The Constantly Creative Lee Konitz
“ The notes are kind of filtered through the sound. If the sound is unpleasant for me, even a fine selection of notes doesn?t have the impact that they have to have. ”
Lee Konitz has been playing improvised music across six decades, with more than 50 albums to his credit. He's a main figure in the music called jazz, known for the distinct sound he gets from his alto sax and his penchant for exploring.
He's remembered for his work on Miles' Birth of the Cool session, his emergence from the "cool school" of West Coast jazzers, and for his association with folks like Lennie Tristano and Stan Kenton and Warren Marsh, among others. His experiments and personal expressions have touched a variety of different styles and Konitz has established himself as a player in the hierarchy of jazz the latest evidence being his new CD, Parallels, on Chesky Records.
And yet to Konitz, it's all just part of a long trip. Today is important, not yesterday. And he's just trying to contribute to good music and improvisation.
"I really kind of think of myself as a sideman being invited to join people to play. I get to play with many different people that way. And it's very stimulating and I also enjoy having my own selection of people occasionally too," said the 73-year-old from a tour stopover in Germany in May.
"But I think I've gotten a kind of reputation as being kind of a freelance player, and I like it. I even stand back, sometimes, behind the rhythm section so I don?t physically look like the leader. I don't like that concept too much. If I play with young people who don't have a reputation yet, I'm forced to be kind of the head, and I do the necessary things without getting corny about it. I try not to get corny about it. I don't like the leader concept too much."
What he likes is getting the right sound on his horn and installing it in the right setting where he, and whoever his cohorts happen to be at the time in duets, quartets, quintets can create good, satisfying music.
"It's still a great challenge to play with people and really hear myself and them together. It?s a very demanding experience," he said. "The concentration involved and the ability to play spontaneously and with other people. That's an extreme challenge that I welcome every time."
"I usually go in thinking 'Gee, I'm anxious to hear how these guys play.' If I can hold on to that, because it's very demanding to make up your own music. To be able to do that and hear the bass notes and the piano chords and the symbols and all that together, it's a very demanding responsibility."
That experience comes off well on the new CD, produced using Chesky's audiophile technique that uses few microphones and creates as much of a "live" experience in the studio as possible. Instruments have to be balanced by being positioned in the studio, and the process tries to get a very organic sound. It succeeds wonderfully.
Konitz put together the dynamic rhythm duo of drummer Bill Goodwin and bassist Steve Gilmore, who seem to be constantly linked in bands and on recordings. Young tenor saxophonist Mark Turner is on the date, as is guitarist Peter Bernstein, who supplies the rhythmic support in place of a piano. Konitz says he very much enjoyed the experience and likes the results.
"The sound of my horn is really great. Very often there's a presence lacking. I did a record with a string quartet last year. I just got one of the reviews and he said that I wasn?t recorded well. I didn't find that a great problem, because I was trying to get a blend with the string quarter and not try to stick out as a soloist. So I thought that was happening," he says.
When he listed to the Chesky CD, "the sound really came out strong and clear. I like that very much."
"I think there are some very nice things that just happened right away," he added.
There are four Konitz originals on the CD, a couple of standards and a remaking of "Star Eyes" improvised by he and Turner, so much so that the counter melodies on the theme resulted in a new tune called "Eyes," with the two improvisers getting authorship.
Bernstein, he notes, "Grew up in my building in New York. His parents are still there and he moved down the block. He's a very, very fine player. When he was a kid, he came by to find out what was going on in the world of jazz and that kind of thing. To finally record together was a nice experience. It really inspired me."
Of Goodwin and Gilmore, he says, "They're a real rhythm section. I told them I was used to playing with them because I have some Jamey Aebersold [practice] records with them on it."
Mark Turner is one of the young players that Konitz has a liking for. "I got a very strong feeling with Mark, who learned a lot from Warne Marsh," he said.
"We [Marsh and Konitz] used to like to play together," Konitz said. On "Eyes," he remarked that, "Mark just jumped right in. I felt very good doing that with him. It did give me a bit of a feeling of Warne when we did it."