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Konitz / Mehldau / Haden / Motian: Live at Birdland

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Track review of "Oleo"

It begins with a conversation between Lee Konitz's airy alto sax and Paul Motian's even more ethereal drums, and instantly the groove of this 1954 Sonny Rollins workhorse, "Oleo," feels comfortable, welcoming, and lived-in. Like much of what transpired on the December, 2009 dates from which ECM culled Live at Birdland, which plays home to this and five other post-bop standbys, the rapport between Konitz, Motian, pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist Charlie Haden is casual and offhanded, but there in spades—the kind of chemistry expected from four dynamos smart enough to play to each others' strengths instead of their own.

The advantage this "Oleo" has over others is the power of suggestion it garners from each player's restraint. There's a passage at 1:40, when Konitz appears to quote the William Tell Overture, but almost immediately reneges—possibly upon realizing that the context gives the phrase a kitschier Lone Ranger vibe than suits the piece. When Mehldau finally enters at 2:40, it's almost as if by accident—like a party guest trying to deliberately divert attention from the fact that he's two hours late by slinking in, chameleon-like, and joining the conversation in medias res. The bulk of the performances are assembled this way—as if the musicians are building a matchstick house, lovingly rendering each addition with the lightest touch possible to ensure that no single motion destroys the integrity of the whole. It's almost that the lack of tension gives the performance a suspense it couldn't otherwise achieve. The players are so kind to each other, it seems they must be dancing around some phrase or statement that they're just dying to make outright.

Once the foundation is in place, Mehldau takes off on what proves to be the track's flightiest solo, freely adventuring into crevices of the structure miles away from the theme that Konitz always keeps nearby. Gradually he brings his exploration back to the piece's melodic nucleus, ending at its tonal center to reverently enthusiastic applause. Haden and Motian briefly engage in the kind of dialogue characteristic of players trying to keep off each other's toes, after which Konitz and Mehldau return, clawing at each other for two minutes before restating the head and riding this old workhorse off into the sunset, Lone Ranger-style.

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

Title: Live At Birdland | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: ECM Records

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