The 83-year-old alto saxophonist Lee Konitz is a man out of time. He came of age amidst bebop, he seemed to embody the “cool” sound of the 1950s, and he later embraced a singular style of ‘60s or ‘70s “free jazz”, yet he isn’t limited by any of those identities.
In recent years, Konitz has made it clearer than ever that pigeonholing him (or, critics like me be damned, any artist, really) is a mistake, a too-easy method of shorthand.
So here is a live recording from late 2009 featuring Konitz as well as three other beyond-category musicians: pianist Brad Mehldau (not merely a stunning melodicist with a feel for a modern repertoire), bassist Charlie Haden (not merely an early Ornette Coleman collaborator), and drummer Paul Motian (not merely a former member of the Bill Evans Trio with Scott LaFaro). Word is these four masters did not rehearse as a group for the date, and so the decision was made to approach a series of jazz standards—show tunes and bop classics that provide the band a set of open-ended but familiar challenges. How does a group of iconoclasts respond?
Well, these musicians respond with a sense of intense exploration and introspection. Live at Birdland contains six performances, and all but one are essentially ballads, allowing the players to work at a ruminative pace Inside these medium to slower tempos, the band is conversational and thoughtful, debating each chord, going off on tangents, making risky arguments or coming up with some daring theories. It is consistently fascinating listening, the kind that requires concentration and involvement.
On the surface, Live at Birdland can seem a bit thin. Konitz’s sound on alto is now officially an acquired taste. If it used to sound “dry” or “cool”, it now is frequently raw, slightly nasal and very exposed. As “Lover Man” opens, Konitz plays a series of jagged intervals that act as introduction to what is faintly recognizable as the melody. There is an echoe-y, light honk to his sound—a hallow warble, you might say—that often seems poorly intonated. But if the sound itself is unattractive in the conventional sense, then it is also well-suited to the way Konitz now thinks about melody: he moves idiosyncratically to create unusual patterns, and he often sounds at least half “out” of traditional harmony, riding the line between different tonalities.
In short, we’ve heard a thousand different saxophonists (including the young Konitz) play quickly and accurately across traditional jazz harmonic rules. Now, Konitz is playing by his own rules, and his sound reflects that edgier and more exposed stance. It may not be “pretty”, but it is riveting.
The band’s other primary soloist is Mehldau, who acts as a useful contrast to Konitz. Mehldau is the relative rookie of the band—more than 30 years younger than each of his compatriots. He is, however, every bit as commanding and free. Unlike Konitz, he plays with a surface attractiveness of tone and touch that help his more daring explorations to go down easy. On “Solar”, for example, Mehldau plays a series of beautiful locked-hand harmonies followed by a string of jagged lines in unison between left and right hand. Eventually, the two hands break free into counterpoint that has an almost-classical logic, occasionally quoting the snatches of “Solar”’s melody. It is hardly a conventional jazz solo, yet it never makes you want to cover your ears.
On most tunes, the listener also gets a healthy dose of Haden’s singing bass. The pairing of Haden and Motian is always empathetic and wonderful, and Haden is the most purely lovely player on this date. His solo on “You Stepped Out of a Dream” is logical and lyrical at once, and his statement on “Lullaby of Birdland” ingeniously uses the rhythms and intervals of the original melody to keep the improvisation focused and enchanting. On every of Haden’s notes, the tone is simple but strong, and he simply swings everything effortlessly.
Motian is as natural as can be imagined, even though he never seems to be keeping simple or obvious time. As a drummer, Motian is an artist of the cymbal, coloring with them more than strictly keeping time. His art is surprisingly free for something that makes you feel so at ease.
If there is one essential performance here, it is the variant on “I Fall in Love Too Easily”, a song most associated in jazz with Miles Davis. The melody statement is by the trio alone, with Mehldau’s careful counterpoint on the theme and harmony seeming almost baroque compared to the rest of the disc. When Konitz comes in for the first solo with his slightly askew tone and sharp-then-flat intonation, it is more like a bracing contrast than a mistake. Konitz sings this solo nicely, glancing off the melody a couple of times and staying brief, then allowing Mehldau in on the bridge. The pianist is languid and bluesy in alternation, with Motian flicking him gently from behind. Terrific.
It is notable that this disc was recorded and produced by Manfred Eicher and ECM. In some respects, the slightly arid sound of ECM is present, but the aching emotion of the playing keeps this from sounding like a pretentious affair. It seems as though ECM might want to spend more time in New York nightclubs like this. It suits the label well.
For me, the jury remains out on Lee Konitz at this stage in his career. He is a brilliant enough improviser to keep everything he does interesting and exciting, but the deterioration of his tone and intonation with time can make it hard for me to like his recordings—or at least this one. But the quartet, taken as a whole, sets Konitz in good contrast and makes a compelling case that it’s more important what notes you choose than whether they are played with brilliant technique. Listening, for example, to Konitz and Motian improvise a duet on “Oleo” at first is a truly fascinating conversation. And when Mehldau joins, tartly and minimally, then Haden as well—you have a great band on your hands.
Live at Birdland is a gem for jazz fans who are in the mood for an offbeat, thoughtful experience. Off kilter, sometimes brilliant, introspectively challenging. It’s fifth play gives you as much as its first, if you’re willing. And you oughta be.