I caught Lee Konitz Thursday night at the Jazz Standard, the early set, playing with three fine musicians—Danilo Perez on piano, Rufus Reid on bass, Matt Wilson on drums—but they never settled into a cohesive quartet. Konitz has long been one of my favorite alto saxophone players. Last summer, after a concert at Zankel Hall, celebrating his 80th birthday, I wrote
of his “signature airy tone, with its syncopated cadences and wry, insouciant swing,” and marveled at his sinuous way with a melodic line, “darting and weaving, choppy then breezy, sifting changes, shifting rhythms, and all so very cool.” But Konitz also has a tendency to doodle, and when he does, he needs a pianist (or guitarist) to lay down some block chords and reel him back in. Perez didn’t do that. He started noodling with him; the whole band laid back, the center did not hold, the train slid off the tracks, and a lazy chaos ensued. Konitz tried to impose some structure, segueing into “Embraceable You,” but Perez acted as if he didn’t know the song. Reid, the only band member who seemed to be listening, stopped playing a few times, for minutes on end, perhaps unsure of which wayward strand to latch onto. At one point, Konitz switched to “Thingin’,” his oft-played variation on “All the Things You Are,” which for some reason spurred Perez to lay down a Latin beat, which Wilson and Reid eagerly followed, but Konitz didn’t want to go there. This meandering went on for about 40 minutes before Konitz brought it to an awkward halt. For a finale, the band played “What’s New,” in the middle of which things finally came together, Perez launching into a lively solo, Reid plucking soulfully, Wilson recovering his sure footing, and Konitz blowing breezy uptempo.
Unprepared improv can be thrilling, as long as the musicians go into it with a common conception, a talent for clairvoyance, and a commitment to keep the music moving forward. (Think Ornette Coleman’s ensembles, Miles Davis’ mid-‘60s quintet, or Konitz’s own trio with Elvin Jones on the great 1961 album, Motion.) None of these traits were on display at the Jazz Standard during the set I happened in on.
Maybe it was just a bad set. Konitz seemed aware that things had gone badly. After the maddening first medley, he sort of chuckled, muttered, “I’ve got to get out of here,” and pretended to walk off stage. Nate Chinen, the New York Times’ astute jazz critic, saw the late set on Tuesday and gave it a rave review, calling it “an astonishment of collective attention and unmannered epiphany.” It’s often a gamble with Konitz. This time, I drew a bum hand.