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Billy Lester, an Insightful Jazz Pianist Hiding in Plain Sight, Finally Has His Moment to Shine

Anna Yatskevich
Billy Lester, at the recording session for 'From Scratch'

Billy Lester was 18, a few years into his training as a jazz pianist, when he first saw Lennie Tristano on the bandstand. It’s fair to say the experience changed his life.

Tristano had earned a reputation for intrigue in the dawning era of modern jazz. A blind pianist and composer who’d been an admiring peer of Charlie Parker in the 1940s, he espoused a nearly ideological commitment to improvising without pattern or preconception. This philosophy was embraced by a cohort of younger musicians, including Sal Mosca — young Billy Lester’s piano teacher — and the saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh.

Konitz and Marsh were both in the Tristano band that Billy saw, during a two-week engagement at the Half Note in New York. “I went every other night,” he says, “so I heard them seven times.”

During a break one night, he engaged Tristano in conversation, and the topic turned to why the formidable pianist’s gigs were so few and far between. “He had this sweet voice,” Lester recalls, “and what he said was: ‘The guys who are out there playing all the time, it just becomes a business.’ When he said that, it resonated with me. I knew that he was playing because he was an artist.”

As a measure of how fully Lester took this realization to heart, consider that at 73, he’s just beginning to make some noise on his hometown scene in New York. This is largely due to the interest of his fellow pianist Elan Mehler, who arranged for Lester to record with a blue-chip rhythm team, bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Matt Wilson. The resulting album, From Scratch, is available as part of a Season Four subscription from the vinyl-only Newvelle Records, which Mehler cofounded in 2014. (Four outtakes from the album can be streamed for free at the label website.)

From Scratch, a swinging clutch of standards, puts Lester forward as a pianist of unfailing sensitivity and unpredictable instinct; he’s a bebop player with a Tristano-esque freedom of line. For a sense of that unorthodox style, watch this video from the recording session — a full take of the songbook tune “Out of Nowhere,” which, given Lester’s profile, could easily have been the album’s title track.

Billy Lester was born in Yonkers, New York on June 11, 1946, and he lives there still, in a suburban home on a tree-lined block. His wife, Julia Eisen-Lester, is a painter and art educator; they have two daughters and a son, all of them grown.

Much like the late Mosca, with whom he studied from age 16 to 32, Lester has relied on teaching for his income. “For me, that was my career,” he said in a recent conversation, over FaceTime from a vacation in Italy. “There was always a piece of me that felt a little bad not to be recognized, but it didn’t stop me from doing what I do. It’s been a lifelong process for me.”

Lester has a handful of previous albums to his name, starting with Captivatin’ Rhythm, which was issued on the Zinnia label in 1995. But the reach of those albums has been marginal, despite some coverage in the European jazz press, and from a select few American critics. (Howard Mandel, who wrote Lester’s bio, characterized him as “an instinctively lyrical yet unfettered improviser.”)

He met Mehler at the first Jazz Congress in 2018, handing him a CD on the condition that he actually listen to it. “Elan was the first person in the so-called business that took an interest in me,” he says.

That interest has been fateful, and it runs deep. “There’s a startling authenticity for me in Billy’s music and persona,” Mehler says. “When I first heard his music, I sent it to a couple of friends whose opinion I really respect, essentially to ask: ‘Is this as good as I think it is?’”

As one thing led to another, Mehler booked a two-day session with Reid and Wilson, who had both recorded for Newvelle before. “At first I was a little nervous,” Lester recalls. “I felt a little intimidated by their experience. But once I hit the first note, and felt how supportive they were going to be, it was just fun.”

Credit Anna Yatskevich
Billy Lester, seated, with Elan Mehler, Matt Wilson, Rufus Reid and Marc Urselli

“I thought the way Billy conducted himself at the recording session was really fascinating,” says Mehler. “He seemed a bit like a man out of time. But every note he played was imbued with such intent.

Lester would often play the first take of a song with the barest intimation of its melody; on the second take he’d forgo the melody altogether. When Mehler pulled him aside in the studio to ask for more melody in the second takes, there was a long pause before Lester’s response: “But I played the melody on the first take.”

A version of Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays” neatly illustrates this anecdote — beginning with a piano solo, as if the needle has dropped on the middle of the track. But then, after three minutes of inspired digression, Lester conjures the melody to close out the tune. (It’s tempting to imagine him doing so at the urging of Mehler, frantically signaling from behind the control-room glass.)

The built-in limitations of Newvelle’s business model — again, the label only issues music on vinyl, as part of a six-album subscription bundle that goes for $400 — are likely to have little bearing on Lester’s burgeoning late career. For one thing, his is the sort of tale to appeal precisely to the Newvelle consumer base. (Writing about his 2013 solo album Story Time, Mandel used the term “connoisseur jazz.”)

And Mehler has thrown more than the usual promotional oomph behind his belated discovery: At his instigation, a short documentary film about Lester was recently made; titled Listening In, it was directed by Ben Chase and produced by John Caulkins.

Lester could also benefit from the fact that the so-called Tristano School has inched closer to the jazz mainstream over the last generation or two, a phenomenon I once explored in a piece for The New York Times. “I didn’t study with Lennie,” Lester reflects, “but I would call him now and then and chat on the phone. One night we hung out at his house, just the two of us, and stayed up all night talking. For a good portion of the time, all he wanted to do was talk about Bird.”

The purity of intention that Lester ascribes to Tristano, and no less to Mosca, can clearly be seen in his own decisions as an artist — and that’s no less true now that the word is out, so to speak. “Billy is really about the how, and the beauty he welcomes from the ordinary is quite astounding,” attests Matt Wilson, in an email. “We played a lot of music in those two days. Rufus and I often joke that Billy could have done three more days.”

Credit Anna Yatskevich

Wilson adds that, on a recent gig with Reid, they recounted their experience for some colleagues. “It is rather hard to describe, but we know we have a new ‘feeling’ that is in our musical DNA from playing with Billy,” he says. “That is an amazing gift.”

The From Scratch trio — Lester, Reid and Wilson — will have another chance to interact during Newvelle Live, a weeklong celebration at the Jazz Standard, Sept. 3-8. Their one-nighter, on Sept. 6, will coincide with the world premiere of Listening In, the documentary short.

Newvelle Live, which was just announced on Monday, will also feature the Rufus Reid Trio with the Sirius Quartet (Sept. 3); the live premiere of tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger’s Preminger Plays Preminger band (Sept. 5); pianist Frank Kimbrough with the Newvelle Anniversary Band, featuring vocalist Becca Stevens (Sept. 7); and multi-reedist Gregory Tardy with guitarist Bill Frisell (Sept. 8). (The label is also selling a limited number of tickets to several live recording sessions.)

For his part, Lester couldn’t be happier about how things have turned out. “I’ve been listening to the album over and over now,” he says, “and I can hear how much I’m listening to Rufus and Matt, and how much they’re listening to me. It genuinely feels like a shared record. I mean, I’m obviously the leader, and the one doing most of the improvising. But if you listen closely, you can hear how they are affecting my playing. And that’s part of what it means to be an improviser; I try to adapt to every situation as if it’s brand new.”

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.