Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser's Art
Paperback; 312 pages
University of Michigan Press
Saxophonist Lee Konitz has long been known for the singularity of his musical approach. Andy Hamilton's book accordingly serves Konitz a whole lot better than might a conventional biography. As the title suggests, the author has compiled a view of the saxophonist through the interview format, and the result is a picture of a man of somewhat restless spirit for whom the very mechanics of the improvisational process are unlikely to ever lose appeal.
The sheer readability of the book is helped in no small part by Konitz's trenchant opinions. These would amount to nothing if it wasn't for the fact that he seems incapable of voicing an opinion unless he's well informed on the subject he's addressing. This is wholly admirable and if it was a more common practice in general the world might be a better place. For example, Konitz's views on Anthony Braxton are contentious but, in terms of fuelling debate, fundamentally constructive. There is no reason why the realm of improvised music should be less fractious than any other, and Konitz is instinctively aware of that.
What makes Konitz compelling as a subject is the restlessness referred to above. Over the course of his long career, Konitz has proven himself to be not only highly adaptable but also capable of retaining his singular instrumental voice in the wide variety of contexts in which he's played. In that respect at least he's the archetypal improvising musician, and through the very format of this book Hamilton has proven himself to be highly appreciative of it.
In its denial both of narrative and overt thematic layout the book affords the reader the chance to view Konitz's career both chronologically and within an episodic frame which affords insight into his work on record. Konitz as an individual consequently emerges with far greater clarity than he otherwise might. This process of emergence is served in no small part by the interviews with other musicians with whom Hamilton has augmented the core text. In this regard, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler's comments on Konitz the melodist afford the kind of succinct insight into the subject's work that countless ill-chosen words would not convey, whilst pianist Dick Katz has highly pertinent things to say about Konitz as an open mind, ever ready to take on new challenges and define his approach accordingly.
In so far as a portrait emerges from this book, the one that does is of a rarefied order. Anyone familiar with and appreciative of Konitz's work will have that position confirmed by this book, but that's not really the point. What has been admirably achieved here is the realization in print of a highly musical, inquisitive mind, one that habitually bucks the cliche.