Lee Konitz Blindfold Test, 2003, Uncut

The inimitable Lee Konitz is mid-week at the Blue Note with an ad-hoc quartet of Bill Frisell, Gary Peacock, and Joey Baron. He’s played with each of them at various points along his timeline, but I believe this is their first encounter as a group. The booking coincides with the release of Live at Birdland [ECM], a discursive performance by Konitz, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian in which the elder altoist and younger pianist engage in high-level harmonic back-and-forth on six good-old-good-ones.

As the recent recording Knowing-Lee [Outnote]—a trio collaboration with Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach—bears out, Konitz thrives on these kinds of encounters. An assignment to write the liner notes for this intense, no-roadmap, unfiltered, three-way conversation gave me an opportunity to distill some thoughts on Konitz’ achievement over 65 years as a professional improviser.

“Even 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,” Lee Konitz told me in 2002, when he was 74 years old. “I am very happy to be able to be a creative journeyman. For some strange reason, I like to go in and play with different guys.”

    This self-description does not do justice to Konitz’ exalted position in the timeline of jazz expression. An avatar in the art of improvising without a preconceived harmonic, melodic or rhythmic framework (he did this in 1949, on a pair of sides with a Tristano-led sextet that included Warne Marsh), he would become the only alto saxophonist of his generation to develop a tonal personality—at once cerebral and melody-centric, rhythmically muscular and behind-the-beat—that addressed the innovations of Charlie Parker without mimicking Bird’s style. Over the years, Konitz noted, he’s focused on “weeding out things that I felt were extraneous and trying to play what I really felt and heard,” towards the notion of “eliminating as much of the mechanical part of playing as possible to play some real notes. Ned Rorem once said that one of the most original things 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.”    

    During his early career, Konitz developed his language in working bands—Claude Thornhill, Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool nonet. But after leaving Stan Kenton in 1954, he switched his m.o. to that of gigging troubadour, free-lancing from one project to the next. Until the latter ‘60s, with several exceptions, he fronted blowing combos of varying size and instrumentation, propelled by swinging bass and drums. He’s expanded his scope over the past four decades, undertaking diverse projects—Daniel Schnyder’s arrangements of French Impressionist music and Billie Holiday songs for string ensemble; Ohad Talmor’s nonet orchestrations of Konitz compositions and transcribed solos; various one-offs with the excellent big bands that populate the European continent; specially convened units on which he improvises freshly on old standbys with several-generations-removed talent like Brad Mehldau, Mark Turner, Ethan Iverson, and Dan Tepfer, and with such generational contemporaries as Charlie Haden, Steve Swallow, and Paul Motian.

In 1993, Lee joined me at WKCR over the course of three five-hour Sunday “Jazz Profile” shows to present and talk about his recordings, from the Thornhills on through  to what was then the present (of course, given his extraordinary productivity, he’s generated dozens and dozens of recordings over the intervening years).  Over the next decade-plus, he’d come to the station at regular intervals (usually walking the mile-and-a-half from his Upper West Side home) to publicize one NYC event or another. He is as uninhibited when speaking as he is  when improvising.

I wrote a DownBeat feature on Lee in 2002. Two years later, he sat with me for a DownBeat Blindfold Test.  Here’s the complete, pre-edit proceedings of the BT.

[Re what things sound like at the Blue Note, read Jim MacNie’s excellent review.

* * * * * *

1.    Clusone 3, “It’s You” (from AN HOUR WITH…, Hatology, 1998) (Michael Moore, alto saxophone; Ernst Reijsiger, cello; Han Bennink, drums) – (5 stars)

Was that applause at the end?  Well, that was really nice.  I appreciate very much that these guys chose my line to play on “It’s You Or No One.”  I think that was Michael Moore and Ernst Reijsiger.  I never heard Ernst play a line like that before, so that was really a pleasant surprise.  I don’t know who the drummer was, but he was right in there.  And Michael sounded beautiful.  I haven’t heard him play with that kind of intensity before either, but I haven’t heard that many of his records.  But that was really nice. I always wonder how you come out of a very eighth-notey kind of line like that.  He did what I frequently do, just leave some space and play little epigrams, and then kind of wind up.  But I always think that you should come out of that line even with a higher intensity.  That’s one of the challenges of playing that line instead of “It’s You Or No One.”  So that was really very nice.  And a little canon at the end when they played the line together; it was very effective.  I must send my compliments to those guys. Five stars!

2.    Jackie McLean, “Star Eyes” (from NATURE BOY, Blue Note, 2000) (Jackie McLean, alto saxophone; Cedar Walton, piano; David Williams, bass; Billy Higgins, drums) – (4 stars)

Well, that was very nice.  I enjoyed that. This is, if I may, bebop playing on a high level.  Very derivative bebop playing.  The alto player sounded a little bit like Jackie McLean. [It was.] The reason I doubted that is because the tendency was a little bit below the pitch, and that’s not Jackie’s wont.  He tends, like me, to go on top of the pitch.  And a lot of times he was holding a long note, which is our way of checking if we’re really in tune with the piano and everything.  I think that’s what he was doing.  The pianist sounded like it could be Barry Harris, but I’m not sure.  The rhythm section was very nice, but I don’t know any of them. [AFTER] Cedar sounded very nice.  And Jackie was playing what he knows very well. 4 stars.

3.    Marty Ehrlich, “Like I Said” (from LINE ON LOVE, Palmetto, 2003) (Marty Ehrlich, alto saxophone; Craig Taborn, piano; Michael Formanek, bass; Billy Drummond, drums) – (5 stars)

That was very nice.  I enjoyed that very much.  I think that’s Arthur Blythe?  No.  A very fine saxophone player.  It sounds kind of familiar, but obviously I’m not sure who it is.  But a fine player.  The piano player was very nice, too; I don’t know who he is.  The bass player played a nice solo and the drums sounded very nice; I don’t know how to call any of the names.  The only thing that is difficult for me is, in this kind of modal playing, when the bass is playing a pretty free kind of line without specific changes, it sounds like a muddle to me.  I don’t know if that’s the recording or the music.  Frequently, when I hear freer music, the bass becomes almost inconsequential, in some way, melodically.  I think to the player it would be more apparent, but as an outsider, I can’t tune in to that.  Now the alto player has a very clear sound with very prominent vibrato, that sometimes can sound to me a little bit schmaltzy.  But this really feels all kind of cohesive in some way that I enjoyed.  And I know that Arthur can do that very well.  But Arthur’s tone is usually, not strident, but a little sharper, not in pitch but in quality.  But I know when you tell me who this is, I’ll know it.  Five stars. [AFTER] Aha!  I thought Marty Ehrlich, but I don’t know his playing that well, and I don’t remember him using a vibrato like that.  But he’s a marvelous player, obviously.

4.    Bud Shank, “Night and Day” (from BY REQUEST: BUD SHANK MEETS THE RHYTHM SECTION, Milestone, 1996) (Bud Shank, alto saxophone; Cyrus Chestnut, piano; George Mraz, bass; Lewis Nash, drums) – (4-1/2 stars)

That was very hot.  A very hot player.  I admire what he was doing.  I don’t know who that was, but a very fine player.  Negotiating that tune is not easy.  That’s a difficult tune to not sound kind of hackneyed on, and he was doing some interesting things to it.  The only thing is, sometimes, at that speed, at that breakneck tempo, which is very exciting to listen to up to a point, the dynamic level stays on one place, and after a while you wish it would let up a little bit and relax a little more.  But he did it very well.  The piano player wasn’t as interesting as the alto player to me.  The rhythm section was cooking all through. But I can’t name any names.  When you mention the alto player’s name, I’ll be pretty sure that I’ve heard him before. {Is it a younger or older player, do you think?] Older. He just sounds very certain about what he’s doing, and he’s doing some personal things, I think.  I don’t know if he’s black or white, for example.  That is a consideration that we frequently make in appraising a player.  He sounds black to me because of the emotionality.  I’m not saying this is a characteristic, but he’s wearing it on his sleeve a little bit.  But at that tempo, pshew, what do you do?  You just let it all kind of come through out of life-or-death struggle or something.  But I’d give that at least 4-1/2 stars for the alto player and the rhythm section. [AFTER] No kidding!  Congratulations! I just saw Bud’s name on the popularity poll, and I hadn’t heard him for a while, and I wondered how come he popped up all of a sudden.  Cyrus Chestnut?  Congratulations, Bud.  He really was not the famous Cool player that he was.  Great.  What I liked very much was what I call an emotional vibrato at the end of the phrase.  As compared to Marty Ehrlich’s, which was fixed pretty much…well, that was more in the delivery of the melody, not so much in the improvising.  But I love to hear when the vibration happens as a result of the intensity of the phrase.

5.    Benny Carter, “When Your Lover Has Gone” (from 3,4,5, Verve, 1954/1991) (Benny Carter, alto saxophone; Teddy Wilson, piano; Jo Jones, drums) – (5 stars)

We’re going into Schmaltzville now!  It’s nice to hear this kind of rhythm section, the piano player as a kind of reminder of how it used to be.  Very relaxed and not trying to prove anything somehow.  Oh, it’s very early Benny Carter. [AFTER] Benny Carter was a very special musician, a very special saxophone player whom I loved right from the beginning of my listening experience.  When I said about schmaltzy, he had a tendency to play a melody very sentimentally, but his variations were very musical.  I think this is post-Charlie Parker playing, because I hear some little eighth-note triplet pickups that I think he got from Charlie Parker.  But he never really got into Charlie Parker’s music.  He stayed pretty much to his own conception of playing, and I always loved him for that.  And he was a great saxophone player.  The pianist was very nice, but I don’t know who he is.  5 stars for Benny.  It was beautiful.  Thank you for that.

6.    Gary Bartz, “Tico, Tico” (from EPISODE ONE: CHILDREN OF HARLEM, Challenge, 1994) (Gary Bartz, alto saxophone; Larry Willis, piano; Buster Williams, bass; Ben Riley, drums) – (4 stars)

I’m trying to anticipate how the alto player is going to come out of the theme into his solo.  It sounds like this might be the whole record so far.  But he’s playing it well.  I’m enjoying this. That was well done, I think, for that kind of Latin groove on “Tico, Tico.”  I can’t think of who the alto player is, but he did a much more interesting thing than I anticipated from the melody playing and that kind of Latin groove. He was really playing.  I have a feeling that this is something I might not want to listen to too many times; there’s a little bit of a rough edge in his expression that is effective more the first time, I think, than maybe the second or third time.  But of course, I don’t really know that until I’ve heard it two or three times.  But the rhythm section played well in that groove. The piano solo was not as interesting to me as the saxophone solo. But I’d give it four stars. [AFTER] Gary Bartz!  The rhythm section functioned well in that groove.  I didn’t recognize Larry.  Gary is a fine player.

7.    Julius Hemphill, “Leora” (from JULIUS HEMPHILL BIG BAND, Nonesuch, 1988) (Julius Hemphill, alto saxophone, composer) – (4 stars)

I was sort of relieved when that was over, actually.  But very fine saxophone playing.  I don’t know who it is.  To play against that kind of minimalist, repetitive kind of background, changing harmonically every once in a while, was a pretty good challenge, and I think he did a very interesting job.  But it got a little bit much after a while.  I don’t know who the saxophone player is, but I’d give it 4 stars.  First of all, listening to him, I’m reminded of how flexible the saxophones are, especially the alto and the tenor, in the sound qualities and the possibilities of expressive playing on each of them.  Every one of these saxophone players so far has had a slightly different approach to playing the instrument, and that’s fascinating to me.  I have my favorite kind of sound and playing.  Michael Moore struck home and Bud Shank, because they were playing the more familiar material.  But all these guys are trying these different frameworks for playing, and he was doing some interesting things with the instrument.

8.    Bunky Green, “The Thrill Is Gone” (from HEALING THE PAIN, Delos, 1989) (Bunky Green, alto saxophone; Billy Childs; Art Davis, bass; Ralph Penland, drums) – (4 stars)

That was very interesting playing. I don’t know who the saxophone player is.  Again, I think when you tell me, I’m going to admit that I have heard him, but I’m not sure who it was.  Again, playing the standard, “The Thrill Is Gone,” in a special arrangement which was very interesting, and as I listened to the theme I was wondering how the variations are going to sound.  This alto player has a virtuosic ability to play over the rhythm section, almost independent of what the rhythm section is doing.  He could be doing that by himself, which I think he does in his preparation for this kind of playing, and it’s some very contemporary intervallic rhythmic things, very well done.  Sometimes that kind of virtuosic ability, as impressive as it is to me as a saxophone player, gets in the way of the actual music.  I love to hear when the soloist is really playing with the rhythm section, really reacting to what the rhythm section is doing, rather than using them as a backdrop, as I think is the case here.  That’s frequently the case, I feel.  But it was very well done.  The piano solo was very nice.  The rhythm played the groove very well.  I don’t know who any of the people are. [AFTER] That’s definitely 4 stars.  I never heard Bunky too much.  I remember him as more of a bebop player, and he’s obviously moved to the next step in the process.  Very well done.

9.    Miguel Zenon, “Mega” (from CEREMONIAL, Marsalis Music, 2004) (Miguel Zenon, alto saxophone; Luis Perdomo, electric piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums) – (5 stars)

Very nice saxophone player.  I like his feeling and sound very much. He never really over-blew the horn, as I think of it.  A lot of the players I’ve heard so far had a tendency to over-emote in some way, and this guy was really playing very beautiful expression.  Very interesting lines.  The electric piano solo sounded very nice, too.  I wish the drummer wouldn’t have clobbered on that beginning and ending.  That got kind of too much.  But he played right through it.  I don’t know who it is, but I think when you tell me I’ll recognize that I’ve heard him before.  It was an interesting rhythmic configuration that they were playing, except for the clobber on 1 and 3. Five stars. [AFTER] David Sanchez told me about him. Very nice player.  David said that he has really studied the players, me among them, and I hear a little bit of that kind of tone concern.  I appreciate that very much. His playing is beautiful.

10.    Ornette Coleman, “In All Languages” (from IN ALL LANGUAGES, Harmolodic/Verve, 1987) (Ornette Coleman, alto saxophone; Charlie Haden, bass; Billy Higgins, drums) – (5 stars)

That’s Ornette with his beautiful sound!  As passionate as he gets in his expression, the sound is never irritating as some of the shouting high register players can be — kind of a grating sound that’s a little bit like fingernails on the blackboard. But Ornette sounds beautiful on this.  It’s a lovely kind of hymn, I guess. I presume that could be Don Cherry on the little harmony thing.  I can’t remember the bass player’s name.  It was Charlie?  [Who did you think it was?] I can’t remember his name. [You thought it was David Izenson?] Yes. [So it sounded older to you.] Yes.  I could hardly hear the drummer. But I’d give that 5 stars.  Ornette is a fascinating player.  He manages to sound like Ornette all the time with whatever level of phrasing he chooses.  Folk tunes or nursery rhymes or bebop slides, a variety of material that he uses very effectively, and it all sounds authentic to him.  I can just remember my first feeling of kind of resentment of Ornette avoiding playing on changes and avoiding all the things that I was trying to develop, and thinking, “Gee, how can you slip from that and get a personal thing going like he’s got?”  Then certainly, over the years, I realized what he was able to do and enjoy it more all the time.  I played with him once, with Charlie and Billy, rest his soul, and it was a very unique experience.  He’s a very nice man and a special poet on the instrument.

11.    Frank Strozier, “The Man Who Got Away” (from LONG NIGHT: QUARTETS & SEXTET, Jazzland/OJC, 1960/2002) (Strozier, alto saxophone; Chris Anderson, piano; Bill Lee, bass; Walter Perkins, drums) – (4 stars)

That was some good saxophone playing, I thought, in that standard piece, “The Man Who Got Away.” I had a little problem with that kind of double-time stuck in.  It was done very well.  It’s very derivative kind of double-time, and playing the melody pretty straight and then suddenly running convulsively a few bars, a few meters or whatever.  It doesn’t ring bells with me too much.  But it was very well done.  I don’t know who the saxophone player is.  The sound he’s making sounds kind of familiar and is a nice sound, I think.  4 stars.

12.    Jimmy Giuffre-Paul Bley-Steve Swallow, “All The Things You Are” (from FLY AWAY LITTLE BIRD, Owl/Universal, 1992/2002) (Giuffre, soprano saxophone; Bley, piano; Swallow, electric bass) – (5 stars)

Sounds like Steve Swallow.  Paul Bley.  I wonder when he’s going to change key.  Ah, there it is.  I love to hear the way Paul Bley reacts to the soloist. It’s a very familiar feeling, having played with him, which I enjoy.  I don’t know who the soprano player is.  That was enjoyable.  It was a case of people playing for each other, reacting to each other. I don’t know who the sopranist was, as I mentioned, but I appreciate that he was really interested in what Paul was doing and reacting to it.  5 stars. [AFTER] Jimmy Giuffre?!  Really.  Wow, I never heard him play soprano. But obviously, there was a real affinity between the three of them.  I enjoyed that.  His sound was a little bit reedy, I would say.  There wasn’t as much real soprano quality as I like.  Thinking of his clarinet playing, and I would have expected it to be a fuller sound.

13.    Charlie Parker, “All of Me” (from MORE UNISSUED, VOL. 1, JEAL Records, 1951/1990) (Charlie Parker, alto saxophone; Lennie Tristano, piano; Kenny Clarke, brushes on phone book) – (5 stars)

That’s Charlie Parker with Lennie Tristano, and maybe Kenny Clarke on the telephone book. Thank you for that.  That was very interesting!  Charlie Parker almost sounds like an imitation of himself, in some way, being so familiar now, over fifty years later, with his playing, and how fixed in many ways that his playing was, with his great phrases that he put together in this very ingenious ways.  But he relied on them.  I would have thought, playing with Lennie, somehow he would have tried to improvise a little more in some way.  When I heard some of this playing before, I was also surprised that Charlie didn’t give Lennie much of a chance to play.  He did most of the playing.  But it was nice to hear that, of course. 5 stars.

[AFTER ANOTHER TUNE] It’s very nice to hear “I Can’t Believe You’re In Love With Me.” Lennie sounded very nice on that couple of choruses, and Bird sounded as if he was improvising a little more.  I haven’t heard a record of Bird’s in a while now, and I’m reminded of what a definitive player he was and how he changed the music so effortlessly.  Tristano was playing very interestingly, and I think somehow he got shortchanged in the whole process. [Were you ever in a club when Bird played with Tristano or at any performances they did?] I was at the studio for that radio show, the Battle of the Bands. [But was it a general dynamic that Tristano got shortchanged when he played with Bird?] Yeah, I think so.  Bud Powell did also. I think Bird heard some things that he didn’t want to hear.  He was used to being the boss all the time, intimidating Miles Davis and things like that.  So when he heard someone playing a little fresher line maybe he didn’t know how to handle that.  He was used to being the Man.  And he was, for the most part.  He was the Man! [LAUGHS]

But I appreciate very much hearing these 13 guys.  I missed Johnny Hodges, I missed Phil Woods, I missed Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, Herb Geller, Charlie Mariano, Art Pepper… There’s a whole array. Eric Dolphy.  There’s a nice tradition of alto players in this music.  I’m happy to be one of them.

2 Comments

Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Lee Konitz, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Lee Konitz Blindfold Test, 2003, Uncut

  1. Francisco

    How Fun !!

    Thanks for this, Ted. I love the fact that Lee always has an opinion ! The tunes were very well chosen. I checked out the ones I didn’t know and could. Loved the Clusone 3 and Bud Shank !!

    Do you happen to know how he is doing health wise after the stroke ??

    Thanks !!

    Francisco Espinoza
    Santiago, Chile

    • Thanks, Francisco. I don’t have any first-hand information on Lee’s recovery, though I gather the stroke was less severe than first reported.

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