Wondrous Lee

Lee Konitz, who turns 80 in October, ambled on stage last night at New York’s Zankel Hall, blew a note, asked his audience to hum it, then, as we all hummed it continuously like a dirge, he blew over it on his alto sax, an improvised solo, darting and weaving, choppy then breezy, sifting changes, shifting rhythms, and all so very cool. It lasted five minutes, it probably could have gone much longer. Then two old pals, bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Paul Motian, joined him, and they played standards. Tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano came out to trade fours and eights. They all left, and on came a string quartet, which played ballads and Debussy, Konitz cruising over the sweet strings in his signature airy tone, with its syncopated cadences and wry, insouciant swing.

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.

Fred Kaplan's picture

You can bookmark it.

hmmm....'s picture

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Frank Schindelbeck's picture

Lee Konitz

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