[6 January 2009]
Jazz saxophone player Lee Konitz was cool before cool even existed. I mean that literally. He played alto sax in Miles Davis’ band on the seminal Birth of the Cool sessions for Capitol Records back in 1949 and 1950. Critics have heralded these tracks as an important breakthrough in jazz history. These sessions helped loosen the hold of bebop and other hard styles as the dominant mode of playing.
Konitz has been an iconoclastic player whose music as a band leader has always borne the marks of experimentation and improvisation. The fact that he’s still at it should not be surprising. The reality is Konitz can still blow, create, and direct players five decades younger than him. Konitz’s latest disc, recorded when he was 79 years old, shows him still at the top of his game.
Accompanying Konitz on his latest exploration is the acoustic trio Minsarah, which consists of Florian Weber on piano, Jeff Denson on upright bass, and Ziv Ravitz on drums. The four men trade off licks and solos, but it’s clear Konitz is in charge. He wrote almost all of the material on the album, and his playing sets the tone for the other three.
Speaking of tone, Konitz blows his sax with a warm, inviting timbre that can vary in pitch but never sound strained. He can take long solos, as on the bluesy track “W 86th”, and always sound fresh. This allows the other band members to build an atmosphere around him and give the music a fresh ambiance. The three men, including the pianist, create a percussion section that Konitz can float his notes over to set the mood before going on adventures of their own.
On quieter and more avant-garde tracks, like “See the World Again For the First Time”, Konitz allows his sidemen more room to journey. The track is sonically spacious. Konitz and the other others allow silences to take over at various moments to create tension. The resulting looseness forms a contradictory rigidity as one never knows how long the tranquility will last.
While the volume of playing varies, the disc never gets loud. The music has a lyrical quality from song to song. The rhythms may change, and even turn melodic as on the beautiful tone poem “Canon”, but the material stays on an even keel. This creates a consistency throughout that makes the variations stand out even more. Think of this album as an audio version of a Mark Rothko painting. At first the bursts of color seem distinct from each other, but as uniform blurs. After a short period, the individually colored blotches start to reveal patterns and images of their own. Therein can be found the beauty unfolded in the mind of the observer.
Konitz may take credit for help inventing cool jazz, but this disc shows that he keeps on evolving. The music may have its roots in an older tradition, but is contemporary in its execution. It’s real deep, man, but the radical nature of Konitz’s artistry makes the music rewarding to hear today.