Cathing up with Lee Konitz

Lazaro Vega By

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Pretty much I've thought of myself as a sideman and when I'm invited into a situation I, usually, eagerly jump in and hope that I can make some music with some different people. And frequently it works; sometimes it doesn't. But that's kind of the attitude I go into it with.
This interview was first published at All About Jazz in May 1999 and is part of our ongoing effort to archive pre-database material.

The Lee Konitz Trio, Mother's Day, May 9th At 4 P.M. In The 165 Seat Urban Institute For Contemporary Arts Theater, 41 Sheldon Blvd. Ne, Grand Rapids, Mi. The Alto Saxophone Master With Bassist Jeff Halsey Of Bowling Green University And Drummer Pete Siers Of Ann Arbor. Tickets Are $15.

All About Jazz: I was just going over some of the records by you I've gotten here at the radio station in the last year or so. There's the Strings for Holiday, the record with the Netherlands Metropole Orchestra, Saxophone Dreams, various things on Evidence music, a trio record on Steeplechase, It's You. I'm looking at all this stuff and I'm wondering, what kind of process do you go through to choose what you're going to pick out to play? Because you're on so many diverse things, I was wondering how you choose that?

Lee Konitz: Yes, I've been trying to figure that out myself lately. Pretty much I've thought of myself as a sideman and when I'm invited into a situation I, usually, eagerly jump in and hope that I can make some music with some different people. And frequently it works; sometimes it doesn't. But that's kind of the attitude I go into it with.

LV: So how does it come about?

LK: Well, I get invited to do various projects and I have a choice to accept or not. If someone invites me I immediately say yes if I'm interested and kind of positive about being invited in the first place. I play with local musicians all over Europe and that means for me being able to work frequently and not having to charge big prices for a band. The way you learn how to play, I figure, is by playing. So, I just welcome all these different situations.

Having a band is still something that I would like to do, but in addition to these other kinds of projects.

Incidentally, I really appreciate you starting with the contemporary records. Very frequently in these sessions we talk about the beginnings and sometimes I don't feel like going back there too quick.

LV: O.k. Another group that I know you've been involved with in the last couple of years that a friend of mine just saw at Ronnie Scott's is the Kenny Wheeler Quartet with Dave Holland, Bill Frisell, Kenny and yourself. That's another freelance situation, isn't it?

LK: Well that's a result of the record. Do you have that record?

LV: Oh, Angel Song, absolutely.

LK: Actually, we didn't play at Ronnie Scott's, but we played in England in January. We did a six-concert tour. Actually Bill Frisell was unable to make it, so John Abercrombie made that one. Bill is so busy that it's been difficult. We've done about two concerts since we've made the record with Bill.

LV: Isn't that a little bit different? When you think about Strings for Holiday or the Metropole Orchestra record, or the trio record on Steeplechase, you're dealing pretty much with song forms and improvising on changes. Now with Kenny's music it seemed to be a little different atmosphere. I was wondering if you could comment on that a little bit as a challenge musically.

LK: First of all I traveled from Tel Aviv the day before the date, 11 hours, and went immediately to a rehearsal with the group. We were all eager. Because I love Kenny's music, which are great melodies on changes, basically. The one difference, probably, is that there was no drummer. But anyway, on the morning of the next day we didn't play any of the tunes that we rehearsed. It was a long session and I really felt the jet lag. But the music was so compelling that I was more than delighted it turned out as well as it did. That's just another kind of chamber-like group with more of an emphasis on the composition than the arrangement, just playing a tune and playing solos. And they're just such great players that it was really a pleasure.

LV: Dave Holland just came through with his sextet two weekends ago.

LK: And he tore the house down, right?

LV: Sure did.

LK: My wife and I went to the Knitting Factory the other night and listened to a great violin player, Mark Feldman, and he plays with a very fine free Japanese lady, Yuko Fujiyama. We really enjoyed their music, and then went upstairs to the next room for Dave's set. They hit so hard after this very gentle music that we had just listened to that we listened to one tune and admired what they did and left. It was just, whew, God it was like an avalanche or something.

LV: When they were in Grand Rapids they stayed for two days doing a public concert and then a private home concert with catering and all that in a living room.

LK: Well, my God.

LV: I liked the concert better because they were a little bit in better eye contact with each other and they could get louder. The dynamic level is so extreme...

LK: I really have to have the energy. I mean, I've never had the energy to play that intensively, but you have to have it to listen, too. But Dave is a very dynamic guy.

LV: Right. He's a hell of a bassist.

LK: Yes he is.

LV: There's a record you did probably about ten years ago for Soul Note called Ideal Scene.

LK: I think—yeah, right.

LV: In that I remember you talked about there you are touring with your own band and it was an Ideal Scene because you could play whatever music you wanted to play. Do you have a quartet like that still?

LK: I just played three days here at Birdland, Thursday, Friday and Saturday of last week, with a quartet that I might stay with; playing a lot of the Tristano inspired materials. With a tenor player named Ted Brown that has been off the scene for many years raising a family. Now he's kind of interested in going out and playing and he plays quite beautifully.

LV: I remember his records that he made, a friend played them for me: there's an Art Pepper record and Ted Brown record back in the '50s.

LK: Yes, you've got it. Great.

LV: He might have made one or two for Criss Cross.

LK: He did.

LV: I have that.

LK: That's great.

LV: I love all of that stuff. I wasn't going to bring up Lennie Tristano. I thought you'd probably had enough discussion about him in your career, but...

LK: Oh no, he's too important in my career to have enough discussion.

LV: Oh, o.k. All right. So, who else is in this band that you're thinking about staying with?

LK: John McClure and Jeff Williams.

LV: And Jeff's the drummer?

LK: Yes.

LV: I'm not familiar with him. But you've worked before with Ron McClure.

LK: Yeah, some. Isn't he on the trio record, Steeplechase, with Billy Hart?

LV: That's right.

LK: We're recording on, phew: I'm recording this Thursday and Friday with John Abercrombie, Joey Baron and Mark Johnson. John is playing about three tunes and Ted Brown is playing a couple.

Then, the following week I'm recording with this quartet I just mentioned with Ted Brown and Ron and Jeff. Plus, Steeplechase wants me to record. We're calling it "the old guys session." Then they want me to do a session with the young guys. So he's choosing a rhythm section of young lions.

Then I'm a guest on another guy's record later that day. Those two days will be two and half sessions.

And I said, "What am I doing?" You know? And I answered, I'm being a sideman basically, and playing. I'm not even getting paid for it. So, that's kind of what my life is these days.

LV: I noticed when you said earlier that you were a sideman you added if you want to learn the music, play it. And here you are really at the level of your career where you're a recognized, bonafied master musician to people who have followed jazz for a long time. It's really interesting to hear you say that basically you're still going about the process of learning to play.

LK: I think all of us, however we're regarded from the outside, have our own set of standards that we're trying to live up to. Playing this music is very challenging and takes a lot of study and practice. So that's what I'm doing.

I enjoy doing that everyday. I've never been like an 8 hour a day practicer. So I attribute what I do to playing everyday.

LV: Um hum, yeah. You bet. Speaking of the Tristano book, I noticed that you and Gary Foster did an album in Japan of music that Warne Marsh had written.

LK: That he had improvised.

LV: Oh, I see, that's how you did that.

LK: Yeah.

LV: Oh, I get it. I was going to ask you about that. So those were his improvisations.

LK: (Sighs) I hope that was stated in the notes.

LV: They're all in Japanese.

LK: (Laughs) Ha ha ha. Can't read Japanese, wow.

LV: No, I'm sorry, I can't.

LK: Well, (chuckles) that was the idea: we both loved Warne and that was our way of paying tribute to him. The only problem is, before we went to Japan we played in a club in Los Angeles with a rhythm section that had played with Warne, and that was really working. Then we got to Japan and I don't know if any of these guys ever heard of Warne. So that didn't quite work out right. But I still enjoy the record.

LV: Well you and Gary seem to have a nice rapport.

LK: Yeah.

LV: Would you say you could count him as one of your disciples?

LK: I think so. Yeah.

LV: I wasn't going to ask you this but you said its o.k. to talk about Lennie Tristano. I'm wondering in terms of musical principles Lennie brought to you back in the '40s, of those musical principles that you absorbed and refined in that period of time, what are you still working with today? What are qualities from that education that stay with you now?

LK: Well basically trying to be as spontaneous as possible. Which means I have to have that kind of confidence in that possibility. It's rather daunting to think about it sometimes: going out and starting from the first note is a little scary. And maybe even naive. But that seems to be what my temperament dictates for me. That's one of the main things that I learned from Lennie.

And then trying to pair down, you know like get rid of excess materials and things. I've gone through these different kinds of processes finding what I think is my essential music. Forever grateful for the insight that he gave me.

LV: When you come to Grand Rapids you'll be working in that trio setting of just saxophone, bass and drums.

LK: I like that. I get to play more that way. I'm usually pretty respectful of everybody else's chance to play and so I stand around listening to everybody play quite a bit of the time. I'd rather really be playing myself.

LV: What is it about that setting? You did it with Elvin Jones and Sonny Dallas and then with Ron McLure and Billy Hart, and are there any other ones out there?

LK: Well, not too many, actually. I don't know if there is one like that.

LV: But it gives you the freedom to just blow.

LK: Yeah that's it. I find it difficult to play a little while and then listen to everybody else play, and then get back into where I left off. This way I keep doing it. So, I'm looking forward to that.

LV: Then there was a question I had. I told you I work for a public radio station.

LK: Right.

LV: Is there any chance I could record your concert in Grand Rapids? For broadcast on our radio station and maybe to give a copy to the musicians?

LK: Well, I mean, there's hardly a way to not do that these days. It can be done so easily without knowing about it.

LV: I would never do that. I'm talking about I've got a portable DAT machine and a stereo pair of condenser mics. That's it. I would never try to sneak anything like that. I wanted to ask your permission.

LK: My only consideration is, I trust that I should be reasonably comfortable, but you know I don't play like most of the people are trying to play right now, and sometimes it can be a problem for awhile. And I hate to think of that being documented. I would like to be able to wait and see. I suppose we'll play one set.

LV: Well, actually you're playing the night before with the same guys in Ann Arbor, and the next day you're playing for us in Grand Rapids at 4 in the afternoon with the same guys again. So you'll have the night before to play a couple of sets.

LK: Then we can talk then.

LV: O.k. I can just have the stuff nearby. It's so portable; it fits in a carry-on. If you're comfortable then maybe we can do it, and if not, no big thing.

LK: O.k. great. I appreciate your interest and your questions were real and I don't mind that at all.

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