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Lee Konitz: Frescalalto

Ian Patterson By

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For over seven decades, since his participation in Miles Davis's 1949-1950 Birth of the Cool sessions, Lee Konitz has carved out a tireless path as one of jazz's most illuminating improvisers. Recorded at the tail end of 2015, when he was already 87 years old, Frescalalto sees Konitz in a straight-ahead session effectively marshalled by the trio of Kenny Barron, Peter Washington and Kenny Washington, who provide bags of rhythmic momentum. Standards and Konitz originals make for familiar fare, with the alto saxophonist's concise solos full of his trademark sinewy, melodic creativity, even when, on occasion, sounding just a little frail.

Rather unusually, "Stella by Starlight" begins with unaccompanied outings from all four musicians in turn—with Konitz leading the way. The introductions made, Barron leads the rhythm section with his habitual swinging attack. There are brief solos from all, including a drum feature from Kenny Washington, who renews his acquaintance with Konitz, 40 years after making his recording debut on the saxophonist's Nonet (Chiaroscuro, 1977) and 23 years since Jazz Nocturne (Venus/Evidence, 1994)—the latter recording, incidentally, also featuring Barron. Kenny Washington and Peter Washington's musical relationship has proven more durable; the duo have played together for more than 30 years—notably in Bill Charlap's trio for 20 of those—and it's their intuitive interplay, with Barron in harness, that really drives this session.

Konitz's classic, mid-tempo swinger "Thingin" features fine solos from all, though it's Peter Washington's searching bass lines throughout that command the attention. Konitz has the final say with a mazy solo that is just gathering serious momentum when it is rather inexplicably faded out. "Darn That Dream," an understated duet between Konitz and Barron, sees the leader alternate between wordless singing and plaintive soloing, with gently sympathetic support from Barron. The pianist is in feistier mood on "Kary's Trance," and although Konitz sounds somewhat weaker by comparison there's no shortage of melodic invention in his playing on a tune he's embraced since the 1950s. Likewise, Konitz mines the changes of "Out Of Nowhere" for all he's worth—chipping in with further breezy scat vocals—and setting the bar high for Barron and Peter Washington, who duly follow suit with flowing solos of great personality.

In what's largely a mid-tempo session Konitz lowers the quartet's flame on his ballad "Gundula," a quietly stated composition of haunting atmosphere. Kasper Bronislaw's standard "Invitation" is a meatier affair. Weighing in at just over nine minutes, there's plenty of room for all to stretch out in a series of back-to-back solos, with Konitz's floating improvisation as leisurely and as seemingly effortless as a bird riding the familiar air currents of home turf. Ray Noble's old chestnut "Cherokoee" rounds out the set. At the mid-point the tempo doubles, spurring Barren to a lightning quick solo, fuelled by fast walking bass and Kenny Washington's spark. And, as though aligning in a guard of honour for maestro Konitz, the rhythm section reverts to its original strolling tempo as the saxophonist rekindles the theme one final time.

With Konitz's puff inevitably diminished somewhat by age, Frescalalto may not go down as an essential recording in his hefty discography, but there's still plenty to enjoy in his playing—chiefly the heartfelt lyricism, the masterful melodic embellishment and the sincerity that have been the cornerstones of his 70 year career.

Track Listing: Stella By Starlight; Thingin; Darn That Dream; Kary's Trance; Out Of Nowhere; Gundula; Invitation; Cherokee.

Personnel: Lee Konitz: alto saxophone, vocals; Kenny Barron: piano; Peter Washington: double bass; Kenny Washington: drums.

Title: Frescalalto | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Impulse!

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