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Interviews

The Constantly Creative Lee Konitz

By Published: March 13, 2004

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."

"At the date, I asked him if he remembered we had played one of the Tristano lines together at a concert in Europe once, just as a duo. We were in the dressing room. I just met him. I didn't know what his experience was or anything and I said 'What do you want to play?' He said 'how about "317 East 32nd Street."' Well, that's Tristano?s line. And we just went up and played it was really perfect the first time."

"And so at the date, I said 'Let's do that. Do you know any of the other lines that I wrote or anything?' And he knew two of them that I had written. He just kind of walked in the corner for a minute to check the notes and he played them perfectly. He's a fine player."

Konitz says the band achieved that special jazz feeling. "It sounds improvised. I like that premise. If it's improvised and it's done well, I like that especially well," he said.

Indeed, Konitz's sound is great throughout the CD, as it is for the other players. The band recreates "How Deep Is The Ocean" in medium tempo, Konitz sweet timbre creating a new melody over the solid rhythm support. The section is in great form throughout, whether on Konitz tunes like "Subconscious Lee," and "Palto Alto," or the standards.

At a few points — like "317 East 32nd," and "Eyes," Turner and Konitz play in unison, the lines twisting and harmonizing, and sometimes echoing each other, to great effect. It seems effortless. Bernstein's solos are light and tasty. The recording is crisp and the audiophile sound is delicious.

Solos by Konitz are thoughtful and engaging, the ideas at times ethereal. He doesn't care if people still refer to it as the "cool school." And he avows a great debt to Charlie Parker, even though he doesn't play in that frantic bebop mode.

"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. Each of these instruments has a voice and if I hear a sound on an instrument that I don't like, I'm not interested usually in what he plays," he says frankly.

"Sound is the first thing that we tune into. I had a lot of trouble with Coltrane at first, and Ornette Coleman at first. And then finally I accepted it as inevitable, somehow, and enjoyed it for what it was. It was difficult at first. I even had trouble with Charlie Parker at first. Cause I'd been listening to Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges and people like that. But of course after some listening, [Parker] became very special."

"I copied him but," he said of Bird, breaking into song for a second, "I did it my way!"

"I tried to learn what the great solo feels like. That's why we copy great solos. And then I tried to rearrange it somehow. And I have a different kind of energy than [Parker] did. My god. He lived 24 hours a day for 34 years, pretty much. So I am very indebted to him, as I am to all the great musicians who I've heard through my life."

"Labels don't mean anything to me," he says. "I'm trying to play as passionately as I'm able to. If they want to call that cool, that's fine. Just spell the name right, is the formula."

Konitz says he had the basic same influences through his career that most people seemed to have. "Warne Marsh was one of the great players that I loved. Of course Lester Young and Louie Armstrong and all of the accepted people that we've all agreed on," he says. "The jury is in on all those people."

And he agrees there are some good musicians on the rise today. "I've heard a lot of the younger players that I like very much. Brad Mehldau and Mulgrew Miller. I could go on for a while. There's a lot of very talented players around," he said.

"People look for a messiah all the time. And everybody is just busy doing their own thing, trying to learn how to play the music and the education is really working very well," he says, looking at the future of jazz. "I hear young people who, if they're not playing with an original voice yet, are playing with a lot of understanding of the material. They have great facility, my god. It's great."

Konitz, one of the music's elder statesmen now, didn't want to go back and re-hash the past. He wants to look at today, and maybe peek at tomorrow. But he is satisfied with his long and interesting career. He admits, though, that while he was growing as a musician — which included things with the Claude Thornhill big band, Miles' nonet and other stellar work — he didn?t get much into the jam session scene.

"Actually, I didn't do a lot of that. I always felt as a horn player, a jam session wasn't satisfying enough for me. I should have been a rhythm section player, actually, and I could have at least been playing all the time. At a jam session, if there's a number of horns, you just play your few choruses and then sit and listen to everybody else. So I wasn't a jam session guy too much. I did them, certainly, but I didn't go out of my way for that.

"I did have an opportunity to work, that's the best way. I am very happy that I can still do that. I'm doing it even more than ever now, so that's really a special blessing."

As far as assessing his career, he declined to go back and recount it.

"I appreciate all of those different situations that are still talked about today. And I appreciate today. Thankfully, I can still have these nice experiences."

Konitz is still writing, but because he is constantly throwing himself into different situations, he doesn?t always get to the playing of it right away.

" I write. I'm going to play with Ray Brown's trio in a couple days in Italy. Then Charlie Haden and Bobo Stenson in Portugal. I'm thinking of bringing some music along, but usually when I get there I say "Well, why don't we just play some things that we know?? So we're not standing there looking at music and having to try some new things on that short notice. So I usually say 'Lets play "Star Eyes," or "Body and Soul" or "All the Things You Are," the standards that everybody knows,' and then we can just play. If I'm going on tour with a band, I would play some of my tunes then," he said.

And the experience of traveling to play, and life on the road, is still satisfying, Konitz says.

"It's great. I went to South America a few weeks ago for the first time. In Argentina, I was with my rhythm section from New York, Ron McClure and Jeff Williams, for about 10 days. It was a terribly long trip, about 15 hours, to get there. But it was a very rewarding experience. The traveling gets rough. But all the things that happen when you get there are generally very rewarding."

And the audiences? Konitz says he doesn't notice much of a difference between American or European audiences. "It depends how you play. Audiences all over are receptive if they think something is happening, I think," he says.

There is some club work he could do without, because of the ambiance, or lack thereof, but despite complaints from musicians about a declining club scene, Konitz stays busy enough and appears content.

"I'm working more in the states now than over here in Europe," he said. "So it's picking up for me. Except for the special clubs, I don't look forward to going into smoky clubs. But if that's the case, if I play some place I'm not sure of, in Italy or whatever, and I get in a club — usually when we start to play it becomes a concert hall. So, the smell of beer and the cigarettes are quickly forgotten. But I try to avoid that more and more now."

Regardless whether it's a large hall or small club, Konitz is most concerned with what comes out of the musical situation, what new ideas can be found and what the unexpected nature of the art will bring.

"Usually, when I have the opportunity to play with great players, that becomes very special for the total music. Sometimes I've played with not such great players, who are good players, and found that I was inspired to play very well. So it can happen under the strangest circumstances. The door opens up, and I welcome every one of those opportunities," he says.

"I found that there's a small audience, if they know that if you're really improvising, and not just going through what you know, they're willing to hear you think on the stand, so to speak. So I have been able to get that kind of an audience. It's not the huge audience, of course, but it's enough to make it possible to play. I appreciate that."


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