Konitz was born in 1927; it is almost 70 years since, aged 18, he replaced Charlie Ventura in Teddy Powell’s big band. Before he was 21 he had begun his studies with Lennie Tristano and taken a starring role first in the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, playing Gil Evans’s arrangements of bebop tunes, and then in Miles Davis’s nonet, which became known as the Birth of the Cool band. These days he plays less than he did, in the sense that he lets his sidemen — and, on this occasion, a guest singer, Judy Niemack — carry quite a lot of the weight, and much of his own performance is taken up with his own weightless scat-singing, but every note that comes from his saxophone is worth hearing.
A couple of years ago I wrote here about my admiration for his late work. The repertoire doesn’t change: variations on “Stella by Starlight”, “All the Things You Are”, “Out of Nowhere” (in the Tristano variation called “312 E 32nd St”). There was also “Kary’s Trance”, which Konitz wrote in 1957 on the chords of “Play Fiddle Play”. At one point he invited his extremely sensitive and adept accompanists — the pianist Florian Weber, the bassist Jeremy Stratton and the drummer George Schuller, plus Niemack — to create a collective improvisation from scratch, tacitly reminding us that in 1949 he was part of the Tristano group which, with two pieces called “Intuition” and “Digression”, made the first attempts at such a thing.
And then, alone with the rhythm section, he sat and played a version of “Body and Soul” that made an old, tired song sound completely fresh and new, all the accumulated wisdom of his long career poured into a few frail but beautifully shaped phrases.