The Mark Masters Ensemble: One Day with Lee (2004)
Having heard The Clifford Brown Project and now One Day with Lee, featuring the peerless alto saxophonist (and composer) Lee Konitz, I can hardly wait to hear what the Mark Masters Jazz Ensemble and its sponsor, the American Jazz Institute, plan to do next. If these aren’t two of the finest big-band albums of the past year, they surely belong on anyone’s Top Ten list.
While Konitz plays marvelously in any framework, he seems especially invigorated and at ease when surrounded, as he is here, by a large group of blue-chip musicians who breathe new life into five of his elaborate compositions, another by mentor Lennie Tristano and one of Lee’s signature themes, the standard “Lover Man.” As always, Konitz builds solos that are deep, analytical and completely his own, sidestepping clichés and exuding a spontaneity that seems contagious, as everyone else follows suit with a series of sharply drawn and highly personal ad libs.
The electrifying session, recorded in April 2002 when Konitz was a spry seventy-three, opens with his “Thingin’” (a.k.a. “All the Things You Are”), “Dream Stepper” (“You Stepped Out of a Dream”), “Gundula” and “Cork ‘n’ Bib.” Coincidentally, Tristano’s “317 East 32nd Street,” which follows, is based on another well-known standard, Johnny Green's “Out of Nowhere.” Lee first played Tristano’s composition in 1954 on the album Lee Konitz at Storyville, and the saxophone section vividly reprises his memorable solo from that long-ago date. After “Lover Man,” Lee and the ensemble wrap things up with another of his mellow tunes, “Palo Alto.”
The highlights are almost too many to mention but must include the wonderful charts by Masters, exemplary work by the ensemble and rock-solid support from pianist Cecilia Coleman, bassist Putter Smith and drummer Kendall Kay. While Konitz is of course the principal soloist, he is by no means alone in that sector, as almost everyone in the band is given one or more chances to shine, and no one comes up less than sparkling. That shouldn’t be a surprise, as this truly is an all-star group from stem to stern. And the brightest star of them all is Konitz whose very presence galvanizes and encourages his colleagues, empowering them to dig deep and deliver the goods on every number.
The session is so entrancing that everyone involved must have felt, as I do, that One Day with Lee is far less than enough, but it will have to suffice until Masters can lure Konitz into the studio for another go-round. Until then, we at least have One Day with Lee to share and appreciate.
Track Listing: Thingin
Personnel: Mark Masters, music director; Lee Konitz, alto sax; Gary Foster, Jerry Pinter, Jack Montrose, Bill Perkins, reeds; Scott Englebright, Louis Fasman, Steve Huffsteter, Ron Stout, trumpet; Les Benedict, Dave Woodley, Bob Enevoldsen, trombone; Cecilia Coleman, piano; Putter Smith, bass; Kendall Kay, drums.
Style: Big Band