This is Lee Konitz, the great alto saxophonist, reflected in the window of A-Trane, a small jazz club in Berlin that was packed to the gunwales for his performance last night.
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.
I’m so pleased to hear that Lee Konitz was in such good form in Berlin. I caught him at Ronnie Scott’s a few weeks back, in a band that included Dave Douglas and Jacob Bro, and found the evening a little dispiriting – Lee seemed, to me, to be somewhat out of sorts. I had the opportunity to see him again this weekend in Rotterdam but passed it up – perhaps I shouldn’t have done. The problem at Ronnie’s may have been that Lee was playing with what might have been an ill-matched (Dave Douglas apart) and hastily put together group; more compatible partners might have brought out the best of Lee Konitz. I hope he remains in good health and is able to visit London again in the not too distant future, and play with a group something along the lines of the one that accompanied him on his fine recordings from the Pizza Express a couple of years back.