Lee Konitz And Melodic Invention

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Lee Konitz (1927–2020)

(Photo: Jimmy Katz)

“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 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 “Fatha” 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 albums 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,’” Denson recalled. “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 guitarist 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,” said Tepfer, 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 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 younger musical partners describe is the antithesis of “cool jazz.” That’s a term that critics attached to Konitz for the absence of what he calls “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, Brad Mehldau or with Frisell, “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 is finally a member of the DownBeat 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.”

Konitz keeps moving. He’s focused on his itinerary immediately after he turns 88 on Oct. 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.” DB

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