The history of jazz is not only a story of great individuals, but also a narrative of partnerships that have shaped the development of the music. Just think of Charlie Parker
and Dizzy Gillespie
, Louis Armstrong
and Earl Hines
and Al Cohn
and Zoot Sims
. There's also a proud tradition of combining saxophone and piano with beautiful results. Art Pepper
lifted his playing in the company of George Cables
and Kenny Barron
elevated the late style of Stan Getz
Another profound musical partnership is the collaboration between pianist Harold Danko
and the late alto saxophone legend, Lee Konitz
(1927-2020). Danko was introduced to Konitz' music by his older brothers, as he says: "I heard recordings of the Claude Thornhill
tunes, "Yardbird Suite" and "Anthropology," and also some of the things with Tristano and Warne Marsh
, which I really liked but seemed very advanced to me. Much later I transcribed Lee's solo on "Yardbird Suite" and showed it to Lee, also demonstrating to him how it could just about work over Wayne Shorter
's tune, "ESP." I'm not sure he was convinced but my point was how 'modern' he was, even back then."
Danko would experience Konitz' cutting edge approach to music up close. He had the pleasure of working with him as they teamed up to develop their music: "We worked together for more than fifteen years in various formations from duo to nonet. I was happy to be a part of his world and proud that I was able to influence him in forming a band, be it a duo or quartet. Lee's wife, Tavia, became a good friend and tried to keep us working. Sometimes she would have to book Lee as a solo act to pick up musicians in his travels as he had always done, but she was determined to book the duo or quartet as much as possible. We did tours in the UK with duo and quartet in '84, and duo in Singapore and India in '86, plus quartet dates in Senegal ('80), Italy, Germany, France, and Japan ('84-'85). With bandmates Al Harewood
on drums and bassists Lyle Atkinson, Rufus Reid
, Reggie Johnson
, and Marc Johnson
we performed many gigs in Europe, Japan, and the USA."
The beginning of their musical relationship stretches back to the early '70s, as Danko tells: "I met Lee for the first time at the woodwind repair shop of Saul Fromkin, where I was working, maybe in 1973 or '74. I met him again soon after that in Central Park where we were walking our dogs. The fact that we lived close to each other on the upper west side and that Stryker's Pub was on West 86th Street across the street from Lee's apartment made it convenient to try playing together. I think at first it might have been at Stryker's in trio with bassist Dave Shapiro. I was also playing there with Chet Baker
and my Fender Rhodes electric piano was in residence at the club, since there was not a piano there. Lee's musical integrity and honesty were obvious from our first meetings. His sense of humor emerged more and more as I got to know him.
Perhaps the finest distillation of the collaboration between Konitz and Danko is the work they did as a duo. This concert recording from 1983 that captures them at Schauburg, Bremen is the proof. The concert was part of a tour in Germany and at that point: "we were working on a repertoire that would identify our duo as a band."
The concert in Bremen includes a balanced program of standards, bop classics penned by Charlie Parker and original compositions, and this sense of balance was typical of the duo: "We would always plan a set beforehand but sometimes vary it, trying to sense the audience and get the pacing right. I still have some lists of our sets and it is very apparent that we were always going for some variety within them, especially in the duo format."
Besides considering the program of the concert carefully, they also talked about the tunes and did rehearsals: "We spoke mainly about the technical specifics of the tunes we were doing, related to my concern with how to take on my role as both a kind of instant arranger as well as a soloist. I was very mindful of the brilliant and original lines Lee would play and a bit self-conscious of my own linear playing. Lee would always want to rehearse at very slow tempos and was insistent that we improvise at all times and also play lines in counterpoint, always starting simply and listening intently."
Danko elaborates further on how he tried to approach his role in the duo: "My priority in the duo setting was to try to orchestrate things, starting with the presentation of the themes, experimenting with different "settings" of the melodies and then extending that idea to the improvisations. The video documentary Portrait of the Artist as Saxophonist
that we did in Canada, in '87 I think, gets an accurate picture of our partnership.
While it's possible to see a pattern in the way the duo approached their concerts, in hindsight there was something about the concert in Bremen that stood outan amazing piano: "I am pretty certain that the venue (along with the beautiful Bechstein piano) was the same one where Keith Jarrett
recorded a famous solo concert. The piano was actually a bit intimidating since it was so good that I felt the pressure was all on meno excuses about the instrument. Some may think it might have to do with Keith's history there but I know it came down to the piano. I would try to get "in there" with Lee's sound and time and the great piano that night gave me the sound, so it was up to me to do the rest. I think sometimes I would push the time a bit (maybe it also had something to do with our age differential) but overall it would make Lee play with more rhythmic energy.
Indeed, there was a special energy and ambiance that night which is documented on the recording and the passage of time has sharpened Danko's awareness of this particular musical moment: "At my current age it is strange to think that Lee was in his mid fifties when we recorded this concert and that I started playing with him when I was still in my twenties and he just in his late forties. I think this concert catches us at some point of our collective peak although at the time I don't think we regarded it as particularly outstanding, that being the reality of performing the same repertoire over many nights in front of attentive audiencessomething I have really missed since those "road" days.
Like so many other musical enterprises, the story of this duo also had to dissolve. It's something that Danko thinks of with a bittersweet feeling: "I have often wondered why it did not continue for us but have come to accept that after Tavia's passing, Lee needed some changes in his life and without her handling all the business it was much easier for him to take gigs as a solo act once again. I also respect his desire to play and interact with different musicians, always looking to the future."
To this day, Danko still marvels at the sound of his departed friend and musical partner: "Lee's sound is distintively his own, full and beautiful from the bottom to the top of the horn. His rhythmic sense is fluid and strong, unique to him." With Lee Konitz sadly no longer here, the possibility of a reunion of this duo is impossible, but as Danko sums it up succinctly: "It was a wonderful time and has now become precious to me in the best sense."
Track notes by Harold Danko
Hairy Canary and Duende (Corea)
"Hairy Canary" is a piece that Chick may have written for Lee. It was not particularly a comfortable tune for me since I did not want to imitate Chick, and never did hear him play it. Since it is a twelve bar blues and sounds a bit Monk-ish, I treated it in an almost stride, maybe even more Erroll Garner
ish manner, emphasizing the quarter note pulse, and may have played it a bit heavy-handed. Thank goodness we had worked on an 'arrangement' of it including some send-offs, one of which we did before Lee started his solo. That provided some sense of security for me and I think I was able to relax a bit after that. Duende was much easier for me to interpret in my own way.
I think "Star Eyes" is pretty rhapsodic on the whole for both of us, and as I was relaxing into the expansive piano sound and "finding my fingers" I became bold enough to commandeer the first solo.
What Is This Thing Called Love/Hot House/Subconscious Lee
The "Hot House" medley gives us a chance to investigate the evolution of how the tunes emerged. We had been doing it this way for some time and it was always an enjoyable trip for me.
Mirth Song (Danko)
The sound of the piano was inspiring and on "Mirth Song" I found some things I have never played before or since. I don't remember many instances where he gave me a solo tune, but I was happy to play "Mirth Song," which was the title tune of my SunnySide duo record with Rufus Reid.
Hi Beck (Konitz, arr. Danko)
I played the 'music box' effect throughout "Hi Beck" because the piano's upper register was so rich. I think Lee starts to hum the pedal tone instead of playing at some point, maybe because I was humming(?). He would sometimes suggest to me to try to control my grunting or humming, and this may have been a subtle reprimand.
Body and Soul
Lee is really bluesy and I am somewhat rhapsodic on this. Lee's entire performance and cadenza on "Body and Soul" is truly transformativehis ideas are totally his own but from the jazz tradition which he helped to alter.
Anthropology/Moose the Mooche (Parker)
Lee utilized Parker as a way of 'preparation' much as I feel Bill Evans
tapped into Bud Powell
for his. Our tribute to Parker was to play two of his 'Rhythm Changes' tunes simultaneously. There is a wonderful coincidence of the two themes converging on the bridge. I don't know why there was applause after one of my choruses on this tune. It was a bit startling and then for some reason I went into playing a bass line for a while.
. Recorded by Nordwestradio in Schauburg, Bremen, Germany, October 15, 1983.
Hairy Canary; Star Eyes; What Is This Thing Called Love/Hot House/Subconscious Lee; Duende; Mirth Song -piano solo; Body and Soul; Hi Beck; Anthropology/Moose the Mooche.