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Lee Konitz Quartet: Spontaneous Improvisation

Daniel Kassell By

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Lee Konitz Quartet
Jazz Legacy Series
Creole Music Supper Club
New York, NY

March 21, 2009



For two nights Lee Konitz was improvising at Creole Restaurant, Third Avenue at 116th Street in Harlem's Barrio. On the Saturday, March 21st 10pm show Mickey Bass introduced the Quartet as part of his Brownstone Entertainment Complex's Jazz Legacy Series, beginning with a joke not worth repeating. Mr. Konitz responded by telling one of his own about a guy at a bar who ordered three scotches.... I wish he had announced his first tune instead. The humor may have been expendable, but musicians take note: before we heard the first note, he blew gently into the mouthpiece for a few breaths, fingering something without sound, then moved his head forward to create one of the most recognizable breathy sounds to emanate from an alto saxophone.

Recognizable as Irving Berlin's "How Deep is the Ocean" when, after a few bars, the trio joined the leader, creating a swing beat as the words played out in my head until pianist Dan Tepper improvised for a few choruses. Konitz returned playing a parallel pattern, his lower tones and brassy vibrato still there—as is his distinctive upper-register vibrato: like fine wine—dry rather than sweet. It was called "cool" when many of us heard it with Miles Davis on the legendary and seminal Birth of the Cool sessions.

Nodding to the pianist, Konitz directed the focus toward Dan Tepper's feature, then after a few bars interjected a strong bop intro to a favorite standard of Bird's contemporaries, "Out of Nowhere." Having referenced Charlie Parker, the T-Shirt worn by drummer Rashied Ali became an additional visual reminder. While string bassist Jeremy Stratton soloed, Lee Konitz sat (he's now 81 with silver hair), this one-time disciple of Lennie Tristano and cohort of Gill Evans. Behind the musicians and through the open brown curtains, we're able to watch the hangers out, cocked baseball caps, some members sporting SBARTANZ club jackets waiting to host tonight's Meet & Greet DJ at midnight.

Without announcement the piano trio began an unmelodic verse, Konitz waited, then as if playing the last few bars of the tune, he spontaneously improvised on "Alone Together," continuing with long compositional lines filled with interesting turns of phrase. If one is not particularly adept at bop tunes, one would be at a loss during the initial constructions of Konitz, who is prone to explore the numerous possibilities and associated harmonic and melodic ideas before the primary melody becomes obvious.

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