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Live Reviews

Ottawa Jazz Festival 2008: Days 4-6, June 23-25, 2008

By Published: June 28, 2008
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June 24: Lee Konitz Trio

While advertised with a piano-based quartet featuring three Calgary musicians including drummer Sandro Dominelli, festival goers were treated to a surprise line-up that, with the inclusion of drummer Matt Wilson and bassist Martin Wind, turned saxophone legend Lee Konitz's show from what would have undoubtedly been a strong show to a superb one. Local jazz aficionado Gaby Warren, after Konitz's engaging, relaxed but ever-searching trio set, spoke of the trio context being a far better one as it was more intimate and gave Konitz the opportunity to explore further, and he was right. Freed from the piano's inherent harmonic verticality, Konitz, Wind and Wilson were able to stretch five well-known standards to their limits, and then some.

Lee Konitz TrioThe trio was hanging about the foyer of the Library and Archives Canada theater before its 8:00 PM set, talking about everything from summer tour plans to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and that same easy-going, "let's just get together and hang" approach infused the entire set. Playing a saxophone provided by the festival, the octogenarian who looked like he was in his sixties developed an immediate rapport with his audience, saying "I'm pleased to be here...pleased to be anyplace really." After playing the alto for a few moments he said, "I don't know what we're gonna do; this is a Japanese sax, I've never played one before, I play French saxophones."

Well, it wouldn't have mattered if he were using a student horn, the moment he began to play his distinctively warm tone, with just a shade of vibrato, was instantly recognizable. Konitz is known for his free explorations within a largely mainstream/cool context, but what made his Ottawa performance so memorable was how, with familiar material including "Solar" and "I Remember Paris" as a starting point, he managed to twist and turn oftentimes tired songs on their side, his uncannily empathic chemistry with Wind and Wilson keeping things completely accessible. Referring to Iro Haarla's festival show just two days earlier, another festival goer, Sheila Keating, described what moves her as being when an artist looks at the music as a blank canvas, searching for something fresh to paint. It was applicable to Haarla but was just as true for Konitz—all the more remarkable because, in defiance of those who feel that the standards songbook has been mined to its limits, his trio laid such waste to such claims, often in the sparest and most minimal of ways.

"Solar" may have stretched out for well over ten minutes, but it wasn't a series of delineated solos (though there were passages where each of the members came to the fore). Instead, there was a constant push-and-pull and selfless give-and-take that made it and the entire show a true three-way conversation, where the slightest suggestion or nuance from Konitz, Wind or Wilson could push the music into a different direction. Clearly none of them knew how they were going to start or how they were going to end, with Konitz, at the end of one tune, simply stopping and saying to the crowd, "etcetera, etcetera, etcetera." His economical and thoughtful approach to melody maintained a connection with the material, even as he created delicate tension with the slightest hint of atonality.

In keeping with Konitz's approach, Wilson used the smallest kit possible—snare drum, one rack tom, one floor tom, one bass drum, one hi-hat and one cymbal. His keen attention, coupled with a warm sense of humor and ever-present playfulness—a signature that made his own Arts & Crafts group performance at the 2007 OIJF such a stand-out—was the perfect complement to Konitz's own unforced mischievousness. His kit may have been small, but he found more ways to work a single cymbal than most manage with far larger sets. Wilson's remarkable melodicism echoed Konitz's attention to the essence of the material—a rare attribute for a drummer.

Lee Konitz Trio l:r Lee Konitz, Martin Wind, Matt Wilson

Of the three, Wind is the least known, although he's been building a strong reputation playing with artists including Bill Mays, Kate Bull and Don Friedman. He deserves to be better known, however, as he was as effervescent and lighthearted as his trio mates. Impeccable technique, big ears and the ability to evolve a solo from the simplest of ideas—most notably his final solo of the night, the humor of which was picked up by Konitz—made him the trio's unexpected treasure.

In many ways similar to the "playing in a living room" vibe of Chick Corea's 2006 trio show with Eddie Gomez and Airto in nearby Gatineau, Quebec, Konitz's performance may have been brief at just over an hour, but it was proof that, approaching 81, he's still one of the most innovative altoists working in the near-mainstream. Coupled with Wilson's mirthful yet deep interaction and Wind's ability to turn on a dime, it was an unforgettable performance that proves age needn't slow down innovation.

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