Most Valued Player: Lee Konitz
by Nic Jones
Individuality of sound has always been an asset in jazz expression, just as it has in other musical fields. Throughout his lengthy career, Lee Konitz has faced allegations of being too cerebral or cold, as if only the most heated voices are capable of full expression within the jazz medium. Since the beginning of his career Konitz has in fact proved himself to be one of the most significant post-bop alto sax players, whose music is not informed by the understandably huge influence of Charlie Parker. He has recorded frequently, and the huge body of music so compiled testifies to a willingness to document it.
A Chicagoan born in October of 1927, Konitz studied the clarinet in that city under the tutelage of Lou Honig, before moving on to study and work with pianist and teacher Lennie Tristano, with whom he was to undertake some of his earliest professional work in the mid-1940s.
An association with Claude Thornhill's band in 1947-8 was significant not only because it featured him soloing in a big band setting, but also because it signalled the start of his loose association Gil Evans. Despite the fact that he recorded a small group session with Tristano early in January of 1949, it was his association with Miles Davis's 'Birth Of The Cool' band, which began recording a mere ten days later, that set the seal on much of Konitz's subsequent career.
Gerry Mulligan's Rocker, recorded during the third session on March 9, 1950, finds the twenty-two year old Konitz showing great facility as a soloist. On the two arrangements contributed by Evans, Konitz figures almost wholly in the ensemble alone. The occasional association with both Evans and Davis did not however end there; he turned up in the band that backed Davis—playing Evans arrangements—on the seminal Miles Ahead, cut for Columbia in 1957.
The same was true of his association with Mulligan. The self-explanatory Konitz Meets Mulligan, recorded for Pacific Jazz early in 1953, finds Konitz as the prominent soloist, and he takes full advantage of the informal showcase, not least on "I'll Remember April", where he fluently cruises over the understated accompaniment of the piano-less quartet in the wake of Chet Baker's trumpet turn.
After leading and recording with his own quartet in Boston in 1954-5, Konitz began a productive association with Verve records. Tranquility, recorded in the company of guitarist Billy Bauer with whom he had also recorded with Tristano, ranges in mood from slightly melancholic understatement to a form of upbeat expression that few others may have been able to match at the time.
The longer the association continued, the more fertile it became. An Image, recorded in the potentially hazardous company of strings, is well served by Bill Russo's arrangements. In one of the few successful examples of the briefly fashionable 'Third Stream' genre, Konitz rises successfully to every challenge the setting throws at him, and never more so than when he makes something of the portentously-titled "Music For Alto Saxophone And Strings".
Recorded in 1959, Lee Konitz Meets Jimmy Giuffre finds Konitz in the company of a quartet of saxophones and rhythm section including Bill Evans on piano. Giuffre's arrangements for this band are outstanding, not least because they are understated enough to allow the band ample room for blowing; the dividing line between these two elements of the music is never easily distinguishable.
In the first half of the 1960s, Konitz performed and taught in California, before touring Europe in 1965-6. This was a harbinger for his subsequent activities. His long recording association with the Danish Steeplechase label is notable for the variety of small group settings in which he has recorded, whilst the quartet dates made for the Soul Note label in Italy have also documented rewarding music.
Konitz's association with Warne Marsh, with whom he first recorded under Tristano's leadership, yielded results for Atlantic in 1955, and the two men took up where they left off some twenty years later. The three volumes of Live At Montmartre Club find both men in top form. Both learnt much from Tristano, then embarked on personal paths of musical development.
In more recent years Konitz has continued to record widely, and there has been no diminuation in the quality of his output, as exemplified by Parallels, recorded for Chesky in December of 2000 in the company of Mark Turner on tenor sax, and others.
The longevity of Konitz's career is exceptional, and throughout he has proved himself to be open to developments within the music. At the same time he has honed a singular instrumental voice the calibre of which is rare indeed.
Nic Jones is a freelance writer living and working in the UK. He has had articles and reviews published in Jazz Journal International, reflecting his wide range of musical tastes. He is presently researching for a biography of Samuel Charters, and continues to come up with Most Valued Players.
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