Lee Konitz will (hopefully) turn 89 this year and, as his career enters its seventh decade, all of it spent in the vanguard of the music, he has long moved past the point were there can be any doubts about his bona fides as a jazz master. One either likes his playing or one doesn’t, take it or leave it.
That being said, his highly personal and uncompromising approach to improvising has left Konitz open to criticism through the years on either side of the jazz median-line, from traditionalists and non-traditionalists alike. The former, those who like their jazz a little more straight-ahead and red-blooded, have called into question his intonation (a tendency to be sharp), his time (he sometimes lags behind the beat and doesn’t swing aggressively enough for some) and his choice to often eschew playing the melody of the songs he uses as a basis for improvisation.
A few on the other side of the fence have occasionally bemoaned Lee’s decision to generally stop short of the total abstraction of free improvisation, his preference to strive for freedom of expression within the song form, with a tempo and tonality in play. Some see his retention of the song form as clinging to a musical security blanket, but I would argue the very opposite is true: by improvising so freely within a defined structure, Konitz invites the possibility of failure within finite borders and real time, in effect eliminating any safety net. Like Stravinsky, Konitz believes that improvisation needs a context to give it meaning and the heat of a tempo to provide resistance. To him, the song form is not a cop-out, but rather a crucible.
Like all great artists, Konitz remained true to himself on this score. He came up during a time when swinging and songs were important and, while he strove to stretch the boundaries of these, it simply wasn’t in his nature to abandon them altogether. Given the high-wire nature of his self-challenging approach within these confines, there’s always the chance that Konitz may crash and burn and to be honest, sometimes he did. Winging it is never a sure thing, and like another similarly committed improviser – Sonny Rollins – when things are not going his way, Konitz can sometimes sound slightly ragged and desultory. Never bad exactly, but perhaps a little messy. Much more often than not though, he rises to the challenge with inspiration, leaving the listener marveling at the subtlety, musical insight and wit he’s able to summon in the heat of the moment, without repeating himself or resorting to stock phrases or pet licks.
Returning to the “other side”, the criticisms directed at Konitz from the more conventionally minded often took on a nasty, derisive edge. As if his refusal to play it “straighter” in matters of pitch, rhythm and melody were a sign that he lacked the ability to do so, rather than representing a conscious choice on his part. For example, when I first played with Konitz many years ago, I was very young and subbed for a few nights in the band backing him at Bourbon St. I hadn’t spent a lot of time listening to his records and hadn’t made up my mind about him, I was on the fence. I was certainly mystified by the seemingly cryptic challenges of playing with someone who didn’t call tunes, count them in, or overtly state their melodies. I can’t say I was comfortable with this or had a great time playing with him then, but the other guys in the band helped me along. Once I figured out what tune we were playing, I enjoyed the oblique intensity of Lee’s playing. I wasn’t entirely sold on him, but I respected him, I knew he was for real and meant every note he played, that much could be palpably felt. Not everybody agreed though. One night a very established veteran local alto saxophonist, who should have known better, opined that Lee was a “charlatan”, that he was faking it and had a lot of suckers fooled. Even then, those were fighting words to me. It’s one thing to simply say that a particular player is not to your liking, that’s fine. It’s quite another to resort to disrespectful name-calling and snickering accusations, it stuck in my craw even though I didn’t know much then. This level of contempt should only be directed at players who blatantly play down to their audience or phone it in, something which Konitz has never done.
Lee Konitz doesn’t need me or anyone else to defend him, and I’m not nominating myself for the job. But for those who are convinced he’s incapable of playing a straight melody in tune and in tempo, or unwilling to do so, I would offer the following performance as evidence to the contrary, a kind of “Exhibit A for the defence”, if you will.
It’s a ballad called “Stephanie”, written by Lee for his daughter, from a wonderful 1957 Verve record called TRANQUILITY. The band is a quartet which reunited Konitz with Billy Bauer, the Tristano school’s guitarist of choice, with whom Lee had recorded many times before, but not for several years. Bauer is a little less adventuresome than Konitz, but the rapport between them is very pleasing and empathetic nonetheless. The rest of the rhythm section consists of a very young Henry Grimes on bass, who offers some prodigious solos elsewhere throughout the record. And Dave Bailey on drums, who as always is a model of sensitivity wedded with firmness and unerring time. The two played a lot together as Gerry Mulligan’s rhythm section in that period, which only aided their cohesion.
As you’ll hear, “Stephanie” is a slow, gentle ballad with a beautiful, heartfelt melody, which Konitz plays very lyrically. Essentially, he sings it through his horn, with Bauer harmonizing every note underneath in close block voicing. The chord changes on the A sections are reminiscent of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”, while the middle section echoes the bridge of “These Foolish Things”. Konitz plays the melody faithfully for the most part, in order to match the tightly moving guitar chords. (I can just hear the Konitz skeptics saying “Sure, sure, he plays the melody when it’s his tune.) He splits most of a chorus of soloing with Bauer, so it feels as though Konitz intended this as a brief, simple tribute to his daughter. Though not as fully realized as some of his deeper, more improvised outings, I’ve always been touched by the sincerity and vulnerability of Konitz on this track; he wears his heart on his sleeve here, something he often praised his beloved Lester Young for doing. His handling of the melody focuses the listener’s attention on his unique and gorgeous sound. Paul Desmond once said of himself with typical wit that he wanted to sound like a dry martini. If Konitz could be said to sound like a cocktail, he’d be more like a gimlet – tart and frosty, then the warmth of the vodka hits home. Bauer’s deft chording is also a big factor here, notice the marvelous harmonics he uses in bar eight and the lovely way his strings ring on the chord he plays in bar three.
This performance is a little snapshot with deliberately set limits and has a very specific mood. Konitz didn’t do this kind of thing often, so it’s tempting to say this is an atypical outing for him. But it’s a mistake to try to pigeonhole an artist as interesting and wide-ranging as Konitz, or to expect him to do anything but the unexpected, as he does here. He’s typical only of himself.
The rest of this album is also terrific, offering five standards, a slow, pastoral original by Bauer called “Jonquil” and a devilish Lennie Tristano contrafact. One of the standards is “When You’re Smiling”, which I would offer up to those who think Konitz lacks a sense of jazz tradition or doesn’t swing enough. Listen to how he phrases the melody and his brief, but rhythmically incisive and ingenious solo. Following the one-chorus guitar and bass solos is an homage to one of Lee’s idols, as Konitz and Bauer in unison play Lester Young’s famous solo from his 1938 recording of this song with Billie Holiday. Both the gesture and the perfect execution of it are thrilling; it sure sounds like swinging and jazz tradition to me. The whole track is a lovely blending of the old and the new, resulting in the timeless feeling jazz has at its best.
And lastly from the same record, a track where Konitz does something more usual for him, if such a thing can be said. He plays a contrafact – make that a scrapple – “Lennie Bird”, by his mentor Lennie Tristano, based in “How High the Moon”. I would direct those who think Konitz lacks technique or discipline to pay close attention to his flawless negotiation of the fiendishly intricate head, again in unison with Bauer, meaning there’s no margin for error. It takes years of study and practice to bring this off with such expressive precision. And if this isn’t enough, Konitz proceeds to dazzle us with his audacious solo, full of those long, beautifully constructed looping lines which range all over the horn and careen giddily across the bar lines. Surely it’s the work of a jazz master. But this is just one great solo among countless others he’s played and this is just one very special record among dozens of others he made.
This piece is not intended as a rebuke to those who don’t like Konitz, or an attempt to convince people otherwise – that’s up to them. It’s meant more as a caution, directed as much to myself as anyone, against the temptation to stereotype great jazz musicians and assume that their art fits neatly into some easily explained box. You know, that Bobby Hackett was just some old guy who couldn’t play modern, while the likes of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie adored him. Or that John Coltrane was just another angry, scale-running tenor player, but who in fact knew scores of standard tunes and could play with breathtaking lyricism. Or that Lee Konitz’s playing is somehow weird – too weird for some, and not weird enough for others. In fact his playing is never weird, he’s always made sense. Hell, the stunning four bar break he played into his 1947 solo on “Yardbird Suite” with Claude Thornhill announced him as a jazz master at nineteen. He’s been playing and developing for almost seventy years since – how much more proof is needed?
I would like to return to Lee Konitz in a future piece with an account of the second time I played with him, which happened to come about 25 years after the first instance. This very wide gap provides an interesting exercise in contrast, a study in how much I’d changed during that time, and how much Lee had as well. It was a much more satisfying experience, because I was much more ready. It took me a while, but in the years since that first encounter I’ve become a great fan and admirer of Konitz as a master improvising musician. This mostly came from listening to him a lot in various phases of his career and has proved very rewarding. His approach to playing presents the listener with a constant renewal of the here-and-now and its panorama of possibilities. That’s what improvised music is all about: the presence of possibility, the unfolding of the unknown and the unforeseen right before your very ears.
Exposure to Konitz and other artists has brought me to a place where I’m no longer concerned with the age, style, or school/label of any given performance. I don’t care about any of that stuff anymore. Basically, I want to hear two things from a jazz player: I want them to convince me of their sincerity by remaining true to themselves, and I want them to play something interesting, something which holds my attention and surprises or delights me. Not necessarily in a big way or on a grand scale, because that’s not always possible, or even necessary. But in some small way – a line with an unusual shape or direction, a perfectly placed rim-shot struck with ferocious intent, a felicitous turn of phrase, an unexpected note buzzing with sudden vibrato. In short, some little moment of magic that makes me forget myself and exclaim “YEAH!”. Lee Konitz has made me do that many more times than I can count.
© 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.