Posted by jeff on May 13, 2015 in Jazz
, Song Of the week
A wonderful thing happened to me this week.
I guess it’s pretty obvious that there’s nothing I enjoy more in the world than talking about music.
My hands-down favorite living jazz musician is the wise, wily, wizened Lee Konitz.
And this week I had the experience of a lifetime sitting for three hours and shmoozing with Lee about music.
I wasn’t at all star-struck talking to Lee. He’s a human being, 83 years old; and as the saying goes, he puts his pants on one leg at a time. He’s just a jazz musician, he’s not a star or anything. But he’s had an incredible career. Preparing for the meeting with him, I actually counted the number of Lee Konitz CDs in my collection. There are 91, beginning from 1947 as a kid soloing on the alto sax with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra; the Birth of the Cool sessions; the leading disciple of Lennie Tristano, the father of cool, intelligent modern jazz. And that just takes him up to the early 1950s.
He did great stuff in the 1950s, recorded relatively little in the 1960s (here in a wonderful, bizarre clip with the Tristano group, here with Bill Evans playing with one hand!, but in each decade since the 1970s his activity has increased, to the point where in the years 2000-2008, according to the All Music Guide data base, Lee released 34 new CDs under his name. New CDs.
And you have to understand, Lee Konitz isn’t some bloated old legend treading the same waters. He’s found himself a groove that is for me mind-boggling: constant experimentation, newness, challenge. An 83-year old waking up every single morning, saying “Ok, let’s see what new territories we can explore today.” My mind just doesn’t grasp that. Here are some amusing recent short clips of Lee talking about fame and fortune and music.
He says that he’s more popular today than he ever was, that he’s always being invited all over the world, and he likes playing with local musicians, that that refreshes him. This may be true, but he’s also constantly initiating new projects, new collaborations, new contexts. Someone should teach the guy that people his age are supposed to lose energy, not pick up speed.
Lee’s not a star. ‘He can walk down the street without being identified’? Let me tell you a little story. I’m sitting in the restaurant talking to him. I had taken out of my bag to make some point the fine critical biography “Lee Konitz” by Andy Hamilton. The man behind me bumped my chair when he stood up, turned around to apologize, and saw the book lying on the table.
“Oh, Lee Konitz!” he said. “I saw him last year in Louisville.”
“How was he?” I asked, straight-faced.
“Oh, he was really great!” the man replied.
“Well, this is him,” I said, pointing at my lunch partner.
“What?” said the Louisvillian.
“This is him. This is Lee Konitz, the man.”
“Oh,” said the Louisvillian. “Oh. But. I–. Uh–. Huh? Oh.”
So he can sit in a restaurant and not be recognized even by a fan. We’re not talking here Soulja Boy, Ashlee Simpson or Heidi Montag. (Just for the record, I googled ‘most popular musicians 2009’. I have no idea who these people are.)
Lee asked me, “You listen to so much of my music. What attracts you to it? What do you like about it?” I was very flattered to be asked such a question. Flattered and flustered. After I’ve had now a couple of days to collect my thoughts, I’d like to answer a bit more coherently. (I’ll mail him a copy of this. He doesn’t own a computer.)
We were talking about Kurt Elling, the Chicago jazz vocalist whom I admire greatly and Lee also respects. He won a Grammy award last week, and I told Lee that I was disappointed. ‘Why?’ he asked. ‘Because he won it for a CD that is aimed at popular reception, the music market, more than anything he’d done in the past, and I’m afraid his success will only draw him further towards pandering to popular tastes, away from a dedication to pure, honest musicianship’.
© Terry Cryer 2007
That’s what attracts me so much to Lee Konitz’s music. No gimmicks. Not in marketing, not in celebrity, and most of all not in music. Every single project, every cut, every note is honest, intelligent, restrained, refined, well-considered, responsible. There just aren’t many artists who bring such intelligence, honesty to the table—and at his best, married to very great passion. Lee isn’t always a romantic, but I suppose looking over all those 60+ years of great music-making that he’s done, I’d have to say that most of my favorites (though not all–there’s about 3 tons of his more difficult, abstract music that I find absolutely riveting) are those that balance the mind with the heart, his more emotionally expressive music. He’s always intelligent and honest, always an absolute master musician, and frequently invites his heart onto the stage with him.
Let me give you an example, one that we discussed at length in our meeting. In 1996, Lee (b. 1927) was scheduled to perform with fellow veteran bassist Charlie Haden (b. 1937). Charlie came from a country & western background, played in Ornette Coleman’s seminal free jazz quartet, and has recently made a series of ‘jazz noir’ CDs, revisiting the sounds and aesthetic of 1940s Hollywood B-movies. He’s known as a non-virtuoso bassist. No flashy solos, no grandstanding. In fact, he plays very few notes, frequently ‘on four’, just the first beat of the measure.
Lee was looking forward to the gig. “I thought I can finally play with someone I’m faster than. I had been working on becoming the slowest saxophone player around–I’m being serious. [If you want to hear just how untrue that is, check out classic Lee Konitz with Lennie Tristano circa 1949–JM] Anyway, Charlie called me a week before and said that Brad could use a gig.” Brad Mehldau (b. 1970) is young enough to be Haden’s son, Lee’s grandson. “I had never played with Brad, and didn’t really know how special he was. So here I was playing with another virtuoso, and I was a bit disturbed–it’s impossible for me to play faster than a piano player! But by the second set, Brad was listening and changing his playing, and I appreciated that very much… We ended up making three CDs in two days.”
That’s what Lee’s all about, listening. No grandstanding, no virtuosity, no preconceptions or credos. Empathy. On this trio date, there was nothing planned. Lee just called out standards on stage. It seems to me that if you pay close attention to this music, you can hear the three musicians listening to each other. There’s an electrical magic in the silences. Three free-floating acrobats with no safety net. Every moment, the miracle of music being created out of a void, made into a coherent tapestry of magical beauty, right before our very eyes and ears.
Lee asked me what I liked so much about this CD. I told him it was the freedom from tempo, no forward driving beat, no obligation to get anywhere. The freedom to float and explore the moment. He said something like, “No, we were just listening to each other because we hadn’t played together before.” Maybe he was just being disingenuous, maybe I’m reading into it. Or maybe we were saying the same thing. The wonder of the moment of discovering something new. “The sound of surprise.” That’s what jazz is all about.
Lee Konitz was 70 when he recorded this. He told me that last month he had a reunion gig, at the Village Vanguard I think he said, with Haden and Mehldau, and with the addition of the magnificently modest drummer Paul Motion, four years younger than Lee. It was recorded by EMC and will be released soon. I can’t wait to add it to the 91 CDs on my shelf and hard disk. The ‘Alone Together’ trio with the perfect drummer. Lee Konitz breaking new ground, improvising the most fascinating, magical music I can imagine. I hope when I’m 83 I’ll be able to find my slippers. And maybe if I’m really fortunate, I’ll still be able to summon up the energy necessary to focus on this beautiful, moving music.
Posted by jeff on Dec 28, 2012 in Jazz
, Song Of the week
The Lennie Tristano Quintet, ‘317 East 32nd St’ (Live in Toronto, 1952)
Lennie Tristano, 1965 ©Robert Polillo
I recently discovered a treasure chest – a BBC radio series called ‘Castaway’ or ‘Desert Island Discs’ (they’re surprisingly fuzzy about the actual name) in which a whole passle of famous people are interviewed about their lives and the 8 musical tracks that they would take with them to a desert island. The program (programme, actually) has been running since 1941, with almost 3000 episodes available on-line.
They’ve been busy with people like Aaron Copland, Alan Alda and Alfred Eisenstadt, so I understand why they haven’t gotten around yet to calling me. But I figure I’d better be ready when they do, so I’ve been working on my list.
Many of the interviewees choose music they associate with landmark events in their lives. Not I, said Jeff. Music’s too important to confuse it with life. My conundrum would be of a different sort – to go for the music I most esteem, or that which I listen to most, or that which I most enjoy. The first would include “John Wesley Harding”, for example (or Dylan in general), which I esteem at the top of the pile but listen to relatively infrequently. I listen to a lot of Renaissance liturgical music as background music to sleep on the train, but I’m guessing I wouldn’t have that issue on a desert island. What do I do about The Beatles? I rarely actually bother to play their music anymore – I just press a button in my cerebral jukebox and let it run through my synapses.
Foreground, LtoR: Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Lennie Tristano
So one of my leading candidates for a cut I’d like to spend the rest of my life with is ‘317 East 32nd’ by the Lennie Tristano quintet from their album “Live in Toronto 1952”.
Lennie Tristano’s music never fails to transport me. It’s pure and abstract and riveting. It’s like watching an imagined river, a mental act of divine creation. It transcends life. It never gets bogged down in the messiness of human intercourse. It’s beyond what one Danish prince called ‘the whips and scorns of time’.
Lennie Tristano (1919–78) is no household name, and I understand why. Most people don’t get his music. There’s nothing to get, really. It’s an abstract. Like watching mathematical patterns unfold. So what? Well, I’ll tell you so what: Ice Also Burns.
Way back in SoTW 027 I wrote about Tristano and an even more obscure cut, ‘Wow’ live from 1949. I can’t improve on what I said there: Tristano forced his rhythm section to serve as a metronome, providing a regular, mechanical pulse. Remarkably, such creative musicians as bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach were Tristano supporters. Because on top of that pulse, he would reorganize the bar, displace the metric system, create a disjointed and constantly surprising world. You can count tick-tick-tick without problems, but try one-two-three-four and at some point you’ll find yourself in a world of temporal relativity. It’s a shame Tristano never invited Einstein to sit in on violin. He would have felt very much at home, I think.
From left: Max Kaminsky, Lester Young, Hot Lips Page, Charlie Parker, Lennie Tristano
Eunmi Shim wrote in her musical biography of Tristano: Mingus and Max Roach were quite enamoured of Tristano’s approach, which restricted the rhythmic contribution of bass and drums quite severely. [But] they approved of such consciously articulated developments as that of emasculating the rhythm section in order to free the front line. Mingus said, “Indiviuals can swing alone like Bird, and groups can swing collectively like Tristano’s”.
Tristano is often presented as the antithesis of the great Charlie Parker. Where Bird was the ultimate pour-it-out faster-than-the-ear-can-hear no-holds-barred improviser, Tristano was a proponent of strict discipline. He trained his students to take responsibility for every single note. The gut and the mind. But Bird and Tristano had great respect for each other. One Sunday Bird drove out to Tristano’s house on Long Island, where they recorded two cuts – ‘All of Me’ and ‘I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me’. That’s the great Kenny Clarke tapping on the phonebook!
Mingus is the source of another famous tale about Tristano: “Woody Herman, who’s supposed to be a very nice guy and a funny one, came over to Lennie. He asked Tristano if he were really blind. ‘Yes,’ Lennie said, ‘I can’t see anything.’…’Good,’ said Woody. ‘Good, you motherfucker. I’m glad you can’t see!’…I knew Lennie; I knew how destructive he could be. And I asked him, ‘But what did you do to get that guy so hurt and angry?”
Irascible, perhaps, but Tristano left a legacy. Two great saxophonists were his best-known disciples, Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, both of whom we’ve written about at length. On this version of ‘317 East 32nd’,Konitz (alto sax) plays the first solo, Tristano (piano) the second, Marsh (tenor sax) the third.
The song, like many Tristano ‘originals’ is a reworking of a standard, this time ‘Out Of Nowhere’. Here’s a version by Ella Fitzgerald for comparison. And here are a few more versions of ‘317 East 32nd’ for your listening edification:
Quartet with Konitz, Sing Song Room, 1955
Quintet with Konitz and Marsh, Half Note 1964
Konitz and Alan Broadbent (piano), 2000
Marsh and Red Mitchell (bass), 1987
Here are some more sterling cuts from the 1952 Toronto concert by the Tristano Quintet with Konitz and Marsh: ‘Lennie’s Pennies‘, ”You Go to My Head‘, ‘April‘ and ‘Sound-Lee‘
And here’s a 40-minute solo concert of Tristano in Copenhagen, in a video I recently discovered: Copenhagen concert
They’re all great. But it’s the ‘317 East 32nd’ from Toronto that I’m taking with me to Bali Hai. I’m going to sip on coconut milk and watch the waves and escape into the very pure beauty of this cut. It’s perfect music.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:
027: Lennie Tristano, ‘Wow’
SoTWs: Lee Konitz
SoTWs: Warne Marsh
Posted by jeff on Apr 20, 2012 in Jazz
, Song Of the week
Lee Konitz – Duende
Next month bassist Avishai Cohen, pride and joy of the Israeli jazz scene, will release a new CD, a duo with the very fine, very young Israeli pianist Nitai Hershkovits. I love the idea of a piano/bass duo (Ellington/Ray Brown’s “This One’s for Blanton” pops to mind as my favorite; Bill Evans/Eddie Gomez’s “Intuition” is also pretty fine). But what really caught my eye is the album’s title, “Duende”, which threw me back to an obscure favorite of mine.
Lee Konitz (b. 1927) is my hands-down favorite living jazz artist. A couple of years ago I had the honor and privilege of interviewing him at length, which I described in SoTW 037, where I poured out my heart at length about how much I love Mr Konitz’s music. He began his professional career in 1947, and at 85 is still a major creative force, a living legend.
Most of his economically modest and artistically towering career has been centered in Europe, where he ‘makes a living’ playing alto sax. Harold Danko (b. 1947) played piano with Lee in the late 1970s and 1980s. “I saw my role as supporting and orchestrating Lee’s lines, acting as a catalyst, and leaving some space that he could create something with.”
In 1984 Lee was at the top of his game musically, very much in sync with Danko. They had been performing all over Europe for months, travelling by train, picking up local rhythm sections wherever they played. They ended one tour in Glasgow, and went into the studio “on a cold Thursday evening, no guests, no distractions, just the two musicians preparing to deal with material they had worked and reworked” during the tour. The resulting CD “Wild as Springtime” is a rather obscure work in an illustrious corpus. Even the liner notes gloss over the fourth track, written for Lee by Chick Corea.
But for me, ‘Duende’was love at first hear. It wrenched my heart the first time I heard it, and has done so every time since.
A duende is an evil little goblin in Spanish and Latin American mythology. But ‘Duende’ also denotes ‘a certain magic’, including irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical. Federico Garcia Lorca, in a famous lecture in 1933 in Buenos Aires, “La Teoria y Juego del Duende” (‘The Theory and Function/Play of Duende’), called duende “a sort of corkscrew that can get art into the sensibility of an audience… the very dearest thing that life can offer the intellectual… Thus duende is a power and not a behavior, it is a struggle and not a concept. I have heard an old master guitarist say: ‘Duende is not in the throat; duende surges up from the soles of the feet.’ Which means it is not a matter of ability, but of real live form; of blood; of ancient culture; of creative action.”
Oh, boy. I’m no maven of Spanish mythology, diabolical goblins, or Chick Corea’s reading of them. But this cut of Lee Konitz speaks to me with all the passion and magic in the world.
I don’t know which ‘Duende’ inspired the name of Avishai Cohen’s new CD. I sure hope it’s this one. But even if not, it’s my pleasure, ladies and gentlemen, to present you with five minutes of that certain magic: Lee Konitz, ‘Duende’.
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:
075: João Gilberto, ‘Chega De Saudade’ (Jobim)
037: Lee Konitz, ‘Alone Together’ (w. Charlie Haden & Brad Mehldau)
027: Lennie Tristano, ‘Wow’
Posted by jeff on Mar 9, 2010 in Jazz
, Song Of the week
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Lennie Tristano. I’m probably not going too far out on a limb if I assume that very few of you have ever heard of him.
Chicago pianist, blind from birth, 1919-1978. Moved to NYC 1946, at the height of the bebop’s popularity. Made a few recordings. Made friends and enemies with his pioneering experiments in overdubbing and tape manipulation. Recorded the very first experiments in free jazz (turn on tape, pay attention, start playing without the safety net of a song, and good luck). He was just a little popular in the early 50s. >From 1951 he concentrated on teaching.
He was also an obstreperous, obnoxious opinionated bastard, a dictator of a teacher who inspired both cultish loyalty and great resentment among his former students.
Bebop was Charlie Parker, Bird–frenetic, fast, adventurous, impassioned. He would stagger onstage at gigs, hours late if he appeared at all, drunk and high and dissolute, grab the nearest sax and blow his heart out.
Lennie Tristano was the antithesis to Bird. He demanded rigorous practice, intense concentration and discipline. He insisted that the musician take responsibility for every note he played.
Tristano forced his rhythm section to serve as a metronome, providing a regular, mechanical pulse. Remarkably, such creative musicians as bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach were Tristano supporters. Because on top of that pulse, he would reorganize the bar, displace the metric system, create a disjointed and constantly surprising world. You can count tick-tick-tick without problems, but try one-two-three-four and at some point you’ll find yourself in a world of temporal relativity. It’s a shame Tristano never invited Einstein to sit in on violin. He would have felt very much at home, I think. Well, Aaron Copland was a big fan, if that counts.
The cut we’re presenting this week is called ‘Wow’, from an obscure recording of the same name, from an undocumented date live in New York in 1950. For those of you who can’t take the excitement, here’s a tamer version of the same song in a studio recording from the same period.
Tristano often took popular songs and transmogrified them beyond recognition, mostly for copyright reasons (that way the musicians were also paid as composers). ‘Wow’ is based on the chord progression of ‘You Can Depend on Me,’ an old standard. Here’s a version by Count Basie, and here’s one by beboppers Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt.
Eunmi Shim, in her book on Tristano, has this to say about ‘Wow’: “This intricate melody is linearly constructed and thematically developed through polyrythmic figures and varied phrase lengths, which undermine the modular phrase structure of its model.” Thanks, Eunmi. Couldn’t have said that better myself.
The group here is Tristano’s core sextet, with Billy Bauer on guitar and one-track tape recorder, and an unknown bassist and drummer. The saxophonists here are his regulars, his prize students, two of my very favorite musicians: Lee Konitz on alto sax, Warne Marsh on tenor sax. Marsh remained a loyal devotee of Tristano throughout a commercially mediocre but critically acclaimed career up to 1987, when he died on stage playing ‘Out of Nowhere’. Lee Konitz left the Tristano circle in 1953. He maintained his admiration for his teacher but felt he needed to try new, less stringent waters, although he continued to play and record with Tristano and Marsh intermittently for many years. He is still going incredibly strong at 82, having released close to 40 CDs in the last decade! And I can testify, each one is a new, ballsy experiment. No resting on the laurels for Lee.
If you’re interested, here’s the Lennie Tristano Quintet playing Subconscious-Lee in a pretty rare clip from a 1964 Sunday-morning Christian-content television show exploring the subject of inspiration in jazz. Cool!
So what are we going to hear here in ‘Wow’? It starts with a group statement of the theme. At 0:45 Warne Marsh plays a solo, which at 2:00 he passes to Bauer in mid-phrase. At 3:15 Konitz plays his lovely, oblique, solo. ‘Like a long-legged fly upon the stream’, in W.B. Yeats’ words. And at 4:30 Tristano takes the reins. Ah, the beauty of form. At 7:00 the saxes and guitar return, passing the melody lightly between themselves. At 7:43 a group restatement of the theme. And then, miracle of miracles, listen to the phrase at 8:03 (well, a phrase in Tristano’s language can go on for many, many bars). All 4 lead instruments playing that wild, slippery equation, the alto a third up from the tenor at a speed that defies comprehension, as if that’s the sort of thing that humans are actually capable of doing.
And it all makes sense.
Over the last decade, I’ve spent an awful lot of hours listening to Lennie Tristano and his disciples. I often ask myself why. What is the pleasure in these cool, mathematical abstractions? The best answer is a phrase I wish I’d coined:
Ice also burns.
Bob Dylan has a new CD “Christmas in the Heart”. To tell you the truth, I haven’t been able to listen to it for more than a couple of moments at a time. But there’s a new clip from it, ‘Must Be Santa’. I watched it once, thought I was going to pass out. I wrote a friend, “I don’t know what it is, but one thing I am sure of–I’m never going to watch it again in my life.” Then I watched it three more times. I’m not recommending it, just telling you it’s out there. It takes the concept ‘bizarre’ to an entirely new level. Two ordinarily serious friends of mine say they sense a great deal of Jewish content in it. I ain’t touching that with a ten-foot Pole.