Lee Konitz: What True Improvising Is
Konitz gives high marks to the other members of the ensemble, as well. "Gary Peacock is very special. He seems to go in a different direction sometimes, but as I listen to him playing more and more, I see what he's doing clearly." Joey Baron provided a contrast to another notable drummer who has collaborated with Konitz, Paul Motian-his last recording before his death in 2011 was a live date led by the saxophonist at Birdland-Lee Konitz/ Brad Mehldau/Charlie Haden/Paul Motian, Live at Birdland (ECM, 2011). "They're both very responsive players, and I enjoyed both of them for different reasons. Sometimes Paul didn't really insert himself very much-he played nicely in the background. Sometimes I wished he would stir up a little bit of propulsion, which Joey can do nicely. But Paul was great, and Joey's great, too, and that's the bottom line."
Another recent collaborator gets some deserving praise from Konitz. "I've been playing with a pianist in different contexts named Dan Tepfer, who is fun to play with." The two recorded together on Duos with Lee (Sunnyside, 2009). "We've also done some quartet things that were really nice, some concerts with a nice group. Very free music on standards again." Tepfer, who was 30 years old at the time of the Sunnyside recording, is one among many young musicians whom Konitz has played with in recent years. "Sometimes I get inspired by the young people, their energy, and their interest in what I'm trying to do and things like that. Most of the recordings I've made with the younger guys-there's always something nice I can say. I enjoy listening to my situations at times, and the best ones are with the best players, of course. . . . Some New Stuff (DIW, 2001) is another nice record-a trio record I made with Joey Baron and a great bassist who plays with Woody Allen sometimes, Greg Cohen."
Much of Konitz's work over the years is marked by a great deal of freedom in his improvisation, but he nearly always gravitates toward standards and familiar chord changes, and he considers his approach as very different from the experiments in free improvisation that he did early in his career with Lennie Tristano. "I just enjoy playing on a familiar structure, a good chord progression, and a fine tune. Playing totally free-on the Tristano thing-it almost sounds like classical music. It doesn't really get into a tempo or anything like that. I like that sometimes, like starting out a set that way, something spontaneous, but that'll lead to someone playing the melody and we'll go there. And I prefer to get into swing at some point. What Tristano did earlier-his so-called free jazz-sounded like there were no specific chord changes, but usually had some kind of tonality. One time he was trying to explain that to me on an airplane. I said, wait until we get on the ground. Too abstract for me."
A recording yet to be released as of this writing puts Konitz out in front of the WDR Big Band, the outstanding ensemble based in Cologne, Germany. "It's a recording of arrangements of my tunes and Tristano's work by the fine arranger Michael Abene, who's working with the band this season. And some very nice things have come of it. I've been living in Cologne with my wife, who's German herself, for a number of years now. And the band hadn't really ever asked me to do much with them before. I talked to the director, Lucas Schmid, and he went for the idea of not only me playing with the big band, but to also bring my own rhythm section that I was playing with at the time, the German pianist Florian Weber and [bassist] Jeff Denson and [drummer] Ziv Ravitz. But it ended up just Florian did it with me. The rhythm section of the big band, the bass and drummer were fine, and they knew the band and everything, so it turned out maybe better than if I had an exclusive quartet. Florian and I worked very effectively there, I think, so that worked out well. And on one tune, based on 'Strike Up the Band,' I'm actually playing a straight melody all by myself, no accompaniment at all. The recording isn't scheduled to come out at the moment. Lucas Schmid said that he hasn't connected with anybody yet about it, so, it may just be a private recording. I did another recording with the Metropole Orchestra out in Holland. Bill Holman wrote a piece for me on that, which is beautiful, but it wasn't ever released. So I had a hundred copies printed up and just gave them to my friends."