In the context of improvised music, few are as adept as Lee Konitz at flying under the critical radar. Based on his longevity alone the man should have a university jazz department named after him- never mind that said career has been marked by an almost uniform standard of excellence. From his early days with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra through flirtations with the Tristano school and free improvisation Konitz has always held melody in high esteem. He’s an expert at parsing even the most ornery theme down into particle parts, recombinating the resulting fractions into entirely new forms. Small group settings of trio and duo size are rank among his most fertile associations and his five-decade discography is checkered with regular entries of this ilk. But somehow, even with this high artistic output, he always seems to subvert the widespread recognition accorded the Wyntons of the world. One can only assume its by design and Konitz seems the type to enjoy the pleasures of playing over the rewards of public acclaim.
Representing Konitz’s first commercially available duo collaboration with a drummer, this recent Steeplechase disc succeeds in sustaining his exemplary track record. Matt Wilson is one of the most versatile percussionists on the current jazz scene. His flexible sticks, brushes and mallets have stoked the rhythmic fires of various Boston-based ensembles, including the Either/Orchestra to saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase’s various groupings. Konitz couldn’t have picked a better foil and it shows from the opening title track onward. The pieces comprise an even baker’s dozen and all sound spontaneously improvised, but lyricism rather than dissonance serves as the guiding credo behind their creation. Each one segues smoothly to the next, preserving the overarching integrity of a continuous suite. Wilson makes use of a variety of gongs, shakers, and tambourines in addition to his standard kit of toms, snare and cymbals. Konitz’s bantamweight dry-toned alto sparks improvisations on a fluctuating bed of melodic tinder. Blowing linear strains that favor the upper registers of his horn, he maps a trajectory from austere to epicurean in mood. Wilson knows when to lay out and when to dig in, sculpting transparently textured counterpoint and commentary that further accentuates the spiraling peregrinations of his partner’s reed.
In his earlier years Konitz frequently found the reductive categorizer of Cool attached to his music. Critics complained that his tone and attack were too ephemeral and fleeting to generate appreciable excitement and heat. Ironically it’s this same method of temperance and sensitivity that holds him in good stead here and fortifies the thought provoking dialogue with Wilson’s shifting patterns. Only Konitz can answer why it’s taken him so long to record under these circumstances. But based on these initial results repeat engagements with other drummers will hopefully be a priority.
Steeplechase on the web: http://www.steeplechase.dk
Personnel: Lee Konitz- alto saxophone; Matt Wilson- drums. Recorded: March 2002