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Posts tagged ‘Bill Frisell’

Jazz nights in London

Maisha 2

Maisha at Ghost Notes

There was a lot of excitement in the air as Nubya Garcia, saxophone in hand, squirmed her way through the crowd to join the other members of Maisha on the low stage at Ghost Notes in Peckham the other night. The whooping and cheering had already started, and it didn’t stop as the London-based band set up a series of grooves that kept the audience moving as well as listening through the long set, part of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival.

This is jazz in London in 2018, or at least the part of it that is attracting a new audience. The streets of Peckham and Hackney are its incubators, and it is made by people to whom grime, hip-hop and Afro-Beat are as familiar as bebop and the ’60s avant-garde. Under their leader, the drummer Jake Long, Maisha reminded me at various times of Pharoah Sanders, Osibisa and the Santana of Abraxas and Caravanserai. Garcia, the guitarist Shirley Tetteh and the pianist Sarah Tandy were the main soloists. Occasionally, as on the beautiful tune called “Azure”, it was possible to hear the two string quartets, one set up at each end of the long stage, on either side of the basic seven-piece band.

What most amazed me was how this audience has clearly acquired a habit of cheering not just the end of an improvisation but individual moments with a solo: a particularly resonant phrase, or a tricky high-register figure. If you were being cynical, you might say that this was like the 1940s, when tenor-players such as Big Jay McNeely walked the bar, goading the audience with squeals and honks. And it’s true that a young soloist might be encouraged by that kind of enthusiasm into a adopting a less reflective approach. But there’s more to it than that. And on their first album, There Is a Place, which they were launching at this gig, they showed that they are capable of as much subtlety and seriousness as anyone could require, while keeping that groove going.

Moses Boyd Exodus 2

Moses Boyd Exodus in Islington

That same feeling was in the air at Islington Assembly Hall a couple of nights later, in a gig by Moses Boyd’s Exodus that was not technically part of the festival but was very much of it in spirit. In this venue the band were not as close to the capacity audience in physical terms, but once again they managed to communicate very directly through the medium of storming rhythms and Boyd’s very engaging compositions: his irresistible “Rye Lane Shuffle” feels like a theme tune for the whole movement.

The trumpet-tenor-trombone front line was driven by Boyd’s astonishingly fluent drumming and Theon Cross’s tuba, a one-man perpetual motion machine, while Artie Zaits played some nice solos in a style with inflections from Wes Montgomery and Grant Green. After two or three tunes Boyd introduced a group of bata drummers, who performed a couple of chants, with Kevin Haynes taking the lead. Then the rest of the band returned and Haynes picked up his alto saxophone, sounding a little like Dudu Pukwana on “Marooned in SE6”, the highlight of the set and one of the strongest tracks on Displaced Diaspora, the band’s debut album, which I can’t recommend too highly.

Empirical Old St

Empirical at Old Street

For me, this was the defining vibe of this year’s festival. The event’s other key characteristic, every year, is superabundance. You can’t hope to make it to everything that sounds attractive, and I was sorry to miss Tandy’s solo set at the Purcell Room, Garcia’s own gig at the Vortex, the altoist Cassie Kinoshi’s band at the Vortex, two of the three nights of Ethan Iverson’s King Place residency, and much else. But on Friday evening I did make it to the Old Street subway, where Empirical spent a week doing pop-up sets for commuters and other passers-by in a very nice loft-style space.

Material from their fine new album, Indifference Culture, was played, Lewis Wright’s “Persephone” and Shane Forbes’s “Celestial Being” particularly catching the ear. As always, their staggering level of eloquence, creativity and energy captivated not just those familiar with their sophisticated post-bop language but everyone exposed to the perfectly honed and balanced collective sound of Nathaniel Facey’s alto, Wright’s vibes, Tom Farmer’s bass and Forbes’s drums.

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Amir ElSaffar at Kings Place

So much that was good about the 2018 festival was home-grown, and congratulations are due to John Cumming, its founder and outgoing artistic director, for recognising and encouraging British musicians. Of the visitors, I particularly enjoyed Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound (above), a large ensemble with which the Iraqi American trumpeter/composer explores a blend of microtonal maqam music and jazz. ElSaffar also sang and played santur, while Nasheet Waits (drums), George Ziadeh (oud), J. D. Parran (bass saxophone), Miles Okazaki (guitar) and, particularly, the Norwegian tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen made powerful contributions. Their album, Not Two, is another that I’d strongly recommend, if you can find it.

Jaimie Branch

Jaimie Branch at Cafe Oto

Cafe Oto was packed for Jaimie Branch, the Chicago trumpeter, leading her Fly or Die quartet through a set of high drama, featuring the material from the group’s eponymous album. Branch’s sound on the horn goes back to the distant origins of jazz, much like Donald Ayler’s did, but the bold, brassy attack is deployed with devastating control, particularly when she switches between two microphones: one dry, the other drenched in reverb (which sounds like a gimmick, but isn’t). The cello/bass combination was used with great subtlety, and Chad Taylor once again showed himself to be among the era’s most stimulating drummers.

Bill Frisell‘s solo concert at the Cadogan Hall was a joy from beginning to end: like sitting in the great guitarist’s living room listening to him play for his own pleasure. Apart from the lovely pieces based on country and folk cadences, I enjoyed a version of “Goldfinger” that switched between the styles of Wes Montgomery and Vic Flick, gorgeous readings of “Lush Life” and “What the World Needs Now”, a perfectly flighted snatch of “In a Silent Way”, and an eye-moistening encore of “In My Life” and “Give Peace a Chance”.

To close the festival week, I went to Kings Place to hear a vinyl repress of Joe Harriott‘s Abstract, played over a very good sound system and introduced by John Cumming, with a subsequent commentary by Soweto Kinch. I know the eight tracks of this 1962 masterpiece by heart, but I wanted to be made to sit and listen to it in undistracted silence. Every note sounded brand-new, just as startling in its freshness and beauty as it was five and a half decades ago. Then I went home to watch the final of the BBC’s Young Jazz Musician of the Year competition, won by a 22-year-old tenor saxophonist from Handsworth in Birmingham called Xhosa Cole. A life playing jazz is not an easy choice, but it seems to me that he couldn’t be joining the scene at a better time.

* Maisha’s There Is a Place is on the Brownswood label. Moses Boyd Exodus’s Displaced Diaspora is on Exodus Records. Empirical’s Indifference Culture is on Empirical Music. Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound: Not Two is on the New Amsterdam Records. Jaimie Branch’s Fly or Die is on the International Anthem label.

Entangled in Berlin

Irreversible Entanglements - Jazzfest Berlin 2018 - Haus der Berliner Festspiele (C) Camille Bl ake - Berliner Festspiele -8

Moor Mother with Irreversible Entanglements in the Haus der Berliner Festspiele (photo: Camille Blake)

I’ve spent the past few days thinking about the enormous wealth of music I heard last weekend during the first edition of Jazzfest Berlin curated by Nadin Deventer, who selected some very fine artists, devised interesting combinations and highlighted provocative themes while moving the festival’s furniture around sufficiently to make the event feel fresh and new.

Among the things I carried away with me included a surprise encore on the final night with Mary Halvorson joining Bill Frisell for a lovely guitar duet on “The Maid With the Flaxen Hair”, the title track of their highly recommended recent album on the Tzadik label; Kara-Lis Coverdale’s dramatic and absorbing pipe-organ solo recital in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church; Jaimie Branch’s electrifyingly bold trumpet solos with a quartet driven by the drummer Chad Taylor; the fantastically creative cello solos of Tomeka Reid with Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble, Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star International and a 12-piece Art Ensemble of Chicago; Kim Myhr’s mini-orchestra of strumming guitars; and Jason Moran’s centenary tribute to the soldier/bandleader James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters, which moved me more than I had expected.

In a festival-related event, there was also a chance to see the artist Arthur Jafa’s “A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions” at the gallery of the collector Julia Stoschek. Having missed it at the Serpentine Gallery last year, I was particularly struck by one of the video pieces, which cut together YouTube footage of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Bootsy Collins, and an electrifying 10-minute performance by the gospel singer Lateria Wooten, singing “Nothing But the Blood” with the late Thomas Whitfield’s choir (which you can watch here).

The solo of the festival was played by Ingrid Laubrock with Mary Halvorson’s wonderful octet. Her tenor saxophone emerged from the warm textures of a ballad called, apparently, “No. 60” (the composer numbers her tunes before assigning them names), like Ben Webster taking his turn in an Ellington small group 80 years ago. The tone, the trajectory, the internal balance of the improvisation were all simply perfect. It was a moment of absolute beauty and the effect was spine-tingling,

But most of all I came away with the memory of Moor Mother, otherwise known as Camae Ayewa, a spoken-word artist from Chicago who was heard in several contexts, most notably with her group, Irreversible Entanglements, featuring Aquiles Navarro on trumpet, Keir Neuringer on alto, Luke Stewart on bass and Tcheser Holmes on drums. Her fierce, declamatory recitations seemed like the logical evolution of the poetry-and-jazz explorations of Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and Jayne Cortez. Over a highly expressive and flexible band, she drove her words home with a caustic power intensified by a command of economy and repetition echoing that of old blues singers. And then, after a short interval, she appeared in a duo with the Art Ensemble’s Roscoe Mitchell, who played his sopranino saxophone as she riffed on phrases borrowed from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Here we had the old and the new, speaking directly to today’s world.

Terje Rypdal at 70

Terje Rypdal 1If you were to draw a straight line connecting Hank B. Marvin to Jimi Hendrix and then extend it a bit further, the next point on the line would be Terje Rypdal, the Norwegian guitarist and composer who celebrated his 70th birthday this weekend with a couple of concerts at Oslo’s Victoria Nasjonal Jazzscene, an old cinema converted into a 300-capacity theatre for improvised music. I went to the first of the concerts, in which Rypdal was joined by the trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, the keyboardist Ståle Storløkken and the drummer Pål Thowsen. It was an unforgettable evening, and a reminder of his singular importance.

When I first heard Rypdal, in Berlin in 1970, I had no idea that he would become one of the most interesting and influential musicians of my lifetime. Not long after that, however, I wrote a piece in which I ventured the opinion that if Miles Davis were looking for a really interesting new accomplice, he need look no further than a young guitarist who seemed to have a wholly original approach to things — and to tone and texture in particular. Perhaps attempting to give Miles Davis advice was not the smartest idea, but I still think it would have led him in a rewarding direction. After John McLaughlin, Rypdal would have brought something different to Miles’s world.

The son of a classical composer, Rypdal spent his teenage years with a successful Norwegian beat group called the Vanguards. In 1968 he became a member of George Russell’s European band, and in 1971 he released his first album on ECM, the label with which he has spent his entire career as a leader. (Mikkelborg, who is five years his elder, was featured on several of those recordings.) Some of those albums featured a variety of small groups, while others included compositions for orchestras and choirs. In 1995 a couple of Rypdal’s more noir-ish pieces were borrowed by Michael Mann for the soundtrack to his great thriller, Heat. Some years ago Rypdal endured a period of poor health, but he came through it and, although he does not move around so easily, his playing is unimpaired.

The Victoria was built as a cinema in 1915 and, apart from the swap of a stage for a screen, appears little changed. On Friday night it was packed to hear Storløkken begin the set with one of Rypdal’s ethereal tone-poems, manipulating his Hammond B3 to produce piercing textures. With the exception of a delightful duet by Rypdal and Mikkelborg (on flugelhorn) on “Stranger in Paradise”, a melody by Borodin borrowed for the 1953 musical Kismet, the programme explored Rypdal’s themes, which alternated between ecstatic skycaps and outbreaks of wonderfully thunderous hooliganism. The guitarist, manipulating the sound of his Fender Stratocaster via effects units and his volume pedal, and sometimes using a bottleneck, found the perfect ally in the organist, whose bass lines, played on a small keyboard, made the building shudder.

If you were to extend the line that starts with Hank B. Marvin beyond Rypdal, you would find people like David Torn, Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, Henry Kaiser, Jim O’Rourke, Hedvig Mollestad, Reine Fiske, Even Helte Hermansen, Raoul Björkenheim and Hans Magnus Ryan. All of those are involved in a new album called Sky Music: A Tribute to Terje Rypdal, released on the Oslo-based Rune Grammofon label. Again, Rypdal’s themes provide the basis. Frisell opens with a lovely meditation on “Ørnen”, Cline creates a lyrical meditation on “What Comes After” with the cellist Erik Friedlander, and Torn displays his extended techniques to fine effect on “Avskjed”.

These are all wonderful. But it is the group performances that steal the show. Supported by Storløkken, the bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and the drummer Gard Nilsen, the guitar squadron of Mollestad, Fiske, Kaiser, Hermansen, Bjorkenheim and Ryan — in various combinations, but mostly all at once — attack such pieces as “Silver Bird Heads for the Sun”, “Chaser” and a dramatic medley of “Tough Enough” and “Rolling Stone” with verve and devotion. My favourite track also carries the most appropriate title: “Warning: Electric Guitars”. The result is heavier, in every sense, than the heaviest metal, while being enormously creative and totally exhilarating.

The album was conceived by Kaiser in collaboration with Rune Kristoffersen, the founder of Rune Grammofon. I can’t recommend it too highly, particularly to anyone who has previously been touched by Rypdal’s work — or, more generally, to anyone with an interest in guitar music.

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.

January 20, 2017

us-flagWith three hours to go until the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States, the coffee shop I frequent was playing the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself”. That’s a record with a lot of American history in it, one way and another: a message delivered by a mixed group of black and white singers and musicians, showing how music can provide encouragement, comfort and even guidance.

The saxophonist Charles Lloyd and the singer Lucinda Williams have chosen to mark today’s events by releasing an eight-minute version of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”, streamable on Spotify here. It was recorded live at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, California, on November 28 last year, three weeks after the election, with Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on pedal steel, Rueben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums. That’s a real A Team, and together they give Dylan’s song the full treatment: harsh, menacing, an ebb and flow of emotions but underneath simmering with rage.

As a teenager in Memphis in the 1950s, Lloyd played with B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Bobby Bland. He is 78 years old now, and has performed in public through 12 presidencies, counting this latest one. “The world is a dog’s curly tail,” he says in the press statement accompanying the release. “No matter how many times we straighten it out, it keeps curling back. As artists we aspire to console, uplift and inspire. To unite us through sound across boundaries and borders and to dissolve lines of demarcation that separate us. The beautiful thing is that as human beings, even under the most adverse conditions, we are capable of kindness, compassion and love, vision and hope. All life is one. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll succeed. We go forward.”

Feat. Bill Frisell

Bill Frisell at home 2There was a time, seven or eight years ago, when I came to the conclusion that Bill Frisell was simply making too many records. I fell out of the habit of automatically buying his new releases because he seemed to be spreading himself too thin. Good Dog Happy Man (1999) and Blues Dream (2001) are still two of my all-time favourite albums, but I tend to prefer him nowadays as a contributor to other people’s records — something to which his particular expertise is well suited. Used sparingly, the characteristics of his playing add texture and flavour, just like King Curtis or Steve Cropper once did.

The job of being an accompanist is much underrated these days, so it’s good to welcome the arrival of two outstanding new albums on which Frisell fulfils that role: first with the saxophonist and flautist Charles Lloyd on I Long to See You and second with singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams on The Ghosts of Highway 20. They’re very different, of course, but they benefit equally from the guitarist’s modest, graceful touch.

When I interviewed him for the Guardian in 2002, Frisell explained a personal evolution that had begun with his first 45, the Beach Boys’s “Little Deuce Coupe”. Then came the Beatles and Manfred Mann — “that’s where I heard the blues for the first time” –followed by the Rolling Stones, John Mayall and the Paul Butterfield band. “I was coming to the blues backwards,” he said, “by figuring out where the English bands were getting a lot of their stuff from.” He may be in his sixties now, but he’s kept a sense of discovery in his music, whatever company he happens to be keeping.

I Long to See You finds Lloyd and Frisell tackling some familiar material, such as the saxophonist’s “Of Course Of Course” and “Sombrero Sam”, and a version of “Shenandoah” that doesn’t quite match the sublime reading Frisell and Ry Cooder contrived on Good Dog Happy Man. The biggest surprise is a resolute instrumental version of Dylan’s “Masters of War”, while the soulful Spanish traditional song “La Llorona”– previously recorded by Lloyd — invites Frisell to display his innate lyricism. Guest appearances by Willie Nelson on “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” and Norah Jones on “You Are So Beautiful” are pleasant but not exactly essential.

The track that justifies the album’s existence, however, is its closer, the 16-minute “Barche Lamsel”. Named after a Buddhist prayer, it allows Lloyd (its composer), Frisell and their three bandmates — the steel guitarist Greg Leisz, the bass guitarist Reuben Rogers and the drummer Eric Harland — to improvise a dreamy five-minute intro on a single chord before drifting into a pulse defined by the drums  for a delicately funky jam that would once have been described as “spaced out”.

The concerns of The Ghosts of Highway 20 are more earthly in tone but no less spiritual in nature, if much less comforting. Lucinda Williams’ ravaged voice and bar-room country-blues songs do not trade in reassurance. Her America is a place of wayfaring strangers fleeing the past and seeking refuge from the future. As the poet of this world of lost highways and dangerous glances, Williams is rivalled only by James McMurtry.

Like its predecessor, 2014’s Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (which also featured Leisz and Frisell), this one is a two-disc set. The extra length offered by the format would exhaust the capacity of most singer-songwriters, but it seems ideally suited Williams’ temperament. Although her songs are often skeletal, they need to stretch out and breathe inside arrangements that create their own sense of time. On “Louisiana Story” the two guitarists sit either side of the parched voice, carefully picking out a double commentary against a tempo that flows like a thin stream of black treacle.

* The photograph of Bill Frisell is by Monica Frisell.

A threnody for Lou Reed

lou and jzIt’s already a year since Lou Reed died. You could mark the anniversary by saving up for the new super-deluxe edition of the Velvet Underground’s third album, now expanded to six CDs through the addition of alternative mixes and live stuff, or by reading the updated version of Jeremy Reed’s biography, Waiting for the Man. Or you could make a lateral move and listen to Transmigration of the Magus, written and recorded by John Zorn in memory of his late friend.

Just released on Zorn’s own Tzadik label, the album features the composer’s well established Gnostic Trio — Bill Frisell (guitar), Carol Emanuel (harp) and Kenny Wollesen (vibes and bells) — plus John Medeski (organ), Bridget Kibbey (harp) and Al Upowski (vibes and bells). The instrumentation along gives you an idea of what the music sounds like: a bright celestial noise reflecting Zorn’s interest in the numinous and his desire to write something to help Reed’s spirit through the bardo — the Tibetan word for the transitional state between death and the next incarnation.

Somewhere beneath the profanity of Reed’s music, the sacred was always lurking — whether in the exquisite melody of  “Pale Blue Eyes” or in Songs for Drella, the lovely elegy he and John Cale wrote for Andy Warhol. It’s not hard to glimpse him in the shimmering, tinkling haze of Zorn’s heavily arpeggiated compositions, but easier still in the handful of pieces where, without breaking the poise or the delicate weave of the ensemble, Frisell and Medeski get the chance to cut loose.

At the London Jazz Festival last week I listened to Frisell and Greg Leisz playing electric guitars on “Tired of Waiting for You” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” during the Guitar in the Space Age! show and was struck by how the silvery quality of the combined strings and a general feeling of ascension reminded me of two other partnerships: Television’s Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd and the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. Frisell is equally wonderful here. The title track of Transmigration of the Magus is one of the loveliest and most powerful things I’ve heard all year.

* The photograph of Lou Reed and John Zorn was taken by Heung Heung Chin at (le) Poisson Rouge in New York City on September 2, 2008, at a concert in celebration of Zorn’s 55th birthday.

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.