Lee Konitz: the improviser at 85
No musician interrogates a song more thoroughly than the alto saxophonist Lee Konitz: separating its components, wiping off the accumulated dirt and scraping away the rust, holding the bits up to the light, examining them from all angles, and then reassembling them in a more interesting form. He was doing it in 1947, when he made his first recordings with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, aged 20. He is still doing today, halfway through his ninth decade.
He’s featured on a new CD, Costumes Are Mandatory, released on the HighNote label and recorded in August 2012 with a quartet under the leadership of the pianist Ethan Iverson, noted for his work with the trio The Bad Plus. The bassist Larry Grenadier and the drummer Jorge Rossy complete the group. Together with two other albums released in the past couple of years, Live at Birdland (ECM), recorded in December 2009 with Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, and Enfants Terribles (Half Note), made in June 2011 with Bill Frisell, Gary Peacock and Joey Baron, it provides a view of a great artist in his final years, his work subject to the changes imposed by time and the ageing process.
The late work of a long-lived great artist is always interesting and can provide a fascinating distillation of his or her career-long preoccupations. Sometimes the reduced powers are physical, sometimes they are mental. The painter Willem De Kooning was suffering from a form of Alzheimer’s disease when, in his eighties, he produced a series of strange, pale, almost luminous canvases that seemed like the ghosts of his former work. Fortunately, any reduction in Konitz’s powers is purely physical; the articulation might not be as swift, but the intellect is as sharp as ever.
No longer the fleet-footed musical athlete of his youth, when he and his fellow saxophonist Warne Marsh leapt with such alacrity over the high hurdles set for them by their mentor, the pianist Lennie Tristano, now Konitz deploys his reduced powers to different ends. The last of his strength is being spent on searching his material — almost always drawn from the standard American songbook — for new connections, new angles, new avenues of approach.
My best memory of Konitz is also one of my best memories of music, full stop. It comes from about 30 years ago, and a night at a short-lived jazz club called the Canteen on Great Queen Street in Covent Garden, occupying premises that had formerly been Blitz, the headquarters of the New Romantic movement, would later become a discotheque and now house a lap-dancing club. The Canteen, although ultimately unsuccessful in its attempt to rival Ronnie Scott’s, was for a while a very good place to hear such people as Esther Phillips, Chet Baker and Lee Konitz.
On the night in question Konitz was accompanied by an excellent British rhythm section: the pianist (and composer) Bob Cornford, the young bassist Paul Morgan and the experienced drummer Trevor Tompkins. What I remember most vividly is that one complete set was taken up by a treatment of “On Green Dolphin Street”, the Hollywood film theme composed by Bronislau Kaper in 1947 and rescued just under a decade later by Ahmad Jamal, who was responsible for its subsequent popularity among jazz musicians. Konitz started out by improvising unfamiliar and seemingly arbitrary phrases, inviting the other three musicians to go along with him as he gradually allowed these shreds of melody to take new forms, uncovered the connective tissue between them. This mesmerising process reached its apogee when, after much feinting and seeming disgression, Kaper’s theme gradually began to emerge and was stated for the first time as the piece ended. It was like watching a film of an explosion being run backwards in super slow motion.
He does something similar, at a more compressed and less exalted level, on the version of “What’s New” included in Costumes Are Mandatory, allowing Iverson to lead the way, before entering with a phrase from the theme which is quickly deformed into a series of glancing allusions to the original tune, inventing their own sense as they go along. This is something that used to be called “thematic improvisation”, and it is almost a lost art. His distinctive tone — which once proposed an alternative to the all-pervasive influence of Charlie Parker — may be more fibrous and less robust than in his youth or his prime, and the comparison with Live at Birdland and Enfants Terribles indicates that time is having an inevitable effect, but it remains the perfect vehicle for his thoughts.
Konitz, of course, was a member of Miles Davis’s famous 1948 nonet, the Birth of the Cool band, and another personal memory of his playing comes from 1991, when he appeared at London’s South Bank with a band billed as Re-Birth of the Cool, an attempt by another original member, Gerry Mulligan, to recreate those celebrated sessions. Lew Soloff played Davis’s parts, and the other original present was Bill Barber, the tuba-player. For me, the outstanding impression was left by the way Konitz approached the project: he was the only one not interested in honouring the past by recreating it note-for-note but was intent on playing as though more than 40 years had passed and the world had moved on.
Working as a soloist for hire suits him because it presents him with a constant variety of challenges. That is how he has operated throughout his career, which has never been short of recorded documentation, from those early sides with Thornhill, Davis, Tristano and Stan Kenton through his own albums on Atlantic and Verve, his fascinating and fearless encounters with Martial Solal, Elvin Jones, Albert Mangelsdorff, Kenny Wheeler and countless others, to this most recent crop of albums. As a body of work, it offers not just a vast quantity of great music but a salutary lesson in the value of living in the present.
* The photograph of Konitz at the top is a detail from the cover of the 1955 Atlantic album Lee Konitz with Warne Marsh, taken by William Claxton. The lower photograph is a detail from the cover of Costumes Are Mandatory, taken by John Rogers. For those who want to know more, I thoroughly recommend Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser’s Art by Andy Hamilton, published by the University of Michigan Press in 2007.