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The Song Is Him

Cool-Jazz Pioneer Lee Konitz Gets Not Just Older, but Better

By Chris Barrett | Posted 6/10/1998

In cover story of the May—June Utne Reader, Jon Spayde celebrates the inborn need for self-education, even after a person has completed, or decided to eschew, a degree or training program. The piece is replete with suggestions on how to continue learning, and it acknowledges that the lifelong path to enlightenment is different for each of us. Spayde's tack seems open-minded enough that he probably wouldn't be offended by a music writer who feels strongly that he'd much rather read a story on the same topic written by Lee Konitz.

Alto saxophonist, bandleader, and side man deluxe Konitz is remarkably creative and alive. The music he plays simultaneously defends the seemingly at-odds notions that jazz is romantic, cerebral, abstract, provocative, literal, and pretty. The stack of fine albums with Konitz's name on them would probably come up to Larry Bird's belt buckle; he made his first records some 50 years ago, while he was a major force in a quiet revolution referred to by some as the Birth of the Cool. (He also looms large on Miles Davis' album of the same name.)

But what is extraordinary about Konitz is that some of his most profound and innovative work is quite recent. In 1991 he received the coveted Jazzpar Prize, awarded annually by the Jazz Institute of Denmark. At age 70 Konitz continues to grow artistically and intellectually. With the current market dominance of pseudo-60s retro-jazz stylings, it's clear he could have made a handsome living playing the music that first drew attention to his adventurous but ever-the-gentleman style. Yet at every turn Konitz has shucked off the comfort of complacency in favor of exploration and newness. He has, through years of consistent growth, maintained a distinct, signature musical voice. The pike-topped honking and vamping on Warne Marsh's titular tribute "Bop Goes the Leesel" (Konitz, 1954), the vaporous, sultry fluidity you hear on "I'll Remember April" (Motion, 1961), and the introspective contemplation that underscores "The Song Is You" (Alone Together, 1997) all spring from the same active mind, and are undeniably Konitz.

He attributes his constant coupling of creative restlessness with musical integrity to the friendship and tutelage of a man he met long ago.

"I think that a large part of it was an initial inspiration and example from Lennie Tristano, who I studied with and apprenticed with back in the '40s and '50s," Konitz says by phone from his home in Cologne, Germany. "He was very true to the music and he opened that door, so to speak, for me. I enjoy listening to music, and that keeps me interested. And I just have the good fortune to be able to play so much. That's very important in being able to develop.

"Some people have that opportunity on a more commercial basis. They develop an act and deliver the act. My goal is to improvise as much as possible each time I play. That's kind of the fun for me. And there is a group of people--not thousands and thousands, but hundreds and hundreds--around the world who like to hear that happening and see that happening."

Konitz was a teenager, earning his keep playing clarinet in a dance band, when he first heard Tristano in Chicago. If bebop was a reaction to swing, Tristano and the "cool school" that gathered round him were among the first reactionaries to bounce new ideas off of bebop. Down with the drums. Up with the counterpoint, à la Bach. And way up with the improv. The rest, as they say, is jazz history.

Capitol released two groundbreaking 1949 sessions (Intuition and Digression) that nicely synopsized Tristano's philosophical penchant for absolutely fresh music, and showcased a gifted young alto player. The two sessions (of four recorded) consist of completely spontaneous improvisations. Now, among wary listeners, "improvisation" rises from album liner notes the way "blowfish" does from a menu. For some it's a stream-of-consciousness spew of squeak, squawk, and whatever happens to lie between. For Konitz the essence of improvisation appears to be the ornamental, strictly musical embellishment of a given melody. Every jazz song, no matter how "free," starts somewhere. And almost any song on which you hear his horn begins with a tune you know by heart, whether it's from the jazz canon, Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, or Hollywood.

Examples are plentiful, and one of the best is a new record, Strings for Holiday (Enja), that addresses material associated with Billie Holiday. Konitz' attraction to this singer is understandable, and is audible on other records as well. He--much like she--takes to musical charts less like blueprints than dog-eared and smudged family recipes he's inherited, formulas begging for creative substitutions and personal seasoning. You've heard these songs too many times to count. But Konitz' alto, coupled with violins and viola, reinvents tunes such as "But Beautiful" and "The Man I Love." Variations in tempo and melodic side trips have a unique effect on a group of instruments and songs that all too easily might lapse into background music.

"That Billie Holiday tribute was dedicated to the song, basically," Konitz says. "My intention was to play that with as improvised a feeling as possible--which is where the whole process starts. You can give an interpretation of the song; see how loose and personal you can make the song sound. That's what was great about Billie Holiday."

When he went into the studio, he says, "I'd just finished playing, the night before, in Antwerp. For the record I played the songs we had been playing for 21/2 weeks, with the intention of playing them as newly as possible. Sometimes that included the melody and sometimes the melody wasn't even stated. It was like going for the limit in some way. The context is very important."

Konitz says he's busier now than he's ever been. During the years when gigs were less plentiful, he often took teaching posts. In 1986, for example, he was an artist-in-residence at Temple University. Among the scattered improvisational-jazz community, he developed the same sort of "guru" reputation that Tristano had 35 years earlier. When asked what he thinks his students hoped to learn from him, Konitz demurs.

"I couldn't find out exactly what they wanted to learn," he says, "but I felt obliged to let them know what I thought they should know. This had to do with the things that are essential to improvising: hearing good music, learning the basic nuts and bolts of the process, and trying to develop a philosophy to go along with it. I'd much rather play than teach. I really think that that's the best lesson I can offer."

For decades Konitz has had his nuts and bolts polished to the point that they're more like diamonds and platinum. His philosophy appears to approach something like a euphonious universalism. He immerses himself in music of inspirational breadth (specifically Bach, Bartok, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and Louis Armstrong: "I try to listen to the greatest music that I can") and plays same.

Konitz has lived an improvised life. He never stopped playing, even when his music was so far from vogue that he had to support himself by working as a gardener. And his current energy and productivity make it seem almost as if the purpose of the past five decades has been only to prepare him and us for what's still to come.

"I just heard last night a record that was released of the French pianist Martial Solal and I from a concert in 1983," Konitz says. It was the first time he'd heard the recording since shortly after the performance. He sounds both humbled and impressed by what he heard, as good a definition of success as any.

"I thought, Wow! I can't remember doing all of that. There we were, improvising as well as we could."

Lee Konitz performs in a trio with bassist Ron McClure and drummer Matt Wilson on June 12 at the Peabody Institute as part of the Jazz in Cool Places Series, co-promoted by City Paper contributor James D. Dilts.

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