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Lee Konitz 1927-2020

Lee Konitz William Claxton

One of the things we value most about jazz is the way it encourages — even relies on — the expression of individual character. A musician’s “sound” (a combination of factors, including tone, phrasing, attack and harmonic sense) is as personal as a fingerprint. Learning to differentiate between them is one of the tests and pleasures of being a young fan. Lee Konitz, who has died at the age of 92 from the effects of the coronavirus, had a more identifiable sound than most right from the start, but what was different about him was that he never allowed it to harden into a series of familiar gestures. Instead he showed a willingness to allow his style to evolve naturally as time passed.

There was a good example one night in 1992, when Gerry Mulligan arrived in London with a version of what is thought of as the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool nonet, containing several original members (with Lew Soloff playing Miles’s role). Konitz had joined up for their European tour, and at the Queen Elizabeth Hall it was noticeable that the altoist was the only one who, when his solos came round, did not in any way attempt to reproduce his work on the original recordings 40-odd years earlier. His timbre had thickened and his lines no longer flew with the blithe adroitness of someone who could play whatever lay under his fingers, but there was a deeper kind of thought in every weighted phrase.

He was the most open of musicians: a career that began with Claude Thornhill and Lennie Tristano ended in collaborations with Brad Mehldau and Ethan Iverson. En route he played with an astonishing cornucopia of musicians, from Warne Marsh and Chet Baker through Jimmy Giuffre, Charles Mingus, Bill Evans, Elvin Jones, Henry Grimes, Paul Motian, Charlie Haden, Gary Peacock, Bill Frisell and countless others. He played with Charlie Parker, on tour with Stan Kenton in 1953, and with Ornette Coleman at the 1998 Umbria Jazz Festival. He was great in a formal setting, playing Gil Evans’s charts with Thornhill’s big band or Miles’s nine-piece, and he could be even better with an unfamiliar pick-up rhythm section, using the most mundane of formats to explore the extensions of melody and harmony.

During an earlier visit to London, in June 1983, on an otherwise perfectly ordinary night in a perfectly ordinary jazz club, in front of a perfectly ordinary audience, he produced one of the most extraordinary jazz performances I’ve ever heard. Here’s what I wrote about it a few years later, in the introduction to Jazz Portraits, a book of photographs:

On this night, a few evenings into a fortnight’s season that was part of a typical American jazz musician’s summer spent moving between the clubs and festivals of Europe, Konitz was working with three British players: Bob Cornford, a classically trained composer and pianist; Paul Morgan, a young double bassist; and Trevor Tompkins, a highly experienced drummer. Within a month of this engagement, the quiet, unemphatic Cornford, who revered Béla Bartók and Bill Evans in equal measure, would be dead of a heart attack at the age of 43, his immense promise unfulfilled, his gifts revealed only to a handful of his peers.

Konitz, like all of Tristano’s pupils, was known for his reliance on the chord sequences of standard Broadway ballads. They had been good enough for Lester Young and Charlie Parker, Tristano’s twin avatars of improvisation, and they were good enough for Lee Konitz. But this set on this particular night began with what seemed like a free improvisation: brief snatches of elliptical melody, angular and discontinuous, connected to each other only by the most tenuous logic. Or so it seemed. But gradually, with Cornford, Morgan and Tompkins following every step, the saxophonist’s phrases began to form more explicit links, even starting to describe familiar shapes. Slowly, as if from a pale mist, a tune emerged.

The process described in that paragraph may have taken five minutes, or it may have taken fifteen. No one was keeping score, and one of the special properties of improvisation — and not just jazz improvisation — is that it can take hold of chronological time and distort it: speeding it up, slowing it down, bending it, stopping it altogether. Now Konitz briefly ruled time, making it obey his commands as he lingered over the revealed contours of his design, sprinting forwards and pulling back until he judged the moment right to unveil the unmistakable shape of a standard.

Imagine a three-dimensional jigsaw, made out of glass, assembling itself in mid-air. Such was the quiet strength of Konitz’s creative conviction that his partners in the rhythm section never felt the lack of specific directions or signposts. When the tune of “On Green Dolphin Street” finally emerged as a more or less complete entity, it was the product of an organic process. Unlike most improvisers of his generation, who take the material and reassemble it into something of their own, Konitz had reversed the process.

A dozen years later, it was impossible to recall specific phrases from a piece of music that disappeared into the air as soon as it had been played. But the sound and the shape of the music, and the quality of absolute uniqueness that they gave to this apparently mundane event, were etched indelibly upon the memory.

Today I’ll listen to Konitz on Gil Evans’s recasting of “Yardbird Suite” for Claude Thornhill in 1947, to his participation in Lennie Tristano’s “Intuition”, the first attempt at pure collective improvisation in modern jazz in 1949, to his sound colouring the texture of the Davis/Evans version of “Moon Dreams” in 1950, to this “All the Things You Are” with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet at the Haig Club in LA in 1953, to this “All of You” with Sonny Dallas on bass and Elvin Jones on drums from 1961, and this “Alone Together” with Brad Mehldau and Charlie Haden from a great Blue Note trio album of the same name, recorded in 1996.

* The photograph of Lee Konitz was taken by William Claxton and appeared in Jazz Portraits (Studio, 1994). Andy Hamilton’s book Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser’s Art (University of Michigan Press, 2007) is highly recommended.

Lee Konitz: the improviser at 85

Lee Konitz 1No 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.

Lee Konitz 3He 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.

Late Lee

Lee Konitz A TraneThis 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.

Bookshelf 2: John Tchicai

John Tchicai arrived in New York from his native Denmark in December 1962. Over the next three and a half years the sound of his saxophone became one of the most distinctive elements in jazz’s turbulent New Wave. He was a member of two foundational combos, the New York Contemporary Five and the New York Art Quartet, and took part in New York’s celebrated October Revolution in Jazz in 1964. He appeared with John Coltrane on Ascension, with Archie Shepp on Four for Trane, with Albert Ayler and Don Cherry on New York Eye and Ear Control, and on the first album by the Jazz Composers Orchestra. Then he went home, with other work to do.

Home turned out not to be just Copenhagen, where he founded the group Cadentia Nova Danica. In the years to come he would live in an artists’ colony in Switzerland; in Northern California, where he taught at Davis University; and, from 2001 until his death in 2012, a small village near Perpignan, on the French side of the Pyrenees. His extensive travels also included visits to India, Afghanistan, Iran, Japan, Sierra Leone and Mexico.

The bands he played in and the recordings he made were many. But of equal importance were the lessons and workshops he gave, sharing with young musicians the philosophy developed during the years in which a man born in 1936 to a Danish mother and a Congolese father absorbed musical ideas from around the world.

It was at a workshop in Rotterdam in 1989 that he met Margriet Naber, a young Dutch musician who became his fourth wife and his collaborator for 20 years. She was with him in California — where they had a band called the Archetypes — and France, and although they split up in 2009 and eventually divorced, they continued to live in the same village and she was with him when he died in a nursing home following a stroke. It is from their conversations, her very clear memories and the material he left behind that she has assembled a book which answers the description of a biography in conventional terms but is also, thanks to the close personal and artistic relationship between the author and her subject, something more.

Tchicai’s stories of growing up as a mixed-race boy in a white world are fascinating. His much older half-brother, Kaj Timmermann, formed a popular band called the Harlem Kiddies in 1940, and in 1953 John saw the Stan Kenton Orchestra in Copenhagen. It was hearing Lee Konitz with Kenton that inspired him to take up the alto saxophone, leaving an influence on the lighter, purer sound that made Tchicai’s own alto stand out amid the maelstrom of 1960s free jazz.

Although his many adventures and countless collaborations are part of the narrative, this is not the place to look for a deep analysis of his music. Instead Naber gives us insights into his thoughts and his teaching methods. Like John Stevens (with whom he played at a famous Cambridge concert with Yoko Ono and John Lennon in 1969), Tchicai favoured an open and practical approach that encouraged musicians of all levels of ability to express themselves though improvisation, illustrated by the score of a piece which gives the book its title: “A Chaos with Some Kind of Order”. From another example, his instructions are very similar to those Stevens used to give: “…try to anticipate and play some of the same tones in the same moment as other players would do them…”

Poetry was important to Tchicai. He wrote it — a few of his poems are included — and he recited it in his beautifully modulated voice. Naber tells us that he only consented to record with John Coxon and Ashley Wales (of Spring Heel Jack) in 2005 if they agreed to let him read Steve Dalachinsky’s “These Pink Roses”, which appeared as a kind of epilogue to the wonderful album called John Tchicai with Strings. Naber uses appendices to give us his advice on improvising and on building a set list, lead sheets of a handful of his tunes, and an outline discography.

Tchicai also looked after himself, through yoga and other practices. Naber describes his routine: “He got up around 6am and sat down for a meditation of around an hour. Then he would make some tea and a piece of rye bread for breakfast before doing more exercises, for instance pranayama (yoga/breathing exercises). That could also take an hour. After that, he’d eat some more and tend to work. Sometimes this would be musical work, working with notes, with an instrument, a piece of paper, his keyboard or sequencer. Sometimes it would be business work, like writing letters. When he was done with that, often it was lunchtime and John liked to have a hot meal for lunch. We took turns cooking meals. In the afternoon he’d go out to get some air and do chores like going to the post office or to the copyshop to make photocopies of charts and send them to musicians he played with. Or he’d go into nature. In the evening he went to hear music, watched a movie on television, or turned back to music to continue working. He didn’t go to bed late, didn’t smoke and didn’t drink much alcohol. This was John’s rhythm. When he was on tour he also tried to maintain it as much as possible, at least by doing a meditation in the morning. He was always busy, and often it was work-related, but it was always in a relaxed way. He played his musical rhythms in a relaxed way and he did the same with his life-rhythm. It was a nice rhythm to live next to…”

Remembering all the pleasure John’s music gave me on record since the early ’60s and in live performance from the first encounter in Berlin in 1969 to the last at Cafe Oto in 2009, I was delighted to respond to Naber’s request to read and comment on her manuscript before publication. I was able to give a little help, but she had it all there. It’s her great feeling for what he represented, as well as her diligence and persistence, that courses through this intimate and valuable account of his life and work.

* John Tchicai: A Chaos with Some Kind of Order by Margriet Naber is published by Ear Heart Mind Media and is available from http://www.johntchicai.com. John Tchicai with Strings is on the Treader label. The drawing of Tchicai is by the Dutch artist Marte Röling and is from the cover of Mohawk, a 1965 album by the New York Art Quartet, originally released on Fontana.

2020: the best bits

A still from Lovers Rock, part of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series

The end of a year that left a lot of holes: so many gone, to be mourned only at a distance. People I loved, people I worked for and alongside, people whose artistry — whether expressed in one 45rpm disc or across the entire arc of a long career — affected my life. Musicians including Keith Tippett, whom I knew for 50 years, and Little Richard and Gary Peacock, to whom I’d been listening for even longer. Ennio Morricone. Juliette Gréco. McCoy Tyner. Lee Konitz. Andy Gill. Betty Wright. Henry Grimes. Florian Schneider. Jimmy Cobb. Tommy DeVito. Roy Head. Hux Brown. And on, and on.

Between the start of 2020 and the onset of the pandemic in mid-March I saw a handful of memorable gigs: Craig Taborn at the Royal Academy of Music, an extremely on-form Bryan Ferry at the Albert Hall and a riotous benefit for Louis Moholo Moholo at the Vortex. And that was it for the live experience. Thank goodness for streaming, which gave many musicians a route to their audience and made unanticipated introductions — in my case to the Welsh guitarist Toby Hay, whose series of improvised outdoor morning and evening ragas lifted the spirits during the spring lockdown.

There was special gratitude, too, to the people who make high-quality television programmes, a near-universal balm this year. So let’s start with them.

TV SERIES

1 Normal People (BBC) I watched it week by week, rationing myself, wanting to extend the experience of this perfectly written, designed, filmed and acted adaptation for as long as possible. Afterwards I read Sally Rooney’s novel for the first time and discovered that Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal were inhabiting the characters on the page: a reciprocal benefit.

2 Call My Agent (Netflix) High comedy of great wit and style, with a parade of mostly female French stars — Juliette Binoche, Béatrice Dalle, Nathalie Baye, Françoise Fabian, the Isabelles Huppert and Adjani — lining up to take the piss out of themselves. The regular cast — Camille Cottin, Thibaut de Montalembert, Liliane Rovère, Grégory Montel and the rest — were equally magnificent.

3 Small Axe (BBC) For me, the highlight of Steve McQueen’s sequence of five feature-length films was Lovers Rock, in which lighting, camera movement, editing, diagetic music and Mica Levi’s score largely took the place of dialogue as a superb cast — including Michael Ward, Amarah-Jae St Aubyn, Kedar Williams-Stirling and Shaniqua Okwok — established a mood that seemed to hang around for days.

4 The Bureau (Amazon Prime) A story in The Times recently quoted a French military chief’s complaint that the external branch of his country’s secret service — the DGSE — habitually screws everything up. That would come as no surprise to fans of The Bureau and its magnificent cast, not just Mathieu Kassovitz but particularly Florence Loiret-Caille and Jean-Pierre Darroussin. I haven’t finished it yet, so don’t tell me how it ends.

5 Once Upon a Time in Iraq (BBC) An exemplary reconstruction of the Bush/Blair intervention, at its most harrowingly effective when allowing the Iraqis to tell their own stories. The interviews with American military personnel are all the evidence anyone might need that no lessons at all were absorbed from the experience of Vietnam.

NEW ALBUMS

1 Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways (Columbia)

2 Ambrose Akinmusire: On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment (Blue Note)

3 The Necks: Three (RnR)

4 Irreversible Entanglements: Who Sent You? (International Anthem)

5 Keith Tippett: The Monk Watches the Eagle (Discus)

6 Maria Schneider: Data Lords (ArtistShare)

7 Sault: Untitled (Rise) (bandcamp)

8 Hedwig Mollestad: Ekhidna (Rune Grammofon)

9 Bruce Springsteen: Letter to You (Columbia)

10 Matana Roberts / Pat Thomas: The Truth (Otoroku)

11 Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl: Artlessly Falling (Firehouse 12)

12 Eyvind Aarset / Jan Bang: Snow Catches on Her Eyelashes (Jazzland)

13 The Henrys: Paydirt (Bandcamp)

14 Pete Judge: Piano 2 (PJM)

15 Robert Cray Band: That’s What I Heard (Thirty Tigers)

16 Lucia Cadotsch: Speak Low II (We Jazz)

17 Martin Pyne: Spirits of Absent Dancers (Discus)

18 Carla Bley / Andy Sheppard / Steve Swallow: Life Goes On (ECM)

19 Jasper Høiby: Planet B (Edition)

20 Matt Rollings: Mosaic (Dualtone)

21 Dave Alvin: From an Old Guitar (Yep Roc)

22 Soft Machine: Live at the Baked Potato (Moonjune)

23 Misha Mullov-Abbado: Dream Circus (Edition)

24 Diana Krall: This Dream of You (Verve)

25 Hailu Mergia: Yene Mircha (Awesome Tapes from Africa)

ARCHIVE / REISSUE

1 Richard & Linda Thompson: Hard Luck Stories (Universal)

2 Mike Westbrook: Love and Understanding (My Only Desire)

3 Charles Mingus: Bremen 1964 & 1975 (Sunnyside)

4 Roberta Flack: First Take (50th anniversary edition) (SoulMusic)

5 Solomon Burke: The King of Rock ’n’ Soul (SoulMusic)

6 King Crimson: The Complete 1969 Sessions (DGM)

7 Bryan Ferry: Live at the Royal Albert Hall 1974 (BMG)

8 Kenny Carter: Showdown (Kent)

9 Carla Thomas: Let Me Be Good to You (SoulMusic)

10 Jon Hassell / Farafina: Flash of the Spirit (tak:til)

MUSIC BOOKS

1 Aaron Cohen: Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power (Chicago University Press)

2 Andy Neill: Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here (Universal)

3 Magdalena Grzebałkowska: Komeda: A Private Life in Jazz (Equinox)

4 Craig Brown: One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time (4th Estate)

5 Luc Sante: Maybe the People Would Be the Times (Verse Chorus Press)

6 Philip Nanton: Riff: The Shake Keane Story (Papillote Press)

7 Edwin Prévost: An Uncommon Music for the Common Man (Copula)

8 Duncan Heining: Stratusphunk: George Russell, His Life in Music (Jazz International)

9 Ian Preece: Listening to the Wind: Encounters with 21st Century Independent Record Labels (Omnibus)

10 Maureen Mahon: Black Diamond Queens (Duke University Press)

OTHER NON-FICTION

Ed Caesar: The Moth and the Mountain (Penguin Viking)

FICTION

David Diop: At Night All Blood Is Black (Pushkin Press)

POETRY

Caroline Bird: The Air Year (Carcanet)

FILM

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (dir. Céline Sciamma)

EXHIBITION

Charlotte Salomon (Jewish Museum, London)

Bird at 100

Bird WD 1

Charlie Parker was born on August 29, 1920. A lot has been written in acknowledgment of his centenary**, about how he changed the way players of all instruments approached the business of playing jazz and about how his improvisations still sound newly minted. I’ve been thinking about those things, too, but also about what he might have left undone.

His final session in a recording studio, on December 10, 1954, three months before his death, saw him record two standards, “Love for Sale” and “I Love Paris”, at Fine Sounds in New York City for Norman Granz’s Verve label. Five takes of one, two takes of the other. Something caused the three-hour session, which would normally have produced five or six masters, to be truncated. Later the best takes of the two tunes formed part of an album called Charlie Parker Plays Cole Porter, the fifth volume of a posthumous series titled The Genius of Charlie Parker. His solos were adequate, but the deployment of the quintet format — alto, piano, guitar, bass and drums — offered him nothing new, no fresh stimulus. The Latin vamp behind the theme statement of “I Love Paris” is tired and lugubrious.

And that, mostly, was the story of his last few years. The increasingly tragic chaos of his personal life and the imperatives that came with it militated not just against artistic rigour and discipline but against any sustained attempt at further artistic development.

In musical terms, what had Bird needed for two or three years before his death was some kind of new challenge. Instead he was corralled by his own supreme mastery of the idiom he had helped invent. The rare attempts to venture beyond the head-solos-head format of small-group bebop, in the dates with strings or the sessions with Gil Evans and the Dave Lambert Singers, saw the compass set for the land of easy listening. Although on the recordings with strings and woodwind — arranged by Jimmy Carroll and Joe Lipman, a pair of journeymen — Parker occasionally produced some celestial playing (and, as it happens, I’m very fond of them), the context was not inherently stimulating.

Yet we know that in the late 1940s Parker had spent time at 14 West 55th Street, Gil Evans’s basement apartment, where George Russell, John Lewis and Gerry Mulligan were among those who met to discuss the future of music and how they might shape it. We know he listened to Bartók and Stravinsky, and that Edgard Varèse had offered to give him lessons in composition. We know he was interested in what Lennie Tristano was up to. He had an omnivorous intellect and was not hidebound by his own genre.

In February 1954 there was a hint, in a very unlikely setting, of how things might have been different. According to Ross Russell in Bird Lives!, it was when Stan Getz went missing after the first date of a 10-city national tour titled the Festival of Modern American Jazz that the Billy Shaw Agency paid Parker a good fee to fly out to San Francisco and take the place of the absent star. Ken Vail’s Bird’s Diary tells a different story, which has Parker playing on every concert from the start of the tour.

The line-up featured Kenton’s 18-piece orchestra — with Stu Williamson among the trumpets, Frank Rosolino on trombone, Charlie Mariano and Bill Perkins in the reed section, Don Bagley on bass and Stan Levey on drums — and a selection of star guests: Erroll Garner (with his trio), Dizzy Gillespie, June Christy, Lee Konitz and Candido Camero. The tour started in Wichita Falls, Texas, and made its way in an anti-clockwise direction around America, its stops including the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the Brooklyn Paramount and Toronto’s Massey Hall before ending up at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.

On February 25 the 18th concert of the tour took place at the Civic Auditorium in Portland, Oregon. Someone made a recording of Bird with the Kenton band, playing “Night and Day”, “My Funny Valentine” and “Cherokee”, all subsequently available on a variety of bootleg LPs and CDs (e.g. The Jazz Factory’s Charlie Parker: Live with the Big Bands, which has better sound than these YouTube clips). These days I find I play them as much as any of Bird’s better known recordings.

From the photograph of him in front of the band, he looks to be in good physical shape. His tone is firm but warm and pliable, his phrasing unquenchably inventive as he sails over the contours of the standards, lifted by the excellent rhythm section. The arrangements are standard big-band stuff, which makes you wonder how Bird would have handled some of the more adventurous material in the Kenton repertoire, by composer/arrangers such as Bill Russo or Bob Graettinger.

It seems to me that if Parker lacked anything in musical terms, it was someone to play Gil Evans to his Miles Davis: someone to envision the kind of setting that would have spurred him on towards new dimensions. Maybe that man could even have been Gil Evans himself, doing for Bird what he did for Miles with the arrangements for Birth of the Cool and Miles Ahead. Their one session together, in 1953, turned out to be the most curious item in his entire discography: mushy choir-and-woodwind arrangements of “In the Still of the Night”, “Old Folks” and “If I Love Again” written to order in a misconceived stab at broadening Bird’s audience (although, once again, they spark some defiantly brilliant alto work, like Basquiat graffiti on a suburban white picket fence).

Imagine if Parker and Evans had been able to work together towards the end of the ’50s, with a good budget and plenty of time to plan and prepare a serious project. Imagine if a healthy Parker, in his mid-forties, had engaged with a coming generation. Imagine a Blue Note date in 1964 under Andrew Hill’s leadership, with Lee Morgan, Richard Davis, Bobby Hutcherson, Grachan Moncur III, Sam Rivers, Tony Williams and Bird tackling Hill’s tunes. Imagine him actually taking a course of study with Varèse, and finding his own compositional voice for a large ensemble, synthesising everything he knew. Imagine Eric Dolphy arranging Bird’s tunes — for Bird.

These are idle thoughts, obviously. He did more than enough. But still… Happy 100th birthday, anyway, Mr Parker.

Bird as a baby

* The stone bust of Charlie Parker was made by the sculptor Julie Macdonald, a friend with whom Bird stayed in Los Angeles at the end of the Festival of Modern American Jazz tour. The photograph was taken by its present owner, William Dickson, and is used by his permission. I told the story of the sculpture here in the Guardian a few years ago. The photo of Parker as an infant is from To Bird with Love by Francis Paudras and Chan Parker, published by Editions Wislov in 1981.

** More stuff on Bird’s centenary: Ethan Iverson’s Do the Math, a New York Times special, and the start of a multi-part series on Ted Gioia’s Jazz Wax blog.

ECM at 50

manfred-eicher

By the end of the 1960s, jazz had gone right out of fashion. If it was by no means dead in creative terms, it was no longer good business for the music industry. So the arrival of a new jazz record label was quite an event, which is why I can remember quite clearly the first package from ECM arriving on my desk at the Melody Maker‘s offices in Fleet Street, and opening it to extract Mal Waldron’s Free at Last. I knew about Waldron from his work with Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and others. But an album from the pianist, recorded in Europe and packaged with unusual care on an unfamiliar label based in Munich, came as a surprise.

Pretty soon it was followed by Paul Bley with Gary Peacock, and then by Marion Brown’s Afternoon of a Georgia Faun. Before 1970 was out further packages had included an album by the Music Improvisation Company (with Evan Parker and Hugh Davies) and Jan Garbarek (Afric Pepperbird). It became obvious that something special was happening under the aegis of ECM’s founder, Manfred Eicher.

I guess it was in 1971, with solo piano albums from Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, Terje Rypdal’s first album and two albums of duos teaming Dave Holland with Barre Phillips and Derek Bailey, that the label’s character really became clear. Eicher stood for jazz with a high intellectual content, saw no reason to privilege American musicians over their European counterparts, and set his own high standards in studio production and album artwork. All these things — particularly his fondness for adding a halo of reverb to the sound of acoustic instruments, inspired by how music sounded in churches and cathedrals — were eventually turned against him by the label’s critics. The sheer volume of great music produced over the past 50 years is the only counter-argument he ever needed. His greatest achievement has been to make us listen harder, deeper and wider.

ECM’s golden jubilee is being marked by events around the world. On January 30 and February 1 there will be a celebration over two nights at the Royal Academy of Music in London, featuring the pianists Craig Taborn and Kit Downes, the bassist and composer Anders Jormin and the Academy’s big band playing the music of Kenny Wheeler with guests Norma Winstone, Evan Parker and Stan Sulzmann. I thought I’d add to the festivities by choosing 20 ECM albums that have made a particularly strong impression on me since that first package dropped on my desk half a century ago; they’re listed in chronological order. Although there are many other contenders, I stopped at 19; the 20th is for you to nominate.

1 Terje Rypdal: Terje Rypdal (1971) The guitarist’s debut was an early sign of Eicher’s determination to capture and promote the new sounds coming from northern Europe, and from Norway in particular. Rypdal was one of the first to present himself as a wholly original voice.

2 Paul Bley: Open, to Love (1972) For my money, the finest of ECM’s early solo piano recitals, with Bley examining compositions by Carla Bley (“Ida Lupino”), Annette Peacock (“Nothing Ever Was, Anyway”) and himself.

3 Old and New Dreams: Old and New Dreams (1979) Don Cherry, one of Eicher’s favourites, is joined by Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell in this homage to the music of their former colleague, Ornette Coleman. The 12-minute “Lonely Woman” is astonishingly lovely.

4 Leo Smith: Divine Love (1979) The trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith was among the squadron of American innovators who arrived in Europe at the end of the ’60s and whose influence gradually became apparent in the ECM catalogue. Divine Love is a classic.

5 Bengt Berger: Bitter Funeral Beer (1981) A Swedish ethnomusicologist, composer and percussionist, Berger put together a 13-piece band — Don Cherry being the only famous name — to record this strange and compelling multicultural mixture of jazz and ritual music.

6 Charlie Haden / Carla Bley: Ballad of the Fallen (1983) Fourteen years after the historic Liberation Music Orchestra, Haden and Bley reunited for a second studio album featuring music of resistance.

7 John Surman: Withholding Pattern (1985) A solo album in which Surman developed his skill at overdubbing soprano and baritone saxophones, piano and synths, this opens with “Doxology”, in which Oslo’s Rainbow studio is turned into an English church.

8 Bill Frisell: Lookout for Hope (1988) One of several guitarists whose careers were nurtured at ECM, Frisell recorded this with a lovely quartet — Hank Roberts (cello), Kermit Driscoll (bass) and Joey Baron (drums) — before moving on.

9 Keith Jarrett Trio: The Cure (1991) Includes an eight-minute version of “Blame It on My Youth” in which Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette achieve perfection, no matter how many times I listen to it in search of flaws.

10 Kenny Wheeler: Angel Song (1996) In a dream line-up, the Canadian trumpeter is joined by the alto of Lee Konitz, the guitar of Bill Frisell and the bass of Dave Holland.

11 Tomasz Stanko: Litania (1997) The Polish trumpeter interprets the compositions of his compatriot and sometime colleague Krzysztof Komeda. A wonderful group features the saxophonists Joakim Milder and Bernt Rosengren, with a core ECM trio — Bobo Stenson (piano), Palle Danielsen (bass) and Jon Christensen (drums) — as the rhythm section plus Terje Rypdal’s guitar on two of the tunes.

12 Trygve Seim: Different Rivers (2000) Most ECM music is for small groups, but here the Norwegian saxophonist and composer permutates 13 musicians in an exploration of subtle textures and gestures. The great trumpeter Arve Henriksen is among the soloists.

13 Manu Katché: Neighbourhood (2005) Ever listened to Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” and wished there had been more post-bop jazz with that kind of relaxed intensity and melodic richness? Here it is. Tomasz Stanko and Jan Garbarek are the horns, Marcin Wasilewski and Slawomir Kurkiewicz the pianist and bassist.

14 Masabumi Kikuchi: Sunrise (2012) Kikuchi, who was born in Tokyo in 1939 and died in upstate New York in 2015, was a pianist of exquisite touch, great sensitivity and real  originality: a natural fit with Eicher, who recorded him with the veteran drummer Paul Motian and the quietly astounding bassist Thomas Morgan.

15 Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Live (2012) The label that released Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians in 1978 is the perfect home for the group led by the Swiss pianist and composer, who explores the spaces between minimalist repetition and ecstatic groove, between gridlike structures and joyful improvisation.

16 Giovanni Guidi: This Is the Day (2015) With equal creative contributions from Thomas Morgan and the drummer João Lobo, the young Italian master leads a piano trio for the 21st century: always demanding close attention but never short of refined lyricism.

17 Michel Benita + Ethics: River Silver (2016) Led by an Algerian bassist, a quintet including a Japanese koto player (Mieko Miyazaki), a Swiss flugelhornist (Matthieu Michel), a Norwegian guitarist (Eivind Aarset) and a French drummer (Philippe Garcia) create music that incarnates the ECM ideal of reflective, frontierless beauty.

18 Roscoe Mitchell: Bells for the South Side (2017) A double album recorded live in Chicago in 2015, featuring Mitchell with four trios — including the trumpeter Hugh Ragin and the percussionist Tyshawn Sorey — who finally come together in a memorable celebration of the legacy of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

19 Vijay Iyer Sextet: Far From Over (2017) Knotty but exhilarating compositions, solos packed with substance from Graham Haynes (cornet), Steve Lehman (alto) and Mark Shim (tenor): a statement of the art as it moves forward today.

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* The photograph is a still from the 2011 film Sounds and Silence: Travels with Manfred Eicher, by Peter Guyer and Norbert Wiedmer. There’s a chapter containing further thoughts on ECM’s place in the evolution of modern music in my book The Blue Moment: Miles Davis and the Remaking of Modern Music, published in 2009 by Faber & Faber.

‘Dancing in the Dark’

Martin Speake

One summer night last year a quartet led by the alto saxophonist Martin Speake, with Ethan Iverson on piano, played a version of “Dancing in the Dark” — the Broadway ballad, not the Springsteen song — so suffused with the essence of noir that it had me turning towards the door of the Vortex, waiting for Gene Tierney or Gloria Grahame to make their entrance.

So subtly did the musicians enunciate the theme that I didn’t even recognise it as the song to which Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse danced in Central Park in a wonderful sequence from The Band Wagon in 1953 (not much noir there, even though they were dancing by the light of a street lamp). But Speake, Iverson, the bassist Fred Thomas and the drummer James Maddren put an entirely different set of castors under the tune, with the pianist’s lush chorded solo bringing the evocation of a darker, more sensual mood to its peak.

Earlier that day, in a session at Trinity Laban Conservatoire, they’d recorded enough pieces for an album. It’s called Intention, it’s on the Ubuntu label, and it’s a fine addition to the extensive body of work compiled by Speake over the course of what is now a long and distinguished career, showing the way he can focus a variety of source material through the lens of his distinctive musical character.

They launched the new release this week with a couple of nights at the Pizza Express, playing originals including “Becky”, whose prayer-like cadences put me in mind of the John Coltrane of Crescent, and a backwoods shuffle called “Twister”, while Charlie Parker’s “Charlie’s Wig” was transformed into bebop the way Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz heard it. Speake and Iverson are among those relatively rare musicians who’ve thoroughly absorbed the work of the Tristano school, allowing it to merge with other influences as they formed their own voices.

And, of course, amid the pieces that swung, skimmed, floated or grooved, there was “Dancing in the Dark”, stopping time to enfold us in a moment of romantic rapture. Ah, Gloria, my dear, there you are…

On a Monday night in Berlin

Andreas Schmidt bwIf you’re ever at a loose end in Berlin on a Monday night, my advice would be to head for A-Trane, the jazz club in Charlottenburg, where Andreas Schmidt, a pianist, composer and teacher at the city’s Jazz Institut, holds a weekly free-admission session featuring a changing cast of friends and students.

Last night he began his set with a quintet featuring two young tenor saxophonists, Nicholas Biello and Marc Doffey, the bassist Oliver Potratz and the drummer Ivars Aratyunun, playing a deceptive simply Schmidt original, “Closing Partners”, on which the instrumental combination and the all-round deftness and intelligence brought to mind Tony Williams’s first two Blue Note albums, Life Time and Spring, which teamed the tenors of Wayne Shorter and Sam Rivers.

Of the two saxophonists at A-Trane, Doffey had the lighter sound while Biello’s tone was darker and his delivery more intense. It was a lovely combination, and it worked equally well on the other number they played together, an abstraction of “All the Things You Are”, quite exquisitely supported by the rhythm section, before leaving the stage to other combinations for the rest of the evening.

Schmidt is a fine pianist, the salient features of his playing located somewhere between the Paul Bley of the mid-’60s and the Chick Corea of Now He Sings, Now He Sobs. You might get an idea of his approach if I say that his first album was made (in 1995) with Lee Konitz, and a later one comprised a duo with Gary Peacock. His music is cerebral, but on the evidence I’ve heard it never lacks wit and humanity.

Just two tunes by this ad hoc quintet, then, and a barely half an hour of music, but this was the sort of serendipitous encounter that, however much you loved jazz before, makes you love it even more.

Thomas Morgan, among friends

Thomas Morgan LJ2One of the gifts of Thomas Morgan, the unassuming 35-year-old bassist from Hayward, California, is to make every collaboration he undertakes sound like a perfect meeting of minds. No wonder Manfred Eicher, the founder of the ECM label, where intimate conversation between musicians is the dominant mode, likes him so much.

A week or so ago I heard Morgan with the trio of the Italian pianist Giovanni Guidi, making a return visit to the highly sympathetic environment of the Rosenfeld Porcini Gallery in London. Of all the current piano trios, this one — completed by the Portuguese drummer João Lobo — is my favourite: not the most blatantly adventurous, by any means, but a collective marvel of touch, precision, empathy and lyricism, the threat of sentimentality in something like their wonderful version of “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” held at bay by Lobo’s unpredictable colouristic interventions (a repertoire of mysterious tapping, scraping and scratching).

Morgan also works well with guitarists, including Scott DuBois and Jakob Bro, and last year he appeared on Bill Frisell’s album of film themes, When You Wish Upon a Star. In March 2016 Frisell and Morgan played a week as a duo at the Village Vanguard, and a selection of recordings from that engagement makes up Small Town, the first ECM album on which Morgan has been given a leader’s credit, jointly with Frisell, who makes a return visit to the label with which he established his reputation in the 1980s.

The 30-year gap between their ages vanishes as they peel the layers off Paul Motian’s “It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago”, respond to Lee Konitz’s “Subconscious Lee” with serpentine bebop lines, relish the deep lyricism of the country classic “Wildwood Flower”, conjure a spooky, spectral blues mode in Frisell’s “Small Town”, distil the spirit of Fats Domino’s “What a Party”, and amuse themselves and their audience by turning John Barry’s “Goldfinger” into something so slinkily and teasingly seductive that 007 might have been happy to slip it on to the hi-fi in his Chelsea apartment.

Perhaps the heart of the album is a 12-minute piece titled “Poet — Pearl”. Credited to both musicians, it is full of rich melody and satisfying harmonic movement, but it would be no surprise to discover that it was spontaneously improvised. Frisell’s singing tone takes the lead most of the way but Morgan moves to the forefront for a solo that demonstrates not just his spiritual connection to the late Charlie Haden but his lovely ability to make modesty an artistic virtue, with every note carefully considered and weighted for its contribution to the whole.

After the Guidi gig, Morgan told me in his diffident way that he has been composing pieces with an album of his own music in mind. After so much distinguished work in collaboration with or support of others, that’s something to look forward to. Meanwhile, Small Town is a place to visit.