Lee Konitz is cool. He was cool even before it was cool to be cool and he was cool even when it wasn't cool to be cool. And he's still cool. Since his earliest days performing Gil Evans' innovative arrangements with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra in 1947, the alto saxophonist has played with a distinctive sound that earned him a reputation for being the only alto saxophonist of the day who wasn't trying to imitate Charlie Parker. Konitz readily cites pianist/philosopher Lennie Tristano, with whom he first studied during his teenage years in Chicago, as "a very strong influence" who set him on his lifelong path of self-expression. He taught Lee "to try to be as sincere, faithful to music as was consciously or subconsciously possible. Playing basically for yourself and the guys - or girls you're playing with. And hopefully the audience can be included, too - to make a complete communication. That was one of the big lessons."
Konitz' recordings with Tristano's groundbreaking sextet featuring the uncanny blending of his fluid lines with fellow saxophonist Warne Marsh in 1949 included what are commonly accepted as the first documented free improvisations in the history of jazz. During the same period the young altoist was enlisted by Miles Davis to play a pivotal role in the historic Birth of the Cool
sessions. He set out on his own touring Scandinavia the following year, before joining Stan Kenton's organization, where he was heard to good effect as a featured soloist on the classic arrangements of Bill Holman and Bill Russo. For the 50+ years since then he's remained true to his calling, developing his talent as one of the music's most dedicated improvisers while performing in a wide variety of settings.
When asked how his playing has changed over the years, Konitz tersely replies, "Well, I'm enjoying it more in real life." The alto saxophonist goes on, "Just the fact that I've been doing this kind of playing for all of 66 years now, from the first time; I've been pretty fortunate. There were years where there wasn't that much activity, but for the most part I'm working more now than ever. It's a little more difficult to travel now with the security and with my extra years, but I do it with pleasure with the idea that I'm going to arrive someplace - usually a nice place - and meet some nice people and play and even get money for it. It's like a miracle to me, still."
These days Konitz is also getting something more than money - recognition. In 2004, the Jazz Journalists Association honored him as alto saxophonist of the year. Not surprisingly, Konitz was on the road in Europe (where he now lives) at the time and it was Steve Coleman who informed him of the award. The younger saxophonist remembers, "He said that's nice and then he asked me why I thought I didn't win as many awards he thought I should win. That was his reaction. I thought it was kind of comical, actually. And I just thought that that was interesting because he's always been a very direct guy. He's one of the few guys I know who's just to-the-point and I've always dug that about him. I mean, he just tells you what he thinks and like it is. If he knows you and if he likes you; otherwise he might not say anything."
Coleman names Konitz as an important influence on his own development. "I was always impressed with his melodic sense and the fact that he didn't play clich's." Noting his collaborations with Tristano, Sal Mosca and Warne Marsh he says, "Even though Lee moved away from that later I still associate him with that group of guys because they all seemed to have this creative thing where they were really inventing, as opposed to just playing what they knew. And that was the thing that most impressed me about him and it's the thing that still impresses me about him." Coleman's M-Base colleague Greg Osby says similarly, "Lee Konitz stands among my top five choices for inspirational modeling on the alto saxophone. I'm most affected by the overwhelming sense of immediacy in his art. From initial idea to application, there are no delays, no hesitancies or indecisions that hinder the completion of his most profound and meaningful statements. As artists, we all could only hope to be as productive as he still is and has always been." Tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, one of the most intelligent improvisers playing today is even more emphatic about the influence of Konitz on his playing. "I hate to use the term 'school of playing', but that's how I have to describe it. When I got into it I was really the only one, except for those guys who were only into that. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be playing what I'm playing."
Konitz has developed his own method for improvising on standard forms that begins with simple embellishment and moves step-by-step to what he calls pure inspiration. "Improvising means coming in with a completely clean slate from the first note," he once told Mike Zwerin. "You can turn the most familiar standard into something completely fresh. The most important thing is to get away from fixed functions." Today he says, "We all know by now that what you play is a result of what you're living. Up to a point we can all identify with the great note combinations and rhythmical expressions that our great players have demonstrated and hopefully be inspired by them. The idea is to try to change the rhythms around and licks around and form a more personal viewpoint." At this stage in his life he says he's spending time "trying to review all the things that I do or was learning. Having to strip down to the bare essentials and trying to redefine what improvising means for me and I'm coming closer and closer to it."
Guitarist Bill Frisell, who has performed frequently with Konitz, is astounded by the saxophonist. "He's just so totally humble and still trying to figure out how to play just like everybody else is and that's kind of mindblowing. It's just so inspiring that he's still in that zone of just working on the music. I used to think that you'd get to a certain level and then everything was all cool and you just played great all the time, but he's one of those examples of someone who never stops learning. And that's why he sounds so good now. It seems like the backbone of everything he's playing is coming from the tunes that he's played his whole life. So even when we play completely sort of abstract or whatever, it's still going in and out of there. And same thing if you're playing more straight ahead tunes, he'll still be free. It's always there, but he doesn't let anything get in his way."
When something does get in his way, Konitz says something about it. One night when performing with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow at the Blue Note the saxophonist noticed a patron at one of the front tables reading a book. He quickly berated the customer and told him if he wanted to read to go sit somewhere else. "Oh yeah. I thought that was f*cking rude, " he remembers, demonstrating that although he may be "cool", he is passionate about his art. More recently he strongly supported Gary Peacock when a controversy ensued during a night where the bassist refused to perform with Elvis Costello on a Konitz date at the Iridium. Insulted, Costello left without singing and the band with Peacock, Frisell and Matt Wilson played a completely free improvised set before a somewhat confused audience. Frisell recalls, "We didn't even get to the point of talking about what tunes we were going to play. We just walked on and started playing completely abstract. But there was that thing. You know, there were these tunes that were sort of going in and out and all over the place, but it was cool. I wish I had a tape of that set because it was really something special." Konitz remarks, "There was an article the next day saying that I was supposed to be presented with a birthday cake - two months after my birthday. Well, I never got a taste of that cake."
Despite those occasional unpleasant situations, Konitz remains optimistic about jazz' future. "I'm very impressed with the young musicians overall - about their craftsmanship, basically," he says. "They're dealing with the pentatonics and modals and things that I don't really deal with and so I listen sometimes with great interest. I haven't heard the new John Coltrane in America or in Europe, but I think it's very promising. It's a very well educated group of people and someone is going to come along and kick ass."
* Lee Konitz - Subconscious Lee (Prestige-OJC, 1949-50)
* Lee Konitz - Live at the Half Note (Verve, 1959)
* Lee Konitz - Action (Verve, 1961)
* Lee Konitz - The Lee Konitz Duets (Milestone-OJC, 1967)
* Lee Konitz - Figure & Spirit (Progressive, 1976)
* Lee Konitz/Greg Cohen/Joey Baron - Some New Stuff (DIW, 2000)