Piano albums are hardly a rarity, but Billy Lester’s “Unabridged” is a unique one. It is unsurprising that Howard Mandel, one of the most prominent jazz critics and the President of the Jazz Journalists Association, contributed a very thorough essay for its liner notes. Lester is a musician whose creative path has unfolded independently from fashionable trends in contemporary jazz. He is a student of Sal Mosca, who in turn was a student of Lennie Tristano, which allows us to enlist Lester himself into the lineage of the Tristano school.
And who was Tristano? A man that was far ahead of his time, one of the pioneers of cool, who established the foundations of free jazz way before Ornette Coleman. He was in many regards misunderstood and underappreciated by his contemporaries. Jazz veteran Billy Lester, who first sat behind his instrument when he was only four, in many regards has followed in Tristano’s footsteps. Lester has always loved and has been deeply influenced by the academic tradition - the music of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Bartók. On the other hand, a plethora of brilliant jazz musicians, like Bill Evans, Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Corea, Jarrett, as well as Coltrane and Davis, left Billy cold. The select circle of his favorites includes early boppers and traditional jazz musicians – Bud Powell, Art Tatum, Parker, Charlie Christian, Roy Eldridge, Armstrong, Goodman. And, of course, Tristano himself. That’s how “retro” Lester is.
However, if you spare a little time – all that is needed is a mere academic hour – and listen to the “Unabridged,” to this amalgamation of swing, blues, classic jazz standards, and the academic tradition (all the manifold components of Lester’s music that Mandel so aptly names), then you will feel how many possibilities and how much beauty this music contains. Some may call it mainstream, others – contemporary lounge, but perhaps we do not need to label it at all, and can simply relax and enjoy the performance of Billy Lester. By the way, it would not be out of place to mention the word “avant-garde” here. Think of Tristano and his version of free-jazz: Lester’s music is more than just free improvisation, although the roots of many of his themes are in the jazz standards composed before 1945.
In 2010 Billy Lester stopped playing with other musicians and completely dedicated himself to solo performance. “Unabridged” is his second solo piano record. Lester continues to follow his own path, as he has been doing his entire life.