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Lee Konitz / Dave Liebman / Richie Beirach: KnowingLee

John Kelman By

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While there is some truth in the old adage "if it ain't broke don't fix it," it's not always bad to mess with a good thing. Saxophonist Dave Liebman and pianist Richie Beirach have been playing together for over 40 years, in ensembles ranging from the big band of Quest for Freedom (Sunnyside, 2010) and smaller ensemble of Quest and Re-Dial: Live in Hamburg (OutNote, 2010) to duo records like 1985's Double Edge, recently reissued with two early Quest albums as Searching for the Next Sound of Bebop (Storyville, 2010). It's one thing to place two players who share such a deep, simpatico connection in larger context. But to mess with their most intimate and most revealing format, the duo; is that really a good idea?

Apparently it is. While saxophonist Lee Konitz, nearly 20 years Liebman and Beirach's senior, admits to having missed out on the very generation of which these two sexagenarians were a part—especially in those critical exploratory years of the late 1960s and early '70s—there's a common element linking them together, and that's Lennie Tristano, an often overlooked pianist who was experimenting with the building blocks of both free and modal jazz long before they were "innovated," in the public eye, by Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis. While Konitz played with Tristano, and Liebman and Beirach simply studied him, KnowingLee—a first encounter instigated by a chance letter to Konitz, written by Liebman—is a collection of standards, originals and spontaneous compositions compelling in its revelation of a subliminal connection shared at a deeper, conceptual level. Rather than diluting Liebman and Beirach's chemistry, Konitz actually enhances it.

Both saxophonists have forged immediately recognizable tones on what are largely considered to be their primary instruments. Konitz's alto tone is absolutely pure, as is Liebman's on soprano—largely warm, and avoiding the nasally tone of one of his main influences, John Coltrane. Both also play other axes here—Konitz soprano, and Liebman tenor—but it's unfairly dismissive to call them secondary. They are simply instruments played less often (though Liebman, these days, balances his two horns more equitably), and Liebman's tenor turns out to be an especially fine tonal foil for Konitz's alto on the freely improvised and appropriately titled "Don't Tell Me What Key."

The trio approaches well-known standards, like Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way," with a similarly open-mind, Beirach's subtle twists and turns never coming at the expense of a swing that's just as often implicit as it is overt. Liebman's soprano approaches clarinet-like warmth when it soars into the upper registers, while Konitz weaves relentless melodies in and around his partners as if they were, indeed, made for each other.

"Free" may have some specific stylistic precedents, but it's really about choice, and whether they are turning Miles Davis' "Solar" on its edge—breaking down into a stunning, unaccompanied alto/soprano exchange still predicated on form—or playing completely without a safety net on the twin-soprano improv, "Migration," KnowingLee provides stunning evidence that even if it ain't broke, a little adjustment, every now and then, is far from a bad idea.

Track Listing: In Your Own Sweet Way; Don't Tell Me What Key; Universal Lament; Alone Together; KnowingLee; Solar; Migration; Thingin' / All the Things That...; Trinity; Body and Soul; Hi Beck; What is This Thing Called Love?.

Personnel: Lee Konitz: alto and soprano saxophone; Dave Liebman: tenor and soprano saxophone; Richie Beirach: piano.

Title: Knowinglee | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: OutNote Records

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