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Extended Analysis

Lee Konitz: New Nonet

By Published: October 7, 2006
Lee Konitz
New Nonet

The latter part of the '70s found alto saxophonist Lee Konitz leading a nonet (after a couple of unofficial and partial attempts in 1959 and 1967). The group made albums in 1976 (Roulette), 1977 (Chiaroscuro) and 1979 (SteepleChase and Soul Note). In 2003, a new version of the group was convened for New York and international festival appearances. The current incarnation has peformed on occasion, most recently at Jazz Standard in June in support of the first new Konitz nonet recording in over two decades.

There are parallels to be drawn between the groups, despite the long layoff. Konitz and his composing are, of course, still at the center. It is easy, when seeing Konitz playing live, to forget he has been professionally performing since the '40s. Easy because his sound is still vital, his humor still infectious and his concept still utterly relevant. But what makes the nonet, be it 1977 or 2006, so significant is the matching of this concept with younger players.

The younger player most important to the new edition is saxophonist Ohad Talmor, who shoulders the arranging duties earlier held by Sy Johnson. On the earlier albums, the material was Konitz originals mixed with other tunes, many by trombonist Jimmy Knepper. This disc, recorded live at Jazz Standard last August, presents a program entirely made up of new Konitz music (apart from one piece composed by Talmor), including the six-part "ChromaticLee Suite (Konitz has gotten full mileage out of his flexible name for decades).

Konitz is a treasure and Talmor is, as always, an impressive arranger. But a nonet is about texture and depth and that is the responsibility of the musicians. Talmor, in choosing the players, demonstrates his good judgement: Russ Johnson (trumpet), Jacob Garchik (trombone), Oscar Noriega and Dennis Lee (bass clarinets), Dimos Goudaroulis (cello), Ben Monder (guitar), Bob Bowen (bass) and Matt Wilson (drums). The combination of confident players and interesting instrumentation—one chordal instrument, cello and two bass clarinets not the normal trappings of a small big band—are a unique vehicle for interpreting Konitz's slyly subversive compositions.

The Suite is a nice opener to the disc but the album actually becomes more compelling on the individual tunes, particularly the Konitz homage to Talmor, "Ohad. When the music is pretty (dare I say "cool"?), it flows along smoothly and politely. When the music packs more force, the result is more gripping, the various tonal ranges delighting the auditory palate. At times though, one wishes that the band would have spread out more, though there are enough longer, looser tunes on the disc to satisfy.

At a late night set at Jazz Standard in June, the format was maintained but there were replacements on cello and guitar. Greg Heffernan was a more inventive string player and Pete McCann's guitar licks were less ethereal. Perhaps this or maybe the band's comfort level increasing over a week of gigs resulted in more entertaining sound than the album. The feel was more open and the compositions interpreted with more cerebral verve. One hopes that, with the obvious communication between the group and a fine new record, Konitz's nonet will have a longer run this time with industry support. Konitz is certainly up to it.

Tracks: ChromaticLee Suite; Outward; Big Easy; West Coast; Funky; Ominous; Colorful; Springin'; Ohad; Warmer in Heaven; Wallz; Rubato.

Personnel: Bob Bowen: bass; Jacob Garchik: trombone; Dimos Goudaroulis: cello; Russ Johnson: trumpet; Lee Konitz: alto saxophone; Denis Lee: bass clarinet; Ben Monder: guitar; Oscar Noriega: bass clarinet: clarinet; Ohad Talmor: tenor saxophone: musical director; Matt Wilson: drums.

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