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Lee Konitz: Prisma

Ian Patterson By

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Though Lee Konitz has played in a wide variety of settings and styles since his first professional engagement with Teddy Powell in 1945, recordings with full-blown orchestras have been few and far between. Recorded in Frankfurt in 2000, with the Brandenburg State Orchestra conducted by Christoph Campestrini, Prisma captures Konitz interpreting Gunter Buhles' concerto for alto saxophone and orchestra. Composed in four-parts, as opposed to the concerto's more traditional three-part format, Buhles's working title for the project—composed especially for Konitz—was German Romantic, and Konitz is certainly the hero of the romance.

At seventeen minutes, Prisma is a fairly concise work, but Buhles' orchestration exudes a sweeping majesty and is rich in detail. With only two stereo mics set up the performance was never originally intended for commercial release. Consequently, although Konitz is in the foreground, the full depth of the Brandenburg State Orchestra's nuanced performance is difficult to appreciate. Despite being restored and remastered, headphones are nevertheless recommended to pick up the many fine orchestral details—rustling wind chimes, wood-block punctuation, timpani rumblings etc—that pepper the score.

Whether or not German Romantic-era composers inspired Buhles' score is open to debate. On the opening "Allegro" movement, for example, the strings gush forth with a vitality that conjures the intro to Ottorino Respighi's The Pines of Rome. Throughout the score, Buhles' energized rhythms, strongly defined melodies and powerful ensemble orchestration also call to mind Danish composer Carl Neilsen. What's more certain, however, is the centrality to the music of the tension that simmers between Konitz and the orchestra. The measured lyricism in the saxophonist's sunny deviations from the tightly orchestrated unison lines chime with the light colors of the flutes, but the brooding, darker tones of the strings and brass at times speak an alternative narrative.

On the episodic "Adagio," intermittent, staccato riffing from brass and flutes course restlessly over a serene bed of strings. Drums make a brief martial cameo, like a portent of imminent drama, but in the end, violin and saxophone dovetail romantically. Konitz's seductive playing on "Scherzo" is imbued with the orchestral tensions that characterize this noirish segment. The final part, "Allegro Molto—Allegretto," begins with a flowing dialogue between Konitz and pianist Frank Wunsch that flirts with abstraction. The arrival of urgent strings and flutes shatters the introspective atmosphere, with Konitz launching himself into an extended excursion around the main theme. The underlying orchestral pulse that renders the piece so dramatic gradually dissolves, leaving Konitz's mellifluous alto lines to float dreamily to the end, enveloped in a caressing orchestral embrace.

The concert's second half sees Konitz in a duo setting with Wunsch, rekindling a collaboration that rendered the recordings Frank-Lee Speaking (1992) and Into It-Solos and Duos (1995)—both on the West Wind label. The saxophonist's perennial calling card, "Thingin,'" and John W. Green's standard "Body and Soul" bookend Wunsch's own "Joanna's Waltz." The latter is arguably the pick of the bunch, with Konitz' tone on this elegant number almost tenor-like in its warmth.

Despite the limitations of the sound quality, Prisma is, nevertheless, a significant archival release. Perhaps a unique entry in Konitz's substantial discography, Buhles' concerto underlines the fact that Konitz is just as much at home in a contemporary classical setting as he is in the various schools of jazz that he has graced for over seventy remarkable years.

Track Listing: i Allegro; ii Adagio; iii Scherzo; iv Allegro Molto – Allegretto; Thingin’; Joana’s Waltz; Body and Soul.

Personnel: Lee Konitz: alto saxophone; Frank Wunsch: piano; Brandenburg State Orchestra; conductor: Christoph Campestrini.

Title: Prisma | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: QFTF


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