By the late 1940s, something strange was happening to the jazz piano. Long considered merely a saloon refugee or big-band timekeeper, the piano began to emerge during this period as an instrument that could inspire fellow musicians playing together in a group and break new jazz ground. And Sal Mosca—who died on July 28 at age 80—was there.
The piano began to stand out as a solo jazz instrument in the late 1930s, when recordings by Fats Waller, Art Tatum and Earl "Fatha" Hines and others captivated wide national audiences. But these pianists were first and foremost old school stride masters—meaning their technique was so robust, entertaining and seemingly effortless that record-buyers listened in near disbelief. These artists weren't musicians; they were magicians.
But with the rise of bebop in the mid-1940s, a new wave of pianists emerged—players who could push the tempo forward when playing behind musicians but then create highly individualistic and stylistic statements when soloing.Among this new breed were Erroll Garner, Bud Powell, Al Haig, John Lewis, Duke Jordan and Thelonious Monk. All brought a bluesy, anxious introspection to the instrument and their playing.
As the 1940s wore on and the initial secrets of bop's difficult technique became demystified and popularized by a growing number of musicians, a new style of piano playing emerged. This style was less earthy and instinctive, and much more practiced and rehearsed—yielding an almost academic, nerdy approach to the instrument. Hours and hours of practice and music theory took precedance over what you could pull off on the fly.
At the forefront of this new school of piano playing was Lennie Tristano. Unlike the players before him who relied on blues and texture, Tristano was about technical intensity and the blending of modern classical influences. Instead of changing the melodies of standards to create new songs, as many bop pioneers did, Tristano used modal scales—often on top of standards—a relatively new concept that was born in music conservatories. To the lay ear, the music sounded almost like swing played backward.
Like Tatum, Tristano was blind, which made his piano and composition accomplishments that much more amazing.
Which brings us to Sal Mosca. Mosca was one of Tristano's most ardent disciples in the late 1940s and eventually wound up playing piano on record dates Tristano couldn't make or didn't want.
Perhaps Mosca's most important dates—and probably his most significant contribution to jazz—was playing on seminal recording made between 1949 and 1951. These recording sessions helped revolutionize the role and direction of the piano and paved the way for Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Herbie Nichols and nearly every other pianist-as-leader who pushed beyond the bop formula.
The recordings I'm referring to are found today on Subconscious-Lee and Conception. The first showcased the stunning techniques of Lee Konitz (alto) and Warne Marsh (tenor). The second featured Konitz, Miles Davis and Stan Getz. Mosca appears on piano on several tracks, which were as radical in 1949, 1950 and 1951 as the action paintings of Jackson Pollack (One: Number 31, for example) and Le Corbusier's design for the UN Building in New York. All came about at the same time. All were simple, direct and highly provocative.
I've always wondered why Tristano wasn't the pianist on those Mosca dates. He did play on some of the Subconscious-Lee tracks but not on the bulk. Perhaps Tristano was ill on those days. Or had another recording date. Or as a celebrated poll winner, he was too big a star at that point to be backing anyone. Or he wanted to give his most faithful student a shot; amazingly, these were Mosca's first recording dates.
Whatever the reason, Mosca was there. His soft, gentle modal comping is like a whisper from another era, a point in time when the country was shaking off its pre-war sensibilities and embracing a new international style. Suddenly, abstraction and transparency had merit.
Wax tracks: Both Subconscious-Lee and Conception are still available as CDs and are available as downloads at iTunes. Both are essential albums—but they are sophisticated and require attentive listening.
I've found that a great way to understand this music in its historic context is to listen to it while looking through books of modern art and urban architecture from 1949-1951. I don't know why, but the music takes on a different dimension that way, and it's fun to take in a wide range of creative artistic forces that evolved at the exact same time.
If you merely want to download tracks from these albums where Mosca can be heard, I recommend Fishin' Around from Subconsious-Lee and Ezz-Thetic from Conception.
Mosca may not be a household name, but his comping on both tracks remains fascinating. And these tracks and albums are a great way to be introduced—or re-introduced—to Lee Konitz, who was and still is one of the greats.
Hear more Mosca at the Sal Mosca web site. Click on "Sal Ripped" for mp3's of Mosca's playing.
I'll be spending the entire day listening to Subconscious-Lee and Conception. It's refreshing to hear both CDs.