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Lee Konitz: What True Improvising Is

Bob Kenselaar By

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Lee Konitz is legendary as one of the great individualists in jazz, an art form that has always placed an extraordinary high value on individualism and unique forms of expression. "I've pretty much dedicated myself to trying to figure out what true improvising is," he says, "as opposed to playing what you know and getting loose with it. I probably have a bit of a unique place in being able to fool around with famous tunes the way I do."

Konitz's focus on standards common to the jazz repertoire continues on the 2012 recording that features him prominently in a leaderless quartet dubbed Enfants Terribles, Live at the Blue Note (Half Note), along with collaborators Bill Frisell on guitar, Gary Peacock on bass, and Joey Baron on drums.

Born in 1927, Konitz was a slightly junior contemporary of Charlie Parker-seven years younger-and one of very few alto saxophonists who came up in the late 1940s and early '50s who avoided imitating Parker. Instead, he presented a distinctive voice of his own. Konitz appeared on some widely heralded landmark recordings very early in his career, Miles Davis's Birth of the Cool sessions in 1949 and 1950 (reissued on Blue Note, 2001) and Lennie Tristano's 1949 session cited as the first example of free jazz-completely improvised, with no prearranged melody, harmony, or rhythm-reissued on Intuition (Blue Note, 1996). Konitz also counts his work with saxophonist Warne Marsh as very important in his early career. Despite his penchant for standards, Konitz has composed original tunes throughout his career. Especially notable examples appear on his first recording as a leader, Subconscious-Lee (Prestige, 1949). In the six decades since that first outing, he has recorded well over a hundred recordings under his own name.

Konitz recalls that it was Jeff Levenson of Half Note records who put the Enfants Terribles ensemble together. "It was actually supposed to be 'Les Enfants Terribles.' They forgot the 'Les.' It wasn't my title, anyway. I just say, 'OK, what the hell.' You've got to call it something, so, that's good enough." The recording at the Blue Note in New York City in June 2011 captured their first performance together, and the four musicians reprised their performance about a year later in the same venue, in August 2012. "I enjoyed playing with that band quite a lot. We never played together after that first date, and I was looking forward to it. When it happened, I enjoyed it. I didn't feel we advanced much the way we could have if we played a tour together, but I enjoyed it."

On their live recording and at their return to the Blue Note, Enfants Terribles performed standards nearly exclusively, although the band took a very free approach to each selection. Theirs was never a straight reading of the melody by a lead voice, followed by two or three choruses of improvisation by each member in turn, finished off with a crisp, closing melody statement. Instead, they emphasized improvisation from the start, using the standards' harmonic structure as a general point of reference-or point of departure-only touching ona few bars of the original melodies here and there.

"It's taken me a long time to kind of realize that I'm not playing for the audience, so to speak," says Konitz. "I never think of it that way. But in a sense, I do enjoy playing the melody. Why not play it every once in a while, uninhibitedly? I've never been against playing a melody." The CD does include one small exception to this overall approach on the opener, Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love." Here, the ensemble plays freely throughout until the out chorus, where Konitz and Frisell showcase the saxophonist's original composition, "Subconscious-Lee," which is based on the Porter tune.

"I'm not trying to hide the basic structure of the tune," says Konitz. "I'm never trying to do that. But, of course, you know that this has been a technique a good many years, with Charlie Parker and everybody writing variations on tunes, Miles Davis with 'Donna Lee' based on "Indiana.'"

Bill Frisell contributed a strong voice in Enfants Terribles, according to Konitz. "He's irreplaceable, I think. His sound, his interest in what's going, and the way he includes himself are unparalleled. I can't imagine that happening with another guitar player offhand. Maybe John Abercrombie, but I haven't played with him that much at all. He was very special. Billy Bauer was the first guitarist I had a chance to play with, and he was very responsive, I think, also. The guitar is a lot different than the piano. Fewer notes and less activity, and you just get a lovely sound."

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