahead with its famous use of overdubs to splice together some of Davis’ solos, and the 1963 Bill Evans album Conversations with Myself, which I will return to later on. In the case of the Davis record I think it is important to note that the use of extended studio techniques in this case was hidden from the audience, rather than celebrated. The goal was to slip the craft of construction through as though it wasn’t there, rather than to highlight it as part of the creative process. You were not, in other words, supposed to peek behind the curtain in the same way that Bechet and Les Paul invited.

Also in 1957, Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross made extensive use of multi-tracking on their album Sing A Song Of Basie. All the singers sang their parts separately, but again, the constructed whole sought to smooth over the technological intrusion; to make it sound, to the average listener, like a cohesive whole. Something that could, conceivably, be managed “live.”  Lennie Tristano’s use of these techniques was altogether quite different.

Lennie Tristano

In 1951, Tristano recorded and released two sides – “JuJu” and “Pastime” on his own label Jazz Records, overdubbing an additional piano track onto what had been recorded as a piano trio with Peter Ind (bass) and Roy Haynes (drums). It’s unclear whether or not Tristano had assistance with this from Rudy Van Gelder, who is listed as the engineer for the session, but who might have only recorded the trio portion as Tristano was already in possession of his own home studio. Though there was little discussion of the overdubbing in the jazz press, it has been suggested that within musicians’ circles there was some debate as to how the records were produced (Shim: 2007).

In 1953 Tristano continued his experiments with multi-tracking with the atonal “Descent into the Maelstrom,” a tune which both anticipated the musical explorations of Cecil Taylor and other ‘free-jazz’ players of the 1960s, and was only made possible through the use of multi-track techniques. The tune, which involved multiple, densely layered piano parts, was recorded in Tristano’s home studio and did not see release until 1976.

In February of 1956, Tristano made his first major release in four years –Lennie Tristano – on the Atlantic Records label, with whom, by all accounts, he had an agreement that he would “be his own music director with complete freedom to put out anything on the label he like[d]” (Down Beat, June 1, 1955).  The album consisted of two parts; the first side, which showcased four tracks recorded in Tristano’s home studio which made use of extended studio techniques, and the second side, which showcased Tristano live at the Sing-Song room of the Confucius Restaurant in New York City with Lee Konitz, Gene Ramey and Art Taylor.  It’s side A – the studio tracks – that concerns us here.

“Line Up” and “East Thirty Second”2 involved the piano part being layered over a pre-recorded rhythm section consisting of Peter Ind and Jeff Morton.3 It is widely believed that Tristano slowed the rhythm section down to half-speed, improvised over it, and then returned the resulting track to regular speed. This may account for the peculiar sound of the piano on these two cuts. “Turkish Mambo” was constructed out of four different piano lines over a snare track, all in a different meter. Three of the lines are ostinati, and the fourth is the melodic line improvised over top of the other three.4 This track also manages, in its use of two different blues derived scales and no preexistent harmonic structure -– no tune upon which Tristano was improvising – to break several other jazz norms of the time. “Requiem” is a blues for Charlie Parker which Tristano recorded upon receiving the news of Parker’s death. Sitting down at his piano Tristano apparently turned on his tape machine and proceeded to play the blues for several hours, later piecing the finished track together from the tapes and adding in echo and tremolo effects.

Tristano recorded all of these cuts in his own studio and acted as his own engineer. He here blurs the lines between composition and improvisation and, by acting on his own, raises, in light of the controversy these sides engendered, issues surrounding artistic autonomy and its impact upon acceptance and authenticity in the jazz community.


Contemporary reaction to the album was quite mixed. While critical reception was universally warm, jazz fans and musicians were more conflicted and at times, quite hostile to Tristano’s musical experimentation.

Both Down Beat and Metronome gave the record rave reviews, with Down Beat handing out 5 stars and commenting upon the “naked power” of “Requiem” and the “…imaginative resourcefulness” of Tristano, whose “… imagination …works organically, for there is never the touch of patchwork in any Tristano performance” (Down Beat, April 18, 1956, 36-37). Metronome was explicit in preferring the manipulated tracks on the album, suggesting that;

This record, the first by Lennie in too many years, might be sub-titled Tristano Contrasts. It displays two different Lennies; a free swinging, fully improvising Lennie recording in his own studio at East Thirty Second, and a somewhat restrained Lennie recorded in the Sing Song Room of the Confucius Restaurant and West Fifty Second. (Metronome, May 1956, 30-31)

and that, despite the mediated nature of the tracks, the end result was a;

…constantly bubbling improvisation; improvisation at its best…It’s all good jazz, very good jazz; the difference is a matter of excellence. The first four sides show what Lennie is capable of; extraordinary jazz. The rest are good jazz, but nothing extraordinary. (Metronome, May 1956, 30-31)

Despite the warm critical response, contemporary reaction to the record was decidedly mixed, and indeed at times rather heated. In May 1956, two months after their initial review, the controversy was sufficient that Down Beat put Tristano on the cover of the magazine and dedicated several pages to an in-depth interview by Nat Hentoff which dealt, in large part, with the multi-taping controversy. The article itself is titled “Multi-taping Isn’t Phony: Tristano” and speaks of the way in which the album “detonated controversy” and to the “… small tempest” which brewed amongst jazz musicians and listeners as to the “honesty” of multi-taping (Down Beat, May 16, 1956, 11-12, 42)   Conversations with Lee Konitz and Ted Brown have confirmed that the rhetoric surrounding the techniques applied by Tristano was at times quite intense.5

The letters to the editor section in the following month’s issue bears this out, with noted critic and pianist John Mehegan writing in to suggest that;

The point is that Lennie no longer enjoys an avant garde position in the art form… Actually jazz has bypassed Lennie and is ranging far and wide with a healthy vigor which has nothing to do with quiz tunes and multiple tapes. (Down Beat, June 13, 1956, 4)

and conceptual artist George Brecht offering the opposite view that,

… Tristano’s ideas parallel surpassingly the idea of artists who are making advances in other highly abstract forms of art – painting, sculpture, serious music, and dance. … it is very likely that Tristano, of all jazz artists, represents the most important thread of development in jazz, since his ideas in jazz have been shaped by our culture in the same direction as important independent artists in other fields.  (Down Beat, June 13, 1956, 4)

The general gist of the controversy was that by doing things that couldn’t readily be replicated live (though Lennie later proved that some of them could be done live),6 Tristano was somehow being dishonest, or had separated himself from something that was essential about jazz.7 Interestingly, not once in the contemporary sources are the sides by Sidney Bechet and Les Paul brought up either in defense or condemnation. Either collective memory at the time was rather short, or perhaps the musical ends to which Tristano put these techniques were considered sufficiently different to exclude their consideration.

Lennies Response

In typical fashion, Tristano was both outspoken and unapologetic about his use of multi-tracking. Tristano continually stressed that he resorted to extended studio techniques in pursuit of a specific artistic vision which he had found unachievable through more standard modes of jazz expression. In speaking to Nat Hentoff he commented,

If I do multi-tape, I don’t feel I’m a phony thereby. Take the Turkish Mambo. There is no other way I could do it so that I could get the rhythms to go together the way I feel them….When I sit down to do something, I can hear and feel what I want. I don’t have the ‘stigma’ of multi-track recording, there are some things I’d rather do myself because there are some things I want to do that others are not capable of doing with me.” (Down Beat, May 16, 1956, 11-12, 42)

and that he would; “… continue to do anything that will produce on a record what I hear and feel” (Down Beat, May 16, 1956, 11-12, 42).

Tristano also drew comparisons to other, readily embraced technological innovations, asking,

Am I to be put down for adding a tape echo on the blues and adding a tremolo on the last chorus of that number? …. Or am I not to use the Telefunken mike [sic] and rely instead on a dirty old crystal mike [sic]? I’m sure other people have done a lot more multi-tracking than I have.” (Down Beat, May 16, 1956, 11-12, 42)

Why the Issue?

Though Zagorski-Thomas suggests that,

One of the ways in which extensive technological mediation can gain acceptance with an audience, is for that mediation to be perceived as part of the artists’ communal or individual creative practice. (Zagorski-Thomas: 2010, 261)

Clearly this was not the case for Tristano, despite his outspokenness about having had control over all aspects of the project. That Tristano had full creative and technological control over these recordings did little to ease the negative reception they received. In what ways then, does jazz function differently for its audience than the musics explored by Zagorski-Thomas?

Yuval Taylor, on the blog which complements his book Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music (Barker & Taylor: 2007), suggests that,

Classical music is a written art form; rock is (or has become) a recorded art form; jazz is a live art form. Of course, this is essentialist thinking, but I do think it gets to the heart of  the music. The major appeal of classical music lies in harmony, in the play of resolutions and dissonances. The major appeal of rock music, at least after 1965, lies in the manipulation of electronic sound. And the major appeal of jazz will always lie in improvisation, which really has very little to do with the recording process. Improvisation is done on the spur of the moment, live.8

and that,

In rock recording, the aim certainly is to get the best final result. But in jazz, it’s to capture an ephemeral interaction between a group of players. That interaction gives the live jazz recording a spark of something that no overdubbed performance can capture.9

As I’ve already suggested, in many ways all jazz records function for their audiences as “live” recordings, and are meant to be mimetic of the jazz club experience – the idealized, if not the normative venue for jazz appreciation. In such settings jazz is ruled by the solo, by individual expression, and by group interplay and dynamics demonstrated over song forms which typically follow some form of head – solos – head structure. Tristano, through his use of studio effects to produce multiple lines, multiple time signatures, and multiple tonalities, often over unfamiliar or undetermined harmonic frameworks and all without real-time interaction with fellow musicians, may have simply broken too many conventions at once.

Tristano’s recordings also raise interesting questions about improvisation, a concern that was at the heart of Tristano’s musical practice and pedagogy (Jago: 2011). What does it mean for a jazz record to be improvised? Lennie’s stated intent was to use technology as a means through which to improvise in a way he was not able to do “live,” where he was inhibited in his artistic conception by club conditions and the difficulties of trying to mesh with other minds. In many ways, these concerns echo those of Bill Evans, who addressed them in the liner notes for 1963’s Conversations with Myself, an album that owes a debt to the pioneering efforts of Tristano.

I remember that in recording the selections, as I listened to the first track while playing the second, and the first two while playing the third, the process involved was an artificial duplication of simultaneous performance in that each track represented a musical mind responding to another musical mind or minds….so I I feel that the music here has more the quality of a “trio” than a solo effort. (Evans: 1963)

and that,

Another condition to be considered is the fact that I know my musical techniques more thoroughly than any other person, so that, if seems to me, I am equipped to respond to my previous musical statements with the most accuracy and clarity. (Evans: 1963)

Fall Out

Tristano’s follow up album, 1962‘s The New Tristano, bore a disclaimer which assured listeners that none of the music had been constructed using overdubs; and while Bill Evans won his first Grammy Award for Conversations With Myself (1963), there have been only very limited examples of continuing experimentation in this vein. Jazz that strays too far from mainstream expectations is quickly shuffled off to a sub-genre or sub-category of jazz, and mainstream jazz artists such as Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman continue to proclaim in their liner notes that their music has been recorded live, without technological mediation – that it is still “real” jazz. In a PBS interview concerning his album Highway Rider (2010), Mehldau made sure to note,

There’s a lot of pop records, even really cool pop records, that I like that nevertheless the orchestra was added on later. And right away that’s a big thing that I was able to avoid just in practical terms by recording everyone at the same time and not overdubbing the orchestra. …What I like about this record is that you can listen to it and you can get the feeling of a bunch of people in a big room playing and the space and the molecules flying around in the air.10

In this one short quote, Mehldau hits all the hot buttons – jazz is not pop, even good pop; this hasn’t been overdubbed; and the energy of that interaction is what makes this, and makes all jazz special.


Tristano was then, it seems, quite ahead of his time, and his concerns for improvisational experimentation perhaps curiously at odds with normative expectations for jazz performance and recording. By the time of his death in 1978, all of his records were out of print, and the lack of public support for his musical ideas likely contributed to his gradual withdrawal from public performance and recording throughout the 1960s.

Perhaps resistance to studio techniques such as overdubbing and multi-tracking stems from a tradition of jazz records being accessible – of being able to “lift” what one found interesting, adding to one’s own vocabulary the techniques and musical ideas of others.  The music we authenticate, Allan Moore tells us, is the music we appropriate (Moore: 2002, 219) and I warrant that few people were appropriating Tristano in 1956. The process of authentication is perhaps then a process of transfer from artist to audience, a process of imagination which needfully must include the ability to see oneself in the role of performer – “I could do that; I hear where you’re coming from.”

Or perhaps, to borrow both from Catherine Kodat and Theodore Adorno, “… the jazz musician is “permitted to tug at the chains of his boredom, and even to clatter them, but he cannot break them” (Adorno in Kodat: 2003, 6). The artist is constrained from within the community as well as from without.


1 I am a saxophone player, and it is common to refer to techniques which enable you to play beyond the keyed range of the instrument (altissimo), or to play multiple notes at a time (multi-phonics), or any other musical device which extends beyond or deviates from the conventional, keyed limits of the instrument as “extended” techniques. Such techniques are not necessarily difficult, and are in fact quite common, but they do require more from the player than simply pressing down a key and blowing into the mouthpiece. With the convention in jazz recording (in perception, if not in fact) to be “live” recordings – straight from the floor with little or no editing, overdubbing etc – it seemed natural to consider any studio techniques that went beyond simply capturing live sound to be an “extended” technique.

2 Not to be confused with the tune “317 E. 32nd Street” which is an entirely different composition.

3 Morton and Ind had recorded the rhythm section tracks for Tristano to practice with. This type of practicing, though unconventional at the time, has now become a standard method for music students around the world using such products as the Jamey Abersold play-along records, Music Minus One, Hal Leonard play-along records, Band in a Box, and Garage Band.

4 On a good set of speakers or headphones you can actually hear Tristano sing his improvisation as he goes – not unintelligible vocables such as those employed by Keith Jarrett, or predictive singing as Glenn Gould can be heard to do at times, but actually note-for-note as he improvises his line. This is noteworthy as such an exercise formed part of his improvisational pedagogy.

5 In-person discussions I’ve had with both Lee Konitz and Ted Brown over the past several years, as well as with students that studied with both Konitz and Tristano during the 1950s and 1960s.

6 See Tristano’s continued experimentation with poly-rhythms on The New Tristano, and The Copenhagen Concert from 1965 which is now available on DVD as well as CD.

7 These experiments have not, to the best of my knowledge, been repeated in the “straight ahead” arena of jazz, with most similar experimentation coming from areas of jazz sub-classified as fusion, jazz rock, smooth, and so on.

To this day the controversy lingers, and Ethan Iverson’s blog Do The Math features an extended entry on this issue. In large part he leaps to Tristano’s defense on this issue, but it is telling that he still feels the need to do so.

8 from http://fakingit.typepad.com/faking_it/2007/05/does_the_overdu.html

9 ibid.

10 from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/blog/2010/04/conversation-brad-mehldau.html


Barker, H. & Taylor, Y. (2002) Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Clarke, F. E. (1999) ‘Subject-Position and the Specification of Invariants in Music by Frank Zappa and P. J. Harvey’. In: Music Analysis. 18, 3, pp. 347-374.

Dockwray, R. & Moore, A. (2010) ‘Configuring the sound-box 1965-1972’. In: Popular Music. 29, 2, pp. 181-197.

Ind, P. (2005) Jazz Visions: Lennie Tristano and His Legacy. London: Equinox Publishing.

Jago, M. (2011) ‘Musical Koryu–Lineal Traditions in Jazz’. In: MUSICultures. 38, pp. 205-221.

Kodat, C. G. (2003) ‘Conversing With Ourselves: Canon, Freedom, Jazz’. In: American Quarterly. 55, 1, pp. 1-28.

Moore, A. (2002) ‘Authenticity as Authentication’. In: Popular Music. 21, 2, pp. 209-223.

Shim, E. (2007) Lennie Tristano: His Life in Music. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Zagorski-Thomas, S. (2010) ‘The Stadium in your bedroom: functional staging, authenticity, and the audience-led aesthetic in record production’. In: Popular Music. 29, 2, pp. 251-266.


Down Beat

April 18, 1956, pp. 36-37.

May 16, 1956, pp. 11-12, 42.

June 13, 1956, p. 4.

June 27, 1956, p. 4.

July 11, 1956, p. 4.


May 1956, pp. 30-31.

Web Sources

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/blog/2010/04/conversation-brad-mehldau.html (accessed June 2013)

http://fakingit.typepad.com/faking_it/2007/05/does_the_overdu.html (accessed June 2013)


Bechet, Sidney. Sidney Bechets One Man Band. Victory (Sony /BMG). 1941.

Davis, Miles. Miles Ahead. [LP] Columbia Records. 1957.

Evans, Bill. Conversations with Myself. [LP] Verve Records. 1963.

Lambert, Henricks, & Ross. Sing a Song of Basie. [LP] Impulse. 1957.

Paul, Les. ‘Lover (When You’re Near Me)’, Capitol Records. 1948.

Paul, Les & Mary Ford. ‘How High the Moon’, Capitol Records. 1951.

Tristano, Lennie. ‘Ju-Ju’, [45] Jazz Records. 1951.

Tristano, Lennie. ‘Pastime’, [45] Jazz Records. 1951.

Tristano, Lennie. ‘Descent into the Maelstrom’, [LP] East Wind, (rec. 1953) released 1976.

Tristano, Lennie. Lennie Tristano. [LP] Atlantic Records. 1956.

Tristano, Lennie. The New Tristano. [LP] Atlantic Records. 1962.