Konitz has developed his own method for improvising on standard forms that begins with simple embellishment and moves step-by-step to what he calls pure inspiration. "Improvising means coming in with a completely clean slate from the first note," he once told Mike Zwerin. "You can turn the most familiar standard into something completely fresh. The most important thing is to get away from fixed functions." Today he says, "We all know by now that what you play is a result of what you're living. Up to a point we can all identify with the great note combinations and rhythmical expressions that our great players have demonstrated and hopefully be inspired by them. The idea is to try to change the rhythms around and licks around and form a more personal viewpoint." At this stage in his life he says he's spending time "trying to review all the things that I do or was learning. Having to strip down to the bare essentials and trying to redefine what improvising means for me and I'm coming closer and closer to it."
Guitarist Bill Frisell, who has performed frequently with Konitz, is astounded by the saxophonist. "He's just so totally humble and still trying to figure out how to play just like everybody else is and that's kind of mindblowing. It's just so inspiring that he's still in that zone of just working on the music. I used to think that you'd get to a certain level and then everything was all cool and you just played great all the time, but he's one of those examples of someone who never stops learning. And that's why he sounds so good now. It seems like the backbone of everything he's playing is coming from the tunes that he's played his whole life. So even when we play completely sort of abstract or whatever, it's still going in and out of there. And same thing if you're playing more straight ahead tunes, he'll still be free. It's always there, but he doesn't let anything get in his way."
When something does get in his way, Konitz says something about it. One night when performing with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow at the Blue Note the saxophonist noticed a patron at one of the front tables reading a book. He quickly berated the customer and told him if he wanted to read to go sit somewhere else. "Oh yeah. I thought that was f*cking rude, " he remembers, demonstrating that although he may be "cool", he is passionate about his art. More recently he strongly supported Gary Peacock when a controversy ensued during a night where the bassist refused to perform with Elvis Costello on a Konitz date at the Iridium. Insulted, Costello left without singing and the band with Peacock, Frisell and Matt Wilson played a completely free improvised set before a somewhat confused audience. Frisell recalls, "We didn't even get to the point of talking about what tunes we were going to play. We just walked on and started playing completely abstract. But there was that thing. You know, there were these tunes that were sort of going in and out and all over the place, but it was cool. I wish I had a tape of that set because it was really something special." Konitz remarks, "There was an article the next day saying that I was supposed to be presented with a birthday cake - two months after my birthday. Well, I never got a taste of that cake."
Despite those occasional unpleasant situations, Konitz remains optimistic about jazz' future. "I'm very impressed with the young musicians overall - about their craftsmanship, basically," he says. "They're dealing with the pentatonics and modals and things that I don't really deal with and so I listen sometimes with great interest. I haven't heard the new John Coltrane in America or in Europe, but I think it's very promising. It's a very well educated group of people and someone is going to come along and kick ass."
* Lee Konitz - Subconscious Lee (Prestige-OJC, 1949-50)
* Lee Konitz - Live at the Half Note (Verve, 1959)
* Lee Konitz - Action (Verve, 1961)
* Lee Konitz - The Lee Konitz Duets (Milestone-OJC, 1967)
* Lee Konitz - Figure & Spirit (Progressive, 1976)
* Lee Konitz/Greg Cohen/Joey Baron - Some New Stuff (DIW, 2000)