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Lee Konitz: New York, NY June 5, 2011

Warren Allen By
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Lee Konitz / Bill Frisell / Gary Peacock / Joey Baron
The Blue Note
New York, NY
June 5, 2011

Descriptions of alto saxophonist Lee Konitz often place a little too much weight on his role as a musician of yesteryear. Certainly, Konitz's contributions as one of the first cool players in the bands of Miles Davis and Lennie Tristano are part of jazz history, and he is one of the few self-made sounds from an era when every alto player wanted to sound like Charlie Parker. Yet in celebrating his past, short shrift is sometimes given to Konitz's contributions in the present day. In recent years, he has been a consistent and perpetually fresh force on alto who both engages with young players, and continues to develop his idiosyncratic style across a vast output of new music.

His individuality certainly extends in part from his dry and reedy saxophone sound, which he sometimes mutes with a wadded-up cloth for extra effect. The other part is his approach, which expands on the traditional head-solo-head form of jazz standard playing. Instead, his bands begin with a lone player's solo rumination as a kind of jumping-off point to lay the foundation of the song. Sooner or later, the theme appears, but there's nothing fixed or rigid about when or how it does so—the band might have come in, or it might not. Strict barriers between fresh improvisation and original composition just don't seem to exist within bands like this, though they're likely there someplace, out of easy earshot.

The inaugural week of the new Blue Note Jazz Festival in New York gave audiences the opportunity to check out Konitz's style firsthand alongside an all-star band of like-minded musical thinkers in guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Joey Baron. Each of these players brings an instantly recognizable voice, a veteran presence, and an indefinable emotive soul to their music. Even better, they've worked together in various forms over the years.

Sunday night, Konitz took the stage in an all-black suit and dark shades, and led the group through a set of unique songbook renditions. After warning the jam-packed crowd "no dancing," he launched into a solo sax opening that developed with the quartet into a kind of hybrid standard, with suggestions of "How High the Moon" and "All the Things You Are." Afterwards, Konitz said wryly, "That was three different tunes at the same time."

It was a solo by Peacock in the midst of a killer "Darn That Dream" that seemed to pull everything together. The song opened with Konitz solo, tracing unexpected harmonic paths before Baron entered on brushes and Peacock started throwing out ingenious ideas between Konitz's phrases. These grew, until the soloist's hat seemed to be switching back and forth from bass to sax, before Frisell entered with his own commentary. Then, with delicate quotes and a touch of swing, Peacock took over and built his own lyrical world. This first pulled Baron in, getting the drummer excited, and then drew Frisell to add his own sustained sonic touches. The effect of that solo seemed to switch on a little extra juice within the group, as the playing gained a sharper edge and a greater emotional heft.

Peacock and Baron might have stolen the show in their own way, or at least provided the battery for the first set. Peacock took the opening solo introduction to a splendid rendition of "Lover Man." After firing off an opening volley of hypnotic and lyrical ideas, he and Baron engaged in a warm and delicate exchange. Together, these two play with a self-sustained depth and character to their interplay equal to the sound of a full band. Part of this is certainly the power and insight of Peacock, who has the experience of playing with artists as diverse and demanding as Albert Ayler and Keith Jarrett.

The other part is Baron's infectious energy. He's always laughing mid-song at some inner joke, and the sheer joy in his playing lets an audience in on the fun even as it powers a band. His drum work is simultaneously powerful and subtle. Sometimes he puts the sticks aside and solos with his hands. Other times he uses the tuning of his drums to make his own lyrical phrases. It should be no surprise then that the other three seemed to love working with him.

When Frisell joined in on "Lover Man," the easy understanding that he and Baron have struck up over many collaborations provided a foundation for his fiddling within the melody and unusual harmonies. While a little restrained earlier on in the set, here he settled in, and the chemistry showed in the call and response between his delicate blue notes and Baron's shimmering cymbals.

Finally Konitz dueted with Baron to close it out. Their exchange took on a foreign, tribal feeling, with Baron's thundering toms and some plaintive moans and sighs from the sax. It was a fitting demonstration of just how Konitz and this band work, as diverse sounds and spontaneous ideas blazed fresh paths inside a classic tune. This is how standards should be played—with the influence of history and experience mixing alongside a joy and spontaneity that any audience can appreciate.

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