Four Men, Three Tunes, Two Lessons, One Set

Lee Konitz strolled downstairs from the second floor dressing room at the Blue Note last night. When he started to wind through the tables, he began greeting folks he recognized and folks he didn’t know from Adam. “Hi, how are you,” he queried with a big smile on his face. Several fans enjoyed this informality. “Have fun,” said one fiftysomething. “You have fun, too,” replied the 83-yr-old. Then, with saxophone in hand, he took the stage and began messing with a bunch of phrases that fed the imaginations of his cohorts, guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Joey Baron. They responded by messing with the shards of melody and rhythm that Konitz had been messing with. Almost instantly, everyone was messing with everything. A theme? Nope, no statement of theme necessary, thanks. There were few long lines, and only fleeting moments of swing tempo, but the music’s kinetics sketched out an engaging narrative. Part of it was textural, some of it was propulsive. All of it was lyrical.

The level of intimacy – between the artists and with the audience – was remarkable. At one point Konitz turned to his left and told the patrons behind him not to talk so loud. He did it without an ounce animosity. A few moments later he put on his suit coat while his band mates played on, and mouthed to the customers at the table in front of him, “I’m cold, are you cold too?” Then he put his lips back on his instrument and answered a pecking query Frisell had just sent his way.  Baron flammed softly behind them. Everything stopped for a moment. Peacock began to solo. The dynamic was similar to that used by Derek Bailey’s Company ensemble, quicksilver improv at its most unscripted, dazzling in it ingenuity. The sound level was muted, so was the lighting. The Blue Note seemed different than it did a few weeks earlier when I was there for another show.  The interplay halted; the denouement of “All The Things You Are” had been reached. Konitz announced the tune, and added to no one in particular, “Well, that was a few of the things we are.” Baron beamed. “And now, for you dancing pleasure…,” Konitz went on by way of introduction. But the version of “Body and Soul” that came next probably was a take that would be best enjoyed sitting in a chair. Shards of melody searched for opportunities to form alliances, topsy-turvy counterpoint maneuvers tried to manufacture grace (not unlike the action on this new jewel).

Things were going nicely – the music’s verité qualities were amplified somehow. I almost felt like I was on stage with them. Then more candor from Lee. “Let me have it for a few seconds,” he said to the group, as if the audience wasn’t there. The action stopped, and Konitz generated a terse soliloquy whose honesty was disarming. It was as if we were in the privacy of his apartment, listening to him decipher some musical puzzle. One more romp, this time through Bird, and this time reminding me that I recently wrote about Konitz’s dedication to perpetual inquiry, and the performance concluded.

In some ways, it was like watching an off-Broadway show – that sense of sharing a tiny space made all the emotions resonate deeper. Ultimately two lessons were learned: art may well increase its impact when waxing guileless, and treating audience members like confidantes just might empower a performance. All in favor of further informality in jazz, honk twice.

Ethan Iverson Gets Inside Lee’s Head.

Spinner’s Tad Hendrickson talks to Lee Konitz.

Ted Panken has a revealing Blindfold Test with Lee on his blog.

2 responses to “Four Men, Three Tunes, Two Lessons, One Set

  1. Pingback: Lee Konitz Blindfold Test, 2003, Uncut | Today Is The Question: Ted Panken on Music, Politics and the Arts

  2. Thanks for this! Lee has been rocking my world musically since I first heard him at Gregory’s on 63rd Street & First Avenue back in the mid 70’s. In those days he played with Dick Katz on piano, and on really lucky nights, Attila Zoller sat in on guitar. He was also starting to cut his nonet albums & duets.

    To listen to Lee play “All the things you are” or “Body and soul” is to hear something imponderably new every time. I’m so glad that he’s still with us …

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