Miles Davis was right.
Decades ago he barked at criticism over his hiring of a white alto saxophonist named Lee Konitz. No one, he said, had a tone like Lee’s, a tone Davis wanted.
Now at age 73, Konitz —no longer a Henry Kissinger look-alike with his silver hair and new glasses, still has a great tone.
That tone was on display on Feb. 3 as Konitz played a set of duets with pianist Joanne Brackeen in the rustic setting of the VanDyck nightclub in Schenectady — perhaps the finest venue for jazz in the Capital District of Upstate NY.
The paring of these music makers was interesting. She more of the hard-driving, bop-influenced school, though certainly with the ability to play soft and serene. And he coming from the school of players not heavily influenced by Charlie Parker, coming from a different angle where sound and color take on more meaning than cascades of notes at breakneck tempos.
On this night, the meeting was memorable, the two listening deeply to each other and reacting in the moment on a set comprised mostly of jazz standards.
Jazz requires that communication, especially in a duet where lapses would be more glaringly obvious. SO in addition to Konitz’ sweet tone, there was also high intelligence and supportive interplay at work between two skilled artists.
It seemed like the duo leaned more to the attributes of Konitz, the tempos medium-to-slow, allowing him to layout his thoughts, trying to make each idea and phrase count, more than each note; conveying a feeling, more than just a manuscript of notes. Brackeen is capable of racing down the stretch like Secretariat, displaying speed and power with her bands or as a sideman to people like Stan Getz. But here she was more cerebral, blending in with the tempo and open to Konitz’ more pensive approach.
The two melded into a satisfying sanctuary from the chilly winter night.
While Brackeen played romantic and ornate backgrounds, Konitz played with a melodic, yet edgy feel. Think Paul Desmond with a candle under his ass. (Stay with me. Certainly, it was Konitz who influenced Desmond, not vice versa, but more people know Desmond through his association with the widely popular Dave Brubeck Quartet).
The music didn’t swing in the classic sense. It was more implied, yet satisfying. Konitz is not hell-bent, but he also does not give the impression of being pre-meditated. Everything he played was interesting, at times sensuous, other times angular and roaming. He started phrases in unusual places and approached harmonies from a different perspective.
(Complimented on his sound after the set, he quipped, self-effacingly, “now if only I had some ideas.”)
Brackeen, for her part, was allowed to explore more softly and explore different textures as she stayed in the context of the slower themes. Her solo on “Darn That Dream” was meditative, and yet exploratory. On “Autumn Leaves,” after Konitz’ pointed exploring, she threw out a bolder, wilder statement that was a nice contrast.
Brackeen played solo on her own composition, “Pink Elephant Magic,” taking a more powerful and up-tempo approach that called more upon her prodigious technique. The result was a jubilant presentation of an infectious melody.
“All the Things You Are” usually brings out bebop chops, but Konitz stayed close to the vest, not cranking out teems of 16th notes, but telling the story in a different way. And why not? Brackeen too moved ahead confidently, but not in a hurray.
Brackeen said later she and Konitz had only performed a few times on a mini-tour. Here’s hoping for a few times more.