As a Montreal Jazz Festival 2003 Invitation series artist, venerable alto saxophonist Lee Konitz played a different concert each night of July 2 through 5 at the Monument-National, a vintage theatre with excellent acoustics. To represent his musical career, Konitz selected favorite configurations of musicians with whom he enjoys performing. Konitz has worked with Montreal-based musicians and has spent considerable time in Europe, and his programming also reflected his appreciation for the festival’s locale. I attended all except the July 2 concert, at which Konitz played with the sextet of tenor saxophonist and arranger François Théberge, originally from Montreal. (Last year Konitz worked with the Théberge group to put out Music of Konitz on Effendi, a tight and flavorful treatment of Konitz compositions that won acclaim in Europe.)
For the July 3 concert, Konitz played duos with three pianists, improvising on standards, tailoring his approach to each pianist’s individual style. First, Konitz launched energetically into a set with Jason Moran, a young player who’s lately been acclaimed for his creative combinations of older and modern influences. The two alternated on solo improvisations, with their contrasting interpretive approaches. On “Giant Steps”, for example, Konitz soloed mainly in his trochaic eighth-note style, while Moran’s eclectic solos used frequently-changing rhythms and meters. But with mutual sensitivity, at prearranged points the two reunited deftly for ensemble playing on short motifs from the tunes. The duo with Kenny Werner, by contrast, was largely ensemble playing, as he and Konitz constantly overlapped and interchanged ideas. The two often played in the same register, weaving around the melody together. Werner’s rhapsodic playing style allowed his solos to emerge organically from Konitz’s legato sound, particularly in their long rendition of “’Round Midnight”. The final pianist to join Konitz was Paul Bley, with whom Konitz shares a long history. Bley played together with Konitz much of the time, and his extensive solos were angular and quirky but not too far out. While the closest in age to Konitz, Bley seemed to lay down a stylistic bridge between the refined Werner and the more idiosyncratic Moran. For much of “I Can’t Get Started”, Bley took the lead with a dramatic bluesy rendition. Enthusiastic applause for Bley, who started life in Montreal, drew a rare personal comment from Konitz, who complimented the audience on their “good taste” before the two embarked on a spirited encore.
On July 4, Konitz was joined by the Spring String Quartet, an Austrian group that frequently ventures into non-classical music, and Ohad Talmor, arranger and reeds player. The thirty-three-year-old Talmor, originally from France and now based in New York, served as music director and stage manager for the evening, cuing Konitz to announce the pieces and adding a few anecdotal comments in French. The concert’s program alternated Talmor’s arrangements of Konitz compositions with Talmor’s arrangements of French impressionist works. The latter included two by Debussy (one the well-loved Rêverie), two by Fauré, and one by Satie, and the arrangements adhered closely to the originals. Konitz played with the quartet, while Talmor discreetly conducted. Konitz’s light and fluid sound is well-suited to the impressionistic arrangements, which he has recorded using another string quartet. On the Konitz compositions, Talmor played tenor sax, clarinet, and bass clarinet, showing his performing skill when on some fast-moving lines he played tenor precisely in unison with Konitz. The arrangements generally started with Konitz’s solo head, sometimes accompanied by the quartet, followed by various treatments of the melody and occasional development of a motif. The quartet was well used, particularly in the opening number, in arrangements that utilized rhythmic elements, with occasional use of change in color and texture (pizzicato, tremolo, harmonics). The Spring String Quartet played beautifully, but the scope of expression of Konitz’s jazz pieces seemed somewhat constrained by the lack of a bass range and the volume and bite that are beyond any string quartet’s capability.
For the final concert, Konitz was joined by eight cohorts for a concert of his own compositions, again arranged by Ohad Talmor. In the ’70s and ’80s Konitz led a nonet that performed extensively, and he’s played in other nine-piece groups since. And, of course, fifty-plus years ago Konitz was part of the nonet that created the famed Birth of the Cool recordings. This nonet included Konitz’s alto sax plus guitar (Ben Monder), bass (Bob Bowen), drums (Matt Wilson), trumpet (Ron Horton), trombone (Alan Ferber), tenor sax/clarinet (Ohad Talmor), bass clarinet (Dennis Lee), and ’cello (Stephan Punderlitschek of the Spring String Quartet).
The unusual inclusion of a ’cello supported an interesting alternation of a traditional jazz band sound (brass, reeds, and rhythm section) with a more orchestral sound that included low-register chording by the ’cello, bass, bass clarinet, and trombone. The arrangements unfolded similarly to those for the preceding concert, but with some improvisation and with lots more instrumental color, texture, and spontaneous interaction. In other words, this concert was all jazz. Along with Konitz, who was obviously enjoying himself, most of the soloing was performed by Horton, Monder, Bowen, and Wilson. Bowen was unusually adept at handling the bowed passages in the group’s orchestral guise. Wilson’s versatile and sensitive approach let him be subtle in quiet moments and humorous when things cut loose, such as in one uproarious passage when he mimicked turntable scratching. Talmor kept a low profile, playing tenor sax or clarinet and doing occasional count-offs. Konitz announced some of the pieces, including his often-played “Subconscious-Lee”, which he good-naturedly announced as “Self-conscious-Lee”. At the evening’s end, the ever-modest Konitz seemed a bit surprised by the warm audience response, and he apologized for not having prepared an encore. After many active years, Lee Konitz seems little interested in basking in applause and as engaged as ever in musical exploration and creation.