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Lee Konitz: Konitz/Mehldau/Haden/Motian: Live at Birdland

Dan McClenaghan By

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Konitz/Mehldau/Haden/Motian

Live at Birdland

ECM Records

2011

The tunes are familiar, Great American Songbook and jazz standards all. So for those unfamiliar with the names involved in this quartet outing, the old complaint of "same old same old" could surface. But with alto saxophonist Lee Konitz at the top of the listing, "same old same old" gets rolled out the door.

Konitz, with over 60 years of professional experience—from the 1949 Birth of the Cool (Capitol Records, 1957) sessions with arranger Gil Evans and trumpeter Miles Davis, to the present day—is one of the most distinctively original of jazz artists. His plaintive, ghostly cry opens the set on "Loverman." The tune has been given stellar treatments by, most famously, singer Billie Holiday and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, and here it announces an uncommon listening experience to follow. Konitz's alto saxophone tone is hollow and bitingly tart, with a hint of a growl scratching around the edges, an invitation to the spacious and thoughtful delicacy of Brad Mehldau's piano, the whisper and scratch of Paul Motian's drums, and the spare-but perfect placement of Charlie Haden's bass notes.

Even the youngster in the line-up, Mehldau, has more than two decades of recording and performing in the resume; so when a group like this gets together for an impromptu session at New York's Birdland—one of jazz's most productive live recording venues—magic can happen, and it did this night. It's not a magic of the look at me, virtuosic, fireworks variety, but one of a melding of four different and very experienced perspectives on some of those jazz tunes that seem—after all these years—to be coded in our DNA, the musicians becoming one on this outing, creating melodic mutations that give birth to new sonic entities, new species altogether, maybe even a new genus or two, recognizable, but very different from the original organisms while still exuding a quality of familiar beauty.

"Loverman," the opener, and Sonny Rollins' "Oleo" are in the new genus category. If taken in small doses on a casual or distracted listen, they can be unrecognizable in snippets, and seem like forarys into free jazz. In part, they may be. Konitz is especially loose in his interpretations, drifting and swirling around in a variety of melodic side eddies that drift at unexpected times—usually briefly—back into the mainstream flow.

"Lullaby of Birdland" and "I Fall In Love Too Easily" don't stray so far from what might be called standard interpretations, though it seems Konitz is trying to do just that, leaving Melhdau more the keeper of the melody, a task the pianist takes on with uncommon aplomb and originality and, yes, freedom.

Miles Davis' "Solar" is a tune that has managed to sound timeless for more than 50 years. Konitz staggers in here, with a rather harsh and stentorian tone, like a blaring shower singer, until four crisp alto notes, followed post-haste by the piano rolling with the same riff, announce the tune, and draw in the masterful wandering of Motian and Haden.

It's the title of another of the set's American Songbook tunes, "You Stepped Out of a Dream," that describes the mood. In the hands of these seasoned musicians, this music has an often skewed and surreal, out of a dream quality. We've heard them before, but never quite like this, unfolding in a way that doesn't quite make logical sense; revealing new and unexpected angles of their beauty.

Tracks: Loverman; Lullaby of Birdland; Solar; I Fall in Love Too Easily; You Stepped Out of a Dream.

Personnel: Lee Konitz: alto saxophone; Brad Mehldau: piano; Charlie Haden: bass; Paul Motian: drums.

Track Listing: Loverman; Lullaby of Birdland; Solar; I Fall in Love Too Easily; You Stepped Out of a Dream.

Personnel: Lee Konitz: alto saxophone; Brad Mehldau: piano; Charlie Haden: bass; Paul Motian: drums.

Title: Konitz/Mehldau/Haden/Motian: Live at Birdland | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: ECM Records

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