Lee Konitz Part I…

I had to get this post out there in some form or another as otherwise I fear I never will…

Lee Konitz. It’s taken me a while but I’m making up for lost time. On all of the albums I’ve spun so far Konitz’s solos do not contain one iota of compromise, they brim with sincerity, and he nonchalantly spins reams of reasoned spontaneity at will.

I want to riff on a few things I’ve learnt about Konitz and in consequence what he has taught me about improvisation. There’s one album that’s been garnering constant attention from me, for obvious reasons, and I can’t recommend it enough. A Sixty-Year Reunion was recorded at my place of work, the 606 Club, over a two-night residency in 2010, allowing bassist Peter Ind to select the best 8 tracks and consequently release them on his Wave label. The album’s title details the intermittent longevity of the musical discourse between Ind and Konitz. (I’m happy to admit ignorance when deserved, as I initially thought they hadn’t played together for 60 years – well it does say 60 year reunion! – but the London Concert for one, again released on Wave, from 1976 dispelled that. A fabulous live recording, which I will go into in a sister post.)

With Rod Youngs holding the sticks as well, this trio performed great, organic jazz. As a pianist I naturally lean towards ensembles featuring the ivories, however I was immediately struck by the instinctive flair of Konitz’s playing. This doesn’t just apply to Konitz’s soloing, for he immediately re-interprets the melody from the first beat, leaving the listener playing a game of ‘guess that tune’. Not a new concept to me, but what was refreshing was the importance Konitz explicitly places on this style; it was born out of pure intent, not boredom or irony, but purpose and aesthetics. I’m sure many artists claim the same, but I’ve never heard anyone breathe fresh life into a standard’s melody with such overt honesty. Ind, in his frank liner notes (they really are a window into the mind of the artist), explains further…

“It is somewhat dismaying when creating new music over a well trodden chord sequence to attribute royalties to a long departed composer who might well have thrown up his hands in horror if he had heard what we had done with his chord structure. There are of course melodic clues recognisable by the aficionado, helping to dissuade doubts about the underlying sequence.”

Ind renamed three newly evolved standards on A Sixty-Year Reunion with good grace and humour (whilst also giving joint publishing rights to all three band members); All The Things You Are melodically transformed to Destandardising Everything, Body And Soul became Homage To Johnny Green and All Of Me grew to be All Of Us.

All of the tunes have a slow to steady pace, which fits perfectly with the Konitz philosophy of constant improvisational development. His technique is to focus on the individual notes rather than phrases and licks, and to fulfil this “personal” and “essential” procedure Konitz needs the time to think. In Andy Hamilton’s Lee Konitz: Conversations On The Improviser’s Art, Konitz expands on this point…

Andy Hamilton:It’s not possible to really improvise when you’re playing fast.

Lee Konitz: Not for me. The idea of having to “burn,” and having to swing hard, and all of those concepts, I’m too old for that – but I was really too old for that when I was twenty, I guess!… One of the reasons I wasn’t able to do that, is that I didn’t know what I was going to play, like they do. You can play as strongly as you want, when you’re not thinking about what note to select.

In the opening paragraph to this post I used the phrase “no compromise” when describing the impression one draws upon hearing a Konitz solo. To truly dedicate oneself to any artistic path, confidence is an obvious and necessary character trait to hold. The initial airy casualness that Konitz displays is a result of broad confidence, yet there is something deeper within his offhanded “fillers” (interestingly enough his word – “they’re used as part of the development of a line”) that keeps you rewinding the track, and that’s the blatant intent behind those runs…

“I feel confident to go out and make up a new melody – that, simply put, is my goal. I’m not looking for new rhythms, or world music expressions, which everything seems to be going in the direction of. I’m not looking to be original; just to play as sincerely as possible in the discipline I inherited. I’m still fascinated with this basic discipline of theme and variation.”

I’m not completely convinced by Konitz’s “not looking to be original” statement. Surely that is the overall goal, constant originality? True, he’s not looking to invent a genre (that would be a rather extreme criterion for originality), but he does have his own aims for uniqueness. Konitz, heavily influenced by the “respectable” nature of Lester Young’s playing – via the Tristano School – does aim to constantly deliver originality when performing – or rather he aims to deliver constant originality that is both personal and ethically executed.

In another discussion with Andy Hamilton, Konitz expanded on his notion of musical ethics…

“Acknowledging who I’m playing for, to a degree, but playing basically for myself and people that I’m playing with – and expecting the same from them, somehow. If the music comes out clearly to people that can hear and react to it, then that sounds like an ethical attempt to me.”

Konitz learnt this from Lennie Tristano; the “ethical product” was an important principle of the cool Tristano-school. But it is interesting to note how this technique of self-reflection when creating jazz was so scorned by many jazz writers in its day. Raymond Horricks for example, when describing Dave Brubeck’s music prior to its crossover success, had this to say in 1957…

“Was it, therefore, destined to become as aloof and introverted as the music of Lennie Tristano? (Tristano, accused by his fellows of minimizing jazz creation to a set of advanced musical exercises, the property of an exclusive club…)”

One does get the impression that it’s only in recent times, with the jazz pathway now such an academically legitimate course for music education, that Tristano is receiving greater recognition. However, I digress. Konitz, in his last quote, stated he is “basically playing for myself and people that I’m playing with”, the signature of a true artist immersed in their own creative world. Konitz is not interested in making (in his eyes, forcing) his music in to an accessible artefact, yet also he doesn’t appear interested in challenging his audience’s tastes. If the audience pick-up on what he’s trying to achieve then fantastic, if not, oh well. At least Konitz can always claim he stayed true to himself and his ethics…

“Warne Marsh worked with that in mind. He was just primarily concerned with playing the music, which takes 100 percent of your effort. He knew that there were a few people out there who would appreciate that – and that’s who it was designed for.”

This is where the likes of Raymond Horricks missed the point. True, only a small set earnestly appreciated it, but their aim wasn’t necessarily to expand audiences and broaden minds, but to deliver a representation of themselves. These artists were following their individual “feelings” – a rather whimsical noun in its modern incarnation, but when truly explored within the context of improvisation “feelings” still muster sincere revelatory power. The Tristano School stripped any “show biz” from their performances, allowing for a fundamental dedication to expressing oneself, providing the musicians had enough instrumental tenacity to deliver convincingly. Here is Tristano discussing his perspective on performing, in 1949…

“My technique is a means toward an end. I play what I feel. And it’s for the majority of the people as well as for musicians… Most musicians like to play the melody. They listen to what we do and know they are unable to duplicate it, so they begin to dislike us.”

Peter Ind’s playing is a thing of beauty on A Sixty-Year Reunion. His bass sings, particularly when he opens with the melody on Ellington’s Just Squeeze Me, and his responsive ears to the swaying Konitz are a lesson in ensemble interaction. (I assume Ind kept the title as he quotes the melody verbatim.)

Rod Youngs, who’s usually found performing with Jazz Jamaica and 606 regulars “1 Up” with saxophonist Dave Lewis, is on point throughout the album. Youngs is also Ind’s drummer in Bass Clef International, and the tight repartee between the two allows for a blissfully relaxed affair. A nice example of this musical camaraderie is Youngs brushwork under Ind’s melodious solo in the aforementioned Just Squeeze Me. Youngs creates a fine, sandy play-pit for Ind to tiptoe over, highlighting the end of phrases with a quick little shuffle on the snare, whilst gently developing his rhythm to include delicate open-hi-hat crashes, until Konitz re-enters. This is delicate, thoughtful art and deserves repeated listening.

In Part II I will expand on some of the points above, and I will also discuss some 70’s Konitz, focusing on the London Concert and Spirits.


About Will Rodway

what you hear, what you read...
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9 Responses to Lee Konitz Part I…

  1. Dave Frank says:

    Thanks for this wonderful blog:) I think you may get 1,000 joys from the recent master class on my teacher Lennie Tristano:

    Blessings and keep swingin!
    Dave Frank

    • Will Rodway says:

      Cheers Dave. I have noted this video before, but I need to give it a thorough view! Actually, you might be able to help with a Tristano question…

      Why, when Lennie and Lee talk so much about their music representing their “feelings” and themselves personally, does their music feel so ‘cold’ to so many? Is it a case of over-analysis on their part when creating improvisations? Your thoughts would be both helpful and interesting! Cheers.

      • Dave Frank says:

        hi Will, it’s because Lennie chilled out the rhythm section’s role in the music and kept the lines primary, pure and mathematical-like in their construction in his group playing. No drum-bombs, etc..in his solo playing Lennie kept it most of the time, in the 60’s, to a pure contrapuntal linear creation, rather than adding inner chords like Dave McKenna, for example.


      • Will Rodway says:

        Thanks, Dave. Much appreciated. I understand how he stripped both his ensemble and solo playing of anything, in his eyes, unnecessary or detrimental to his aesthetic tastes, but I’m still flummoxed when pondering how this helped him express his “feelings?”

        It allowed the line to be clearer, less blurred in the mix or susceptible to changing direction from his peers, but it did result in a more mono-dynamic expression. Less capable of expressing a range of emotions.

        It might only be one quote from the man, but I think it holds weight and is worth exploring.

        Cheers for your help!

      • Dave Frank says:

        I think this quote had more to do with the New Tristano bassline playing, which seemed cold to musical shallowheads, but was an expression of deep swingin feeling, which some folks couldn’t hear because of the austere complexity of the contrapuntal lines..

      • Will Rodway says:

        Nice! Now that’s a rebuttal I’d like to use! The quote I was actually referring to was from Lennie himself, where he talks about his “feelings” when playing (hence I believe it ‘holds weight’). However you answer/help my query anyway. It’s a deep, inner feeling. Delicate and subtle at times and always highly personal to the player.

        That’s why if you compare a Konitz solo with a Marsh solo (such as when they jammed in the 70s on London Concert) they contrast, but both overtly stem from the Tristano school. Cheers man, you’ve really helped. 🙂

  2. Here are some Lennie Tristano drummers: Kenny Clarke (hired for the quartet for the first Atlantic record, who didn’t continue the engagement, and also for the Atlantic recording of Lee and Warne, with Lennie as producer–he hired Kenny and Oscar Pettiford); Arthur Taylor (Kenny Clarke’s replacement, first Atlantic record); Max Roach (they played sessions night after night at Lennie’s studio for some years, according to both of them; Max had his own band at the time, but would take time to go to Lennie’s studio and play all night long); Roy Haynes (often, in clubs, on tour, hired for the rhythm section on the sole release on Lennie’s own label–“Pastime” and “JuJu”); Paul Motian (featured on the record “Continuity,” live performance); Elvin Jones (Lennie hired Elvin when he first arrived in New York City, formed a trio with him and Charles Mingus and went on tour); Billy Higgins (Lennie wanted to hire him for a concert at the Newport Jazz Festival, then, I think, the Kool Jazz Festival, in a rhythm section which would have included Neils-Henning-Osted-Pederson, also Lee and Warne, this concert was canceled); Nick Stabulas (heard on the “Look Up and Live” TV program and also the recording, “Continuity); Roger Mancuso (doesn’t have recognition, but one of the greats, an original, fiery drummer who was in Lennie’s last working band). All of these drummers had the highest regard for Lennie. I don’t think any of them would have accepted being repressed by anyone.
    The description of Lennie as “cold” is in books and reviews. The writers write that (not like they used to). People don’t hear him that way, and, in fact, his music is impassioned. He is truly very, very great, and sometimes people can’t cope with the level he is on. They can’t imagine that a musician could be that great and not get there through some convoluted brain strategy. He got there by opening up completely to the streaming of feeling.

  3. Rob Rushin says:

    Terrific piece on Konitz. The excerpt from the Hamilton book about playing fast completely upended my approach to playing, freeing me from the tyranny of trying to hone the speed chops. It was an utter liberation. *
    Looking forward to Part 2.
    (And yes, the Frisell/Bad Plus set is a wonderment.)

    *Actually found your blog via a google search for that passage.

    • Will Rodway says:

      Thanks for your comment, Rob. Very much appreciated. I found this “speed” quote comforting too as there is such an air of athletic competitiveness around jazz at the moment (both in terms of touch, speed and how many classical references can one allude to), a post-Evans-Jarrett-classicism if you will. The rawer, relaxed vibe has been put aside for the time being it seems – did Monk ever play fast? – which is a real shame and a sign of the current common conservatoire route – although I think there are more positives to formal jazz education than not.

      Anyway, that’s a whole other issue. I’m still consuming the music and finishing the books at the mo, but Part II will be here soon!

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