Back in June, while Lee Konitz was playing Manhattan’s Blue Note, I posted an uncut Blindfold Test that he did with me in 2004. A few years before, DownBeat gave me the opportunity to write a feature piece on the maestro, who turns 84 today.
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Behold Lee Konitz, 74, the patriarch of “cool jazz,” perched atop a barstool center-stage at Manhattan’s Blue Note. Trim, bespectacled, with a mossy white beard, Konitz is resplendent in a custom-tailored blue pinstripe with wide lapels and burgundy shirt open at the neck. Ears cocked, eyes darting, he’s ready to embark on a round of spontaneous composition with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Marc Johnson, each capable, as Bley puts it, “of playing the gig solo if the others didn’t arrive on time.”
Konitz bends, envelops the alto saxophone mouthpiece in a brief, graceful motion, and blows a stream of notes, gradually forming a melody, articulating the flow with his signature wood-grained sound, smooth and round at the edges, with a touch more vibrato than he used to deploy. Finally he unveils the refrain of Frank Loesser’s “I’ve Never Been In Love Before.” Bley, the mischievous Katzenjammer Kid, sets up sudden detours; Konitz, unfazed, cool as his rep, falls silent for one rest, another, intuits the note, and plunges into a new set of variations. The trio sustains the speculative mood for an hour, improvising continuously through the melodies of “I’ll Remember April” and “Stella By Starlight” with the attitude of adventurers working through virgin terrain.
“I start every day playing into a song that I know,” Konitz had said six months before, a few days after “being paid exorbitantly” for three nights of improvised duliloquy with drummer Paul Motian at the Kaplan Penthouse at Lincoln Center. We sat in the living room of the well-appointed Upper West Side apartment that now serves as his New York pied a terre, the novels of Proust and Dostoevsky holding pride of place with a healthy collection of classical and jazz CDs. “I hear so many talented people who are obliged to learn many different kinds of musics to function as professionals. Which I was never really obliged to do. Don’t bug me! I just want to play ‘All The Things You Are’ in all the keys. I’ve been through the keys!”
At that moment, Konitz was pondering weighty matters. Having survived post-operative complications from a May 2000 angioplasty and subsequent open-heart surgery, his doctors had informed him that another angioplasty would be required, forcing him to cancel at least a month of engagements. He reflected analytically on the impact of the aging process on his sound.
“My breath control is a little shorter, and I tend to play shorter phrases,” Konitz commented. “But I’ve worked at it every day; all these little adjustments have been systematic in some way, and I’ve accepted them. Whatever change in my sound or in the way I play a line, I’m told that people can recognize me still from the first note I play. Which I consider a great compliment, since I’ve made a real effort not to keep doing the same solo over and over again, so to speak. Whether I played better in 1951 than I do now is a matter of taste, but now I am doing what I think is closer to my real musicality. I’ve studied over the years to try to eliminate the so-called intellectual imbalance in the playing — to play real notes. It’s been a process of editing, finding how to listen better, play in time better, relax better, and to stay inventive. I feel much stronger rhythmically. I hear much clearer and relate much more definitely to what I hear, and all of those coordinating factors are slowly developing. Being 74 doesn’t necessarily stop that process. It seems to be stimulating it in some way, because I know I don’t have that much time. And I have the good fortune of being able to play in public and get money! That completes the cycle.”
The doctors had given Konitz a false alarm, and he resumed his 60-year career with scarcely a glitch. From his Rhenish base in Cologne, where he lives with his wife of several years, Konitz executes the lone-wolf saxman function at festivals, concert halls and clubs throughout Europe, working with whichever musicians cross his path. A week before the Blue Note engagement, for example, he and Bley had performed three nights of duos in Culley, Switzerland, preceded by a Genoa encounter with the excellent Italian tenorist Pietro Tonolo. That followed a Paris recital on which Konitz improvised to four-horn arrangements of his tunes by the Canadian arranger Francois Tabersch, and a recording session for Owl on which he earned his one thousand dollar fee (“Not Euros, bucks!”) with five minutes of variations on “My Funny Valentine” as accompaniment to a reading by French essayist Alain Gilbert on Chet Baker.
Since 1996, Konitz has recorded some of the strongest albums of his distinguished corpus. He blends his sound with a string quartet, improvising on 10 songs by French Impressionist composers over Ohad Talmor arrangements; interprets 12 ballads associated with Billie Holiday over Daniel Schnyder arrangements for string sextet and drums [Enja]; and channels Johnny Hodges on a luscious recital with the 40-piece Metropole Orchestra of Holland [Koch], making “the vibrato really schmaltzy.” There are two volumes of impromptu triologues with bassist Charlie Haden and pianist Brad Mehldau [Blue Note], and one apiece with Motian and bassist Steve Swallow [Enja], with bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron [DIW], and with pianist Don Friedman and the late guitarist Attila Zoller [Hat Art]. For the Danish label Steeplechase, which has documented Konitz since the ’70s, there are several excellent sax-bass-drums trios and a contrapuntal flight of fancy with tenor saxophonist Ted Brown, a friend since 1948. He meets Brown and guitarist John Abercrombie on the RCA album SOUNDS OF SURPRISE, and dialogues with rising tenor star Mark Turner for PARALLELS, on Chesky.
“Beginning before I met Lennie Tristano, and learned more about this music, I thought I would be a professional journeyman musician doing whatever gigs were offered to me,” Konitz reflected in March, a few days after arriving in New York for the first time since his October troubles. “So I am very happy to be able to be a creative journeyman. The sideman mentality, I think, is part of that. Last night I went to the Vanguard and heard Mark Turner’s band, which is a real band; they played nice tunes, nice arrangements, nice solos. Bravo. I don’t seem to need that in my life. For some strange reason, I like to just go in and play with different guys.”
Consider how Konitz approached his 1998 encounter with Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins in Perugia. “We rehearsed three days at his studio at 125th Street,” Konitz relates. As introspective in conversation as he is in music, Konitz analyzes the emotions that bedrock his improvisations with the same intensity he imparts to the practice by which he prepares to create them.
“On the first day, Ornette brought about 13 tunes, including a ballad for me. I saw quickly that the tunes were 8 or 12 bars long. Then I discovered that the pitches were correct, but he wasn’t playing them that way. Very typically bright Ornette themes. He gave me a tape after the first rehearsal, and I transcribed his playing so that I could it play it rhythmically more correct. I told Ornette I didn’t feel comfortable, and asked him to let me play the first solo after the theme, though I asked myself, ‘How could that possibly work?’ But it seemed to help a bit, and although I told Ornette I didn’t really fit, he and Charlie and Billy told me I was doing fine. So I accepted the good feelings they gave me and had my doubts about fitting in. After the set in Perugia, Ornette said backstage, ‘Do you want to play ‘All The Things You Are’?' I said, ‘Yeah!’ We went out…and you never heard a version of ‘All The Things You Are’ like that!”
“I remember going with Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh to hear him at the Five Spot one night, and not really knowing what to make of it. Ornette came up and asked me if I wanted to sit in. I said, ‘What do we play?’ or something like that, and somehow I guess I didn’t sound like I really wanted to sit in, so he didn’t pursue it. Sorry I didn’t. At that time, like a lot of people, I was resenting somehow this fact that he was eliminating everything that I’d spent my years trying to hone. But I gradually got over resenting it. Ornette’s concept is extraordinarily inventive and original, and of course had a great influence on a lot of the music’s development. He tried to explain some of the harmolodic theory on an airplane flight when we were sitting together. I said, ‘Wait til we get down on the ground, please.’ I really said that, because it’s so subjective that I didn’t want to face it up in the air. I never really learned his tunes. I’m too busy playing ‘All the Things You Are.’ By Jerome Kern. That guy must be turning over!”
Konitz is Coleman’s senior by three years, and by the fall of 1959, the date of their first encounter, he was a minor legend. An avatar in improvising without a preconceived harmonic, melodic or rhythmic framework, he was the only alto saxophonist of his generation to develop a tonal personality that addressed the innovations of Charlie Parker without mimicking his style.
Both accomplishments trace to Konitz’ intense two-decade disciple-master relationship with Tristano. The lessons began in Chicago around 1944, not long after Konitz — who grew up in Rogers Park — had begun to play professionally as a lead alto saxophonist in several white dance bands and in a black orchestra led by Harold Fox (the tailor for Jimmie Lunceford and Earl Hines, who performed under the pseudonym Jimmy Dale), who assigned the pimply neophyte to sing the blues before curious audiences at the South Side’s Pershing Ballroom. Tristano had Konitz — then an acolyte of swing era alto heroes Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges — duplicate solos by Lester Young (Konitz cites “Dickie’s Dream” and “Pound Cake” as two of many favorites) and Charlie Parker (“Don’t Blame Me”), laying the groundwork for the twisty legato patterns and behind the beat phrasing that remains his trademark.
In 1948, a month shy of his 21st birthday, Konitz arrived in New York for a fortnight’s residence at the Pennsylvania Hotel with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra. He never left. “52nd Street was the first place I went after I checked in,” Konitz says. “I heard Charlie Parker, I heard Art Tatum, I heard Roy Eldridge — one after another. Incredible. This was the big time, and I was totally impressed with the funky clubs, with the whole scene.”
Konitz quickly made his mark. Whitney Balliett’s 1982 essay, “Ten Levels” contains the best account of the manner in which he did it. There Konitz discusses how Gil Evans, an arranger with Thornhill, led him to the rehearsal nonet that became Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool band; his pioneering “free jazz” recordings on Capitol and Prestige with Tristano’s sextet, and the bizarre course of their relationship; and his 16-month tenure with Stan Kenton’s brass-heavy aggregation. Konitz left Kenton in 1954, and embarked on the nomadic free-lance life he continues to lead, hewing to on-the-highwire imperatives through the tides of Hardbop, Soul Jazz, Coltrane, Avant Garde, Fusion and Neoclassicism.
“I had the model in Tristano and Warne Marsh especially, and before that with Lester Young and Charlie Parker, and I rejected a lot of what I heard around me on that basis,” Konitz says. “Which is kind of a traditional trap we can get into; there I was, in the ’60s, out of step with what’s hip, with what almost all of the younger people were studying.
“To this day I feel that Warne Marsh was one of the most real players in jazz. When he played, it was all substance and no attitude to speak of. I heard attitude in Charlie Parker, except that he was a genius so he could compensate for that — or cover it. ‘Attitude’ meaning that there was something extra-musical involved in this. Over-dramatic emotionality. Okay? Coming from the ‘cool’ system, you can take that with a grain of salt. I love passionate expression as well as the next man, but sometimes it felt that all the emphasis was on trying to emote on the sleeve, so to speak. What really gets to me is hearing a really straight reading with great notes. great sound and great rhythm feeling. Warne was capable of doing that more than anybody I know.”
During the latter ’50s, as Konitz came to grips with Parker’s rhythmic language, he began to prove, as Paul Bley notes, “that he could be a muscular time player. Time was an Achilles heel of Lennie’s groups, and Lee went past that to incorporate a swinging approach, plus the intellectual. That’s the whole thing to match off — to be creative harmonically and melodically and at the same time have a mastery of rhythm sections.”
“Lee has a jarring rhythmic sense,” Mark Turner says. “Phrases are never in groups of 2 or 4 or 8 beats or notes, but in 7′s or 9′s or 5′s or 6′s. His lines are also very involved, long, connected, extremely lyrical. Until the ’70s, his playing was pretty complex, always lyrical and logical, always a strong rhythmic sense, with a unique sense of swing. Over the last five years, it’s a much simpler, more pared-down version of what was going on then. He’s very open minded and so free — and rooted as well.”
“I think what Lee needs from a drummer is strong, confident, concentrated time,” says Joey Baron, Konitz’ drummer of choice in recent years. “He plays on the REAL back side of the beat, and it’s important not to try to match where he’s placing the time. I think he expects some fire, some expression without impeding his aesthetic of music. It’s not about energy and texture. It’s more about his mastery of melody and continuity. He really appreciates when you listen, and he starts from scratch with whomever he’s playing with, which is unbelievable.”
Whatever distaste Konitz professes for proselytizing, his search for musical truth has the feeling of a monastic pursuit. “I came into a situation with Tristano that was a number of steps beyond what I was prepared to absorb,” Konitz says. “That meant weeding out things that I felt were extraneous and trying to play what I really felt and heard.” To exist so self-consciously must take a psychic toll, and Konitz, who “was never part of a religious group too much and left the Jewish thing early on,” found himself looking to outside sources for inspiration.
One crutch was marijuana, which Konitz used heavily during the ’50s and ’60s. “That had its effect one way and another,” Konitz says. “As Louis Armstrong said, ‘Where do you get your ideas from if you’re not smoking?’ I can see that sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t all come together yet. I still think about it, because those were very special moments. Now I can get a different kind of satisfaction, but very complete, without having to do anything, and that has been a big lesson for me. I didn’t like the feeling of having a door open on something and then having it close up the next morning.”
Konitz began to wean himself from marijuana during a lengthy association with Scientology, which he became involved with around 1973. “It seemed to me that I would have a chance, step-by-step, to look at my life and things around me, and try to make some sense out of it,” Konitz says. “It provided me with the opportunity to continue studying, a discipline that I had stopped when I left high school. I left the Jewish thing early on, and had never been part of a religious group — or any group — too much. Besides the business part, which I objected to very strongly, it was clean, in a way. And whatever was hokey about it, I just accepted the part that felt it was to our benefit, to somehow clean up our acts.”
Free and clear of marijuana, Tristano and L. Ron Hubbard since 1990, Konitz relies on his ears and intuition “to communicate with the people I’m playing with, not just somehow register what they’re doing and continue to do what I do.”
“I understood early on that you’re supposed to study and then go off and think and make your own sense of it,” Konitz continues. “I think that’s what I was able to do. I wasn’t trying to be ‘original’ at any point. I’m quoting Ned Rorem, who said one of the most original things that I did was not to try to be original. That rings a bell for me. I was just trying to absorb what was hip at the time as best I could, and when I got alone, try and reinterpret it or interpret it the way I heard it.”
“Lee is a master,” Bley says. “The master is not looking for anything. The master already has found everything. It’s just a question of revealing it to you. It’s the same on the bandstand. The master passing wind through the horn, without a note, is already art. The master is the art.”
Konitz the patriarch will have none of this. He continues to work through his process, moving around the world as a gigging troubadour. He offers some parting speculations. “I think all jazz comes from the Baroque music, basically. Bach is always swinging, and it’s got the long line, the great counterpoint and all the ingredients. Someone even said Bach had the progression of ‘All The Things You Are’ in one of his pieces! But I haven’t come across that one yet.”