10 licks from Lennie Tristano’s Line Up

Lennie Tristano’s single line improvisation on “Line Up” contains some of the most original and obtuse lines in all of bebop. In recent years, this piece and Tristano’s playing in general has seen a resurgence in study. Blog posts written by pianist Ethan Iverson and Kevin Sun in particular have inspired me to look more into Tristano’s music.

Tristano’s lines can be a resource for improvisors who are looking to expand their language and style. However, it can be difficult to find usable phrases in “Line Up” because of the extended use of side slipping, rhythmic modulation, and elongated eighth note phrases. In this post I outline some of my favorite licks from the piece and explain how to use them in your own improvisations.


The first time I heard this piece was in 2013, in a piano saxophone duo concert featuring Dan Tepfer and Ben Wendel at UC Berkely. I was impressed with the coordination and memorization of such elongated, linear lines. I did not realize at the time that they were playing a transcription of Tristano’s improvisation released in 1957! To hear his piece re-imagined in 2013 and sounding as modern as ever is a testament to Tristano’s genius.

“Line Up” is an improvised solo over the chord changes to “All of Me” in Ab major. Upon first listening, a couple things are stand out: the piano timbre is strange, and the bass and drums are generally static and not interactive. Controversial at the time, Tristano superimposed his solo over a prerecorded rhythm track.

The licks

Some of these licks fit over ii-V-I’s, while others are for either dominant or dominant progressions. The solo is noted in bass clef because that is the range where it is played by Tristano. Of special important in each line is the accents, as they create the swing and outline the harmony implied by each lick. Generally, the accents are played with the pinky.

  1. This line from the end of the first chorus employs the side slipping technique on what would be the Eb7 chord. Instead, Tristano uses A maj7 to approach the I chord, Ab maj. A soloist can use this on any ii-V-I progression.

2. This line uses chromatic approaches on D and G, the third and 6th of Bb respectively. Combined with the accents, this line can be played on dominant chords.

3. This extended ii-V-I line occurs at the end of the 4th chorus. In the second measure, the Ab accented on beat 3 outlines a sort of Bbm7 chord, and establishes the tonal center of Ab even before reaching the resolution in measure 3. It then outlines I-VI-ii-V changes in the 3rd and 4th measure.

4. Another short dominant line that caught my ear the first time I played through the transcription. The F note accented on the 3rd beat acts as suspension to the E note in the 4th beat.

5. Perhaps one of the most obtuse lines in the whole improvisation, this begins on beat 2. This line occurs over a Bb13 in the progression, but Tristano superimposes an E major triad and an Eb half-diminished chord (which can be interpreted as a B9 arpeggio) over the bass. He then returns to a Fm7 arpeggio, a more standard chord to play over Bb7, and does a chromatic approach to Db, the third of Bbm.

6. Another ii-V-I lick, which can be heard at the end of the 5th chorus. On Bbm9, Tristano implies a major/minor chord by playing A natural, a very common bebop device used on the ii chord. Measures 3 and 4 presents a great turnaround lick, implying 2/4 measures with the accents.

7. Perhaps the most modern-sounding line in terms of implying quartal harmonies, this occurs halfway through the 5th chorus. It begins by outlining the Ab triad, but then proceeds into a side- slipping quartal line outlining A major. The accents imply a 3/4 – 2/4 – 3/4 meter over the first two measures.

8. A long string of eighth notes, this line uses a descending bebop scale starting on the b7, Ab. Starting at the 3rd beat of measure two, Tristano implies a b9 b13 arpeggio before arriving at a Bbm7, which he also imposes over Eb7.

9. Occurring near the end of the piece in the 7th chorus, this line contains a wealth of chromatic approaches, that can be used over any two consecutive dominant chords in the cycle of 5ths. It can be used over a ii-V progression as well.

10. The final line in the piece, Tristano uses a sequence of sorts by outlining the chord tones of Bbm and going down half steps at each chord tone. He side-slips down to A maj before returning to Ab maj to finish.

Note: These transcriptions are taken from Enumi Shim’s full transciption of “Line Up” in her fantastic book “Lennie Tristano: His life in Music”.