The Lennie Tristano/Herbie Hancock connection

I had a funny moment in the car this morning.

I turned on the radio to WKCR-FM, from Columbia University, and found that they were playing a some great jazz. It was already in the middle of the piano solo, and the first thing that popped into my head was “Oh, this is Lennie Tristano playing in a live setting.” And yes, it had all the hallmarks of Tristano’s playing: chromatic bebop lines, angular phrasing, a sparce left hand, and an interest in motivic development while displacing beats.

I knew I had heard the exact recording before, but couldn’t quite place it. And even though I was convinced it was Lennie Tristano, it didn’t have his signature “flavor.” Also, the drummer was playing more aggressively than Tristano’s drummers usually did. But this can happen sometimes, since msuicians tend to play differently at different times. Sometimes they surprise you.

Now… here’s the funny part.

I kept thinking to myself about how much Herbie Hancock has been influenced by Tristano. It’s true, and it’s especially evident on the Miles Davis studio album Miles Smiles. As the music played, I kept picturing the young Herbie Hancock listening to Tristano and mimicking his phrasing. And indeed, I’d hear a particular turn of phrase and think “Yep, Herbie definitely was influenced by this!”

I kept thinking along these lines until the solo came to a conclusion with the pianist playing the familiar opening bell-line tones of the tune “If I Were A Bell,” which was a staple of Miles Davis’ repertoire for many years. And I immediately recognized he recording as the classic Miles Davis recording, Live At The Plugged Nickel.

So the pianist wasn’t Lennie Tristano after all. It was Herbie Hancock!

I had a good chuckle at my own expense. And even the fact Herbie Hancock could be mistaken for Lennie Tristano was a good reminder of how much the young Herbie was influenced by the older musician.

You can hear it for yourself. Here’s the track they were playing on the radio. I turned it on at around the 11:30 mark:

Miles Davis: If I Were A Bell (from Live at the Plugged Nickel)

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4 thoughts on “The Lennie Tristano/Herbie Hancock connection”

  1. Listening to Lennie this morning, I was reminded of his clear influence on the young Herbie Hancock. Did Herbie actually study with Tristano?

    • I agree that it’s a clear influence, Tom. There’s no indication that Hancock ever studied with Tristano personally, although he must have studied his playing at some point. The influence is most obvious when Herbie doesn’t comp with his left hand. During the Miles Smiles sessions, Miles apparently asked Herbie to solo with his RH while playing nothing with his LH.


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