The concert, part of the JVC Jazz Festival, was titled “Lee Konitz’s Beautiful 80th Birthday Party,” and so it was—a casual, very fun jazz cocktail party among friends and a full house of admirers. I have seen Konitz a few dozen times over the years. He can play splendidly, or he can aimlessly doodle, the latter happening most often when there’s no pianist to lay down the chords. Last night there was no pianist, but Konitz stayed on track, blew hot and cool, tight and loose—as fresh as at any concert in a decade.
After the intermission came a nonet, then a jazz orchestra from Portugal, playing arrangements by Ohad Talmor. Konitz played through them with fine energy, but the ensemble’s sound was leaden and overblown. Could it be that—in a flip on the dream of every smack-shooting jazz saxophonist in the ‘50s to play with a string orchestra—Lee Konitz, the lithe, clean-cut, New Yorker-reading, Upper West Side alto man, has always pined to blow in front of a big band?
The best moments of Act Two were when the nonet laid out and Konitz blew freely against bassist Bob Bowen and drummer Matt Wilson. The music had that restlessly lyrical feel of Motion, Konitz’s brilliant trio session of 1961 with Sonny Dallas and Elvin Jones (Wilson’s polyrhythms bear more than passing resemblance to Jones’). The man still has It.