Lee Konitz: 1927 – 2020

Inside a career spent making revelatory melodic and harmonic discoveries, night after night, for seven decades.

Image: Lee Konitz performs at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 1995. Credit: Frans Schellekens/Redferns.

The artistically uncompromising alto saxophonist Lee Konitz passed away on April 15, 2020, in Manhattan, of pneumonia and complications of COVID-19. Over the span of seven decades, he recorded and performed prolifically, bringing his singular brand of cool jazz to any and every musical situation, and transporting the heyday of 52nd Street to contemporary musicians worldwide.

Leon “Lee” Konitz was born on Oct. 13, 1927, in Chicago, where he met the enigmatic pianist Lennie Tristano, who was creating his own brand of education that included a unique methodology for developing as a jazz improviser. Careful study of counterpoint, rhythm and harmony, as well as emulation of great jazz solos by Louis Armstrong, Charlie Christian, Lester Young and Billie Holiday, would lead students to define their own voice in the tradition of the masters.

He left Chicago in 1947 with Claude Thornhill’s progressive dance band and reunited with Tristano in New York 10 months later. In 1949, Lee played the opening night at Birdland with Tristano’s group and with the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool nonet. From these performances and adjacent recordings, it was clear Lee had developed an alto saxophone style very different from the prevailing influence of Charlie Parker. He played with a lighter sound and relied on an exploration of unique language rather than a repertory of licks. Lee decided to begin slowing down his fleet execution in 1954 and established a more relaxed delivery, with more clarity of ideas.

Lee forever explored the concept of true improvisation and placed emphasis on in-the-moment creation. He was an early champion of free improvisation, overdubbing techniques and the Great American Songbook. In a discography that spans 73 years, he made a point to live in those singular moments with his colleagues. He said he thought of albums as recorded concerts, keeping in line with his idea of pure spontaneity. Later in his career, when asked why he didn’t sound like he did with bandleader Stan Kenton in the 1950s, he responded, “because I’m not playing with Stan Kenton.”

I met Lee at the Jazz Gallery in New York in 2008, and he happened to have a single business card in his coat pocket. I called him the next day and began taking regular trips from Washington, D.C., to study with him, take a walk, have a meal, attend a show or watch a Yankees game on TV. I caught nearly every performance run between 2008 and 2015. In 2010 I invited him to Washington to play with my big band at Bohemian Caverns, and we performed together in various settings and venues through 2017.

Lee gave me permission to improvise, to follow and develop my own voice, to be vulnerable and, most important, to practice honesty — in music and in life. Enjoy these select performances that demonstrate the vast range of his brilliance.

“I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me”
Lee Konitz Plays With the Gerry Mulligan Quartet (World Pacific, rec. 1953)

The arrangement here is dense and swinging on the A sections, then whimsical and contrapuntal on the B section. Baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and trumpeter Chet Baker play lyrical modern-jazz solos with bass and brush accompaniment — and then Lee comes in. His phrasing, in rhythm and line, is like Picasso in a room full of Seurats. His harmonic language is subtly subversive, and in his one chorus he dances across the bar lines with a postmodern gait.

“Donna Lee”
Lee Konitz With Warne Marsh (Atlantic, 1955)

Lee and saxophonist Warne Marsh could easily be considered the greatest alto/tenor team in jazz history. For all of their simpatico, they realized their lessons from Lennie Tristano with individual hallmarks. Lee maintains his long melodic line, whereas Warne can be heard playing with harmony and rhythm like a pinball bouncing inside a machine. The magnificent tightrope act is the simultaneous improvisation, informed by all the things in the tune as well as their study and practice of Bach Inventions.

This overt dip into Charlie Parker’s music (or Miles Davis’, as Lee would tell it) ends with the most Tristano School twist available. Following the solos, Lee and Warne return to the melody a beat early, tugging against the stalwart rhythm section until the final moments. Two extra eighth notes are added to end on time with the band, in a spectacular sleight-of-hand.

“I Remember You”
Motion (Verve, 1961)

Lee charges out of the gates with a brief paraphrase of the melody before weaving his long statements of pure linear magic. Bassist Sonny Dallas and drummer Elvin Jones masterfully frame each invented chorus, Konitz trusting that the time and harmony are there as he bobs and weaves through his limitless variations.

Driving from a gig once with the pianist Freddie Redd, I recall this record being played on the car stereo. Freddie remarked that Lee was “like a faucet” with his endless pouring out of ideas.

“Alone Together”
Alone Together (Blue Note, 1997)

This was the record that changed me from a Konitz admirer to a disciple. From the opening invention of melody, I was sold. Lee’s controlled and relaxed expression, together with his lightning-quick ear, wove a tapestry of group interplay I had never heard before. Lee, pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist Charlie Haden are equal parts in the conversation, though they remain in their roles in a traditional jazz context. The performance is fluid, selfless and inspired. Lee floats over and under Charlie’s oblique pulse and Brad provides all the prodding for Lee’s variations.

Lee continued to evolve his idea of group play throughout his career. During one night of our weekend at Bohemian Caverns, Lee, seated next to me, pulled on my coat as pianist Dan Tepfer started the next tune. He said to me, “When you’re soloing and I come in, you’re not soloing anymore.” I didn’t have the chance to have him clarify, and each time I improvised, he would enter and I would acquiesce. In the car ride to the hotel, Lee scolded me for dropping out. I reminded him of his directive and he laughed as he said, “Yeah, you’re not soloing anymore — we’re playing a duet!”

Live at Birdland (ECM, rec. 2009)

This track begins as a duet with Paul Motian. I always think of Lee’s great relationships with drummers, and I am reminded of him recounting one of his first performances as a kid — a duet with clarinet and snare drum playing Ravel’s Bolero.

Brad Mehldau further elevates the reimagining before taking off into his own motivic excursion with Charlie and Paul. The entire performance is a case study in the late-period Konitz approach, collective theme-and-variation improvisation.

Not only did I hear most of the sets live during that week at Birdland, but I got to hear the outtakes when visiting with Lee. On more than one occasion, Lee would put on this track and close his eyes, intensely listening. I recall him being so moved by the performance that he was weeping. He said of his interplay with Brad Mehldau and the subsequent piano solo, “What more do you need?”


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