For Lee Konitz’ 89th Birthday, a 2015 Downbeat Feature, a 2001 Downbeat Feature, and an Uncut 2004 Blindfold Test

Lee Konitz turns 89 today. I’ve been fortunate to intersect with him both during my years at WKCR (we did a 3-Sunday, 18-hour retrospective of his recordings in 1993) and as a print journalist. Representing my latter activity are three DownBeat features, the first written on the occasion of his induction into DB’s Hall of Fame last year, the second published in 2002.  At the bottom is an uncut Blindfold Test that we did together in 2004. (I’ve previously posted the 2001 DB feature and the Blindfold Test.)


Lee Konitz DB Hall of Fame Article (2015):

On the afternoon of May 4th, when Lee Konitz was informed of his induction into DownBeat’s Hall Of Fame, he was not in his apartments in Manhattan or Cologne, nor in his house in rural Poland. Instead, the 87-year-old alto and soprano saxophonist was in a London hotel room, preparing to hit a few hours hence at Ronnie Scott’s with trumpeter Dave Douglas, guitarist Jakob Bro, bassist Linda Oh, and drummer Jordi Rossy, where they would play Douglas’ arrangements of tunes by Konitz and pianist Lennie Tristano, interpreting, among others, “Subconscious Lee” (a contrafact of “All The Things You Are”) and “Kary’s Trance” (“Play Fiddle Play”) according to tabula rasa improvising principles similar to those Konitz and Tristano followed when they performed frequently between 1949 and 1952, at periodic intervals between 1955 and 1959, and a final time in 1964.

On the next day, Konitz and Bro, who had played three gigs in three days with Douglas, would depart for an eight-day, six-concert tour with guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan in Iceland, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Norway and Greenland, during which they would apply similar aesthetics to navigating Bro’s beyond-category 21st century songs, as they did on the Loveland albums Balladeering (2008), Time (2011) and December Songs (2013).

“I brought my heavy coat with me, just in case,” Konitz joked. He recalled first visiting Scandinavia in November 1951, as documented on spirited location broadcasts with local musicians that include “Sax Of A Kind” (“Fine and Dandy”), “Sound-Lee” (“Too Marvelous For Words”) and “All The Things You Are.” Seven months before, he had played those and the 11 other tracks that comprise last year’s release Lennie Tristano: Chicago, April 1951 (Uptown) alongside tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh in Tristano’s sextet at the Blue Note Jazz Club in the Loop. Proprietor Frank Holzfeind, who taped the proceedings, only booked top-shelf national acts, a category to which Chicago natives Tristano and Konitz had ascended after several critically acclaimed recordings during the two previous years—Tristano’s for Prestige and Capitol and Konitz’s for New Jazz. Before a friendly, not-too-loud audience, the sextet executes vertiginous unisons, stretching out soloistically and contrapuntally on the aforementioned, along with Konitz’s “Palo Alto” (“Strike Up The Band”) and “Tautology” (“Idaho”), Marsh’s “Background Music” (“All of Me”) and Tristano’s “No Figs” (“Indiana”). They also tackled the standards “I’ll Remember April” and “Pennies From Heaven,” which would spawn now-canonic variants like Tristano’s “April” and “Lennie’s Pennies,” and Konitz’s “Hi-Beck,” which he had recorded a month before with a sextet including Miles Davis, who had brought Konitz’s sui generis alto voice to the “Birth of the Cool” sessions for Capitol in 1949 and 1950.

That Konitz continues to seek and find new pathways through this core repertoire is evident from Douglas’ reports of the British engagements and a new CD titled Jeff Denson Trio+Lee Konitz (Ridgeway), on which, accompanied by partners the age of his grandchildren, Konitz uncorks stunning alto saxophone solos on “Background Music” and Tristano’s “317 East 32nd Street” (“Out Of Nowhere”).

A few days after returning from England, Douglas recalled his surprise at Konitz’s “radical approach to form” during rehearsals for the group’s March debut at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard. “The language itself adheres to the rules of Charlie Parker and Lennie Tristano—and Lee Konitz,” Douglas said. “But everything starts as an improvisation, and the themes emerge from an unpredictable group improvisation. Everybody comes and goes. The song gets played in pieces. The full group is constantly involved in the elaboration of the form and the unfolding of the piece.

“Lee gave very specific directions. He said: ‘When one person plays a line and the other person enters, they should start on the note that the other person ended on, and use a bit of the phraseology that the person was in—this is the way I used to play with Warne Marsh.’ An intense ear-training thing. I think there’s a parallel between Lee’s ideas about how form and musical structure operate and the way Wayne Shorter works with his quartet.”

Unlike Shorter, Konitz does not use metaphoric koans to describe the process that he follows as assiduously today as he did in 1949. The son of Jewish immigrants who ran a laundry and cleaning establishment in Rogers Park during the Depression, he explains his own no-safety-net improvisational intentions with pragmatic, nuts-and-bolts terminology.

“When I play, I’m not thinking of expressing sadness, or some picture-idea, or some way to make an emotional effect,” he told collaborator Andy Hamilton in his authoritative autobiography, Lee Konitz: Conversations On The Improviser’s Art. “I’m thinking of playing a melodic succession of notes, with as accurate a time-feeling as possible. I don’t feel very poetic. I hear of people seeing colors, or images, or some spiritual motivation. I’m just playing the music clear, warm and positive—that’s really my motivation.”

Konitz’s 2015 explanation to Downbeat was even more to the point. “I start from the first note, and trust something will happen if I give it a chance,” he said. “It has to do with taking the time to let whatever note I’m playing resolve in some way, so I’m not just playing finger technique, one note after another non-stop, take a quick breath when you get out of breath. This is literally note by note.”

A key component of Tristano’s pedagogy was for students to sing the solos of Lester Young and Charlie Parker, to internalize them so deeply that they could then create their own composed variations and improvise upon them. That this remains fundamental to Konitz’s aesthetics is illustrated in a 2½-minute vignette in the documentary All The Things You Are, where Konitz and pianist Dan Tepfer, en route to a duo concert in France in November 2010, scat Lester Young’s heroic declamations on “Lady Be Good” and “Shoe Shine Boy.” In recent months, Konitz said, he has begun to bring this heretofore private activity into performance.

“I enjoy making the singing feeling dictate the playing feeling, not the finger technique, which I tried to develop for many years, like most people,” Konitz said. “I’m a shy person to some extent, and I never had confidence to just yodel, as I refer to my scat singing. One day with Dan, I played a phrase and needed to clear my throat, so I finished the phrase, bi-doin-deedin-doden, or whatever, and then a few bars later Dan did something like that, so I said, ‘Oh, good—I’m in now; I can do this.’ I don’t get up to the microphone. I don’t gesticulate. I just sit in a chair, and whenever I feel like it, at the beginning of a solo or in the middle or whenever, I warble a few syllables. I’ve been warbling ever since, and feel great about the whole process.”

As a teenager in Chicago, Konitz—then an acolyte of Swing Era avatar altoists Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter—played lead alto and sang the blues at the South Side’s Pershing Ballroom in a black orchestra led by Harold Fox, the tailor for Jimmie Lunceford and Earl Hines. Seventy years later, he scatted with Douglas in England and with Bro in Scandinavia. Just three months earlier, he scatted several complete solos on the sessions that generated the new recording with Denson, following three meetings on Enja with the collective trio Minsarah—Standards Live–At The Village Vanguard (2014), Lee Konitz New Quartet: Live at the Village Vanguard (2009) and Deep Lee (2007). Denson recalled that when he and his Minsarah partners, pianist Florian Weber and drummer Ziv Ravitz, first visited Konitz in Cologne, he immediately suggested they sing together.

“After several minutes, Lee said, ‘Sounds like a band,’” said Denson, 38. “For years traveling on the bus, we’d sing and trade and improvise, but never on stage until last October, when we were touring California. We went to extended phrases, then to collective improvising. We decided to record it, so I booked a show at Yoshi’s in February, and went into the studio.

“His vocal solos are beautiful. Lee told me that over the years he’s worked to edit his playing to pure melody. If you listen to the young Lee, it’s virtuoso, total genius solos. Now it’s still genius but a very different mode—all about finding these beautiful melodies. That sense of melody continues to capture me. So does Lee’s risk-taking, his desire not to plan some ‘hip’ line that he knows will work, but to take something from his surroundings so that the music is pure and truly improvised in the moment.”

On June 9, 2011, during soundcheck for a concert with Tepfer’s trio and Kurt Rosenwinkel in Melbourne, Australia, Konitz suffered a subdural hematoma and was hospitalized for several weeks. “He made an unbelievably miraculous recovery, and when we started playing again something had changed,” says Tepfer, 32, whose recorded encounters with Konitz include Duos With Lee (Sunnyside) and First Meeting: Live in London, Volume 1 (Whirlwind), a four-way meeting in 2010 with bassist Michael Janisch and drummer Jeff Williams. “When I first played with him, Lee was open to pretty out-there experimentation. I realized he was no longer interested in anything that resembled noise. He was very interested in harmony and playing together harmoniously. That’s a real shift in his priorities, and it took me a while to get used to it. But we’ve done a lot of touring in the last six months, and the playing together feels powerful. We’re playing standards and some of Lee’s lines, which are based on standard chord changes; Lee is entirely comfortable with any harmonic substitution or orchestration idea as long as it’s clear and musical and heartfelt. There is tremendous freedom in that restricting of parameters.”

On the phone from Aarhus, Denmark, after the second concert of his tour, Bro, 37, described the effect of Konitz’s instrumental voice. “I’ve listened to all his different eras, and it seems the things he’s describing with his sound are becoming stronger and stronger,” he said. “When he plays a line, a phrase, it sounds clearer than ever. It has a lot of weight. I don’t know any young players that have it. Lee moves me so much. He plays one note, and I’m like, ‘How the hell did he do that?’ The sounds become more than music, in a way.”

Douglas recalled a moment in England when Konitz played “Lover Man,” which he famously recorded with Stan Kenton in 1954. “It was a completely new conception, of course with a kinship to that great recording,” Douglas said. “But what struck me most is how much his melodic invention is wrapped up in his warm, malleable tone that at times seems unhinged from notions of intonation or any sort of school sense of what music is supposed to be. It has a liquid quality, like the notes are dripping off the staff. Everyone was stunned that he pulled this out in the middle of the set.”

What these young musical partners describe—and, indeed, Konitz’s masterful 1954 invention on “Lover Man”—is the antithesis of “cool jazz,” a term that attached itself to Konitz for the absence of what he terms “schmaltz” and “emoting on the sleeve” in his improvisations with Tristano, the Birth of the Cool sessions, Gerry Mulligan’s combos, and during his two years with Kenton, when he emerged as the only alto saxophonist of his generation to develop a tonal personality that fully addressed the innovations of Charlie Parker without mimicking his style.

“To me, Lee combines Lennie’s rigorous, almost intellectual manufacturing of the line, with a huge heart and a desire to communicate,” Tepfer said. “I clearly remember that what first struck me when I met him is that there was never any misunderstanding. If Lee doesn’t understand you, he’ll always ask you to repeat it. He often says, if you say something on the money, ‘You ain’t just beatin’ your gums up and down.’ What he stands for in music is very much that. I think there’s nothing worse to Lee than people saying things just to say things, or playing things just to play some notes. There always has to be meaning, and intent to communicate that meaning to other people. What I described about his current passion for playing harmonious music, playing together with no semblance of noise or discordance, I think comes from an even more intense desire to communicate as he’s getting older.

“There has to be a question of what improvisation is and why we would do it, and whether it’s a meaningful thing or not. I think of all the people in the world, Lee stands as a beacon of truth in improvisation. There aren’t many like him, where you listen and come away with, ‘Ok, that’s why we do this.’”

Konitz allowed that playing with Tepfer, or with Brad Mehldau (most recently his partner with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian on the 2011 ECM date Live at Birdland) or with Frisell (their June 2011 encounter at Manhattan’s Blue Note with Gary Peacock and Joey Baron comprises Enfants Terrible [Half Note]), “or whomever I’m playing with who’s really listening and pushing a little bit in some positive way,” makes him “less inhibited to open up.”

He was asked about overcoming that shyness when he came to New York in 1948, at 21, and plunged into direct engagement with the movers and shakers of late 20th century jazz vocabulary. “Lennie’s encouragement had a lot to do with the playing ability that I became more confident in,” Konitz said. “I was always so self-critical, it was sometimes pretty difficult. But I was sometimes able to play. Marijuana had something to do with it, I confess. But at a certain point, I stopped it completely. I appreciated that, because whatever I played, it was more meaningful to me, and I felt totally responsible for it.”

Sixty-seven years after arriving in New York, Konitz, belatedly, is a member of DownBeat’s Hall of Fame. “It’s the ‘ain’t over until it’s over’ syndrome, and I deeply appreciate it,” he said. “I appreciate being around to say thank you. It’s romantic and poetic, and I’m accepting it on that level, and for being honored for trying to play through the years.”

Then Konitz focused on his itinerary immediately after he turns 88 on October 13. “I’ve got a lineup of tours coming up, all over the U.S. the last part of October; all over Europe, day by day, in November,” he said. “I’m pleased that I can do it.”

DownBeat Feature, 2001:

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 Cully, 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 Theberge, 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 Gerber 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.”


Lee Konitz Blindfold Test, 2004:

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 aDownBeat Blindfold Test.  Here’s the complete, pre-edit proceedings of the BT.

[Re what things sound like at the Blue Note, read Jim M.acNie’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.

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Filed under Alto Saxophone, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Lee Konitz

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