One of the more distinctive and convincing points made by Ted Gioia in his definitive chronicle of jazz, The History of Jazz (1997, rev. 2011, Oxford University Press) is about the under-credited impact pianist Lennie Tristano made on the development of jazz. His conception of jazz used bebop as a springboard but took its precepts to its logical extremes, employing polyrhythms, atonality and fractured harmonic structures that anticipated the “New Thing” by more than a decade. Though advanced jazz artists eventually arrived at the spot Tristano first staked out, the reclusive Tristano rarely got credit for being there first.
And that’s what is so wonderful about Jason Stein’s debut album with his new quartet, The Story This Time. This group of all Chicago-based musicians have made their mark in electro-acoustic, rock, post rock, modern groove music, free jazz, classical, punk and prog. And yet, the music they play on Time pays loyal homage to the music and concepts of Tristano and Thelonious Monk. Consisting of three songs a piece by Monk and Tristano or his disciples Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, along with five Stein originals, the music sounds strangely advanced and vintage at the same time. It swings and stretches out like bebop, but the song constructions and sometimes odd tempos suggest something much further ahead. Moreover, the album demonstrates how close the parallel approaches of both Tristano and the more widely recognized works of Monk truly are, now that someone has put them side by side.
Stein is no mere curator, though, and he and his band don’t perform this proto-avant jazz precisely the way those cats from the 40s and 50s did. For starters, Stein plays a bass clarinet, an instrument that didn’t really come into its own within jazz until the 60s. And in spite of his fealty to a couple of composing pianists, there’s no piano in his band. Instead, we have Keefe Jackson playing tenor sax and contrabass clarinet, Joshua Abrams on bass and Frank Rosaly on drums.
One of the best examples of Stein taking the great ideas of masters and adding his own great ideas to them is on Monk’s “Work,” which is the most familiar of the trio of Monk compositions Stein selected to cover (and is still not among his most covered tunes). Jackson pulls out his contrabass clarinet for this one, and combining with Stein’s bass clarinet for the thematic lines, it creates these burly, sauntering timbres that only seems to amplify the character of the tune. In the middle, Stein and Jackson both solo at the same time, but neither really stray from the main melody, and thus don’t disturb the vibe they set forth in the beginning. Rosaly, meanwhile, with little notice, breaks the rhythm down to smaller components until by the end there’s nothing left at all and the timekeeping ends up being left to Stein and Jackson. Abrams doesn’t keep time himself, as he bows his bass through, adding another gruff element to the bottom heavy sound.
Even here on this Monk tune, you can find some connection to Tristano, even if it might have been coincidence. His penchant for extended melodic lines, countering harmonies and rhythmic subtleties are present in this tune as the Stein Quartet presents it. But it’s like that throughout the whole album. Tristano, and to a lesser extent, Monk, have been often misunderstood and difficult to pin down. Jason Stein and his crew, though, get it.
The Story This Time was released October 18, by Delmark Records.