Remembering Trailblazing Jazz Saxophonist Lee Konitz
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz died last week from complications of the coronavirus. He was 92. Konitz had one of the longest careers in jazz and was one of its great improvising soloists. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has this appreciation.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLAUDE THORNHILL'S "ANTHROPOLOGY")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Nineteen-year-old Lee Konitz on alto saxophone and his first record date with Claude Thornhill's big band in 1947. He sounds green but full of promise. By then, Konitz was already a student of pianist Lennie Tristano. That influential teacher focused on improvising long, lucid lines over standard song forms. Lee Konitz took that lesson to heart.
(SOUNDBITE OF LENNIE TRISTANO'S "WOW")
WHITEHEAD: The Tristano school aimed to keep cool heads when they improvised - no wailing or forced excitement. Folks said Konitz's style was cerebral, but he insisted he was an intuitive player making choices in the moment.
Early on, he was deeply influenced by saxophonist Charlie Parker's fleet virtuosity. Parker had pet licks he'd insert into a solo, but Konitz aspired to improvise from scratch every time. His pliable tone also set him apart - sometimes soft, sometimes acerbic, sometimes luminous. It was put to good use in trumpeter Miles Davis's nonet, the so-called "Birth Of The Cool" band. Konitz could sound wispy, but he could fly.
(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS'S "MOVE")
WHITEHEAD: Miles Davis's nine-piece band was a huge influence on white, West Coast jazz in the 1950s. Konitz's thoughtful approach and cottony sound inspired California saxophonists, including cool Paul Desmond and fiery Art Pepper. Lee Konitz drifted away from Lennie Tristano in the early '50s, looking to work more often in more varied settings.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL RUSSO'S "MUSIC FOR ALTO SAXOPHONE AND STRINGS, PART 3")
WHITEHEAD: That's from Bill Russo's "Music For Alto Saxophone And Strings" 1958. By the 1960s, Lee Konitz's trajectory was clear. Ever after, he'd front small groups, improvising on familiar standards without a lot of window dressing. For 1961's trio album "Motion," he tapped bassist Sonny Dallas and John Coltrane's ferociously swinging drummer Elvin Jones. On "I Remember You," Konitz peppers a solo with well turned phrases and sly allusions to other tunes. He shows how much drive he can muster and how much tonal variety he can work into his dry sound.
(SOUNDBITE OF LEE KONITZ'S "I REMEMBER YOU")
WHITEHEAD: Lee Konitz didn't like being a bandleader. He didn't like herding musicians and hustling up gigs. So he became an international wandering troubadour, teaming up with other stars or fronting local rhythm sections from Stockholm to St. Paul. Playing common tunes, he and his new mates didn't really need to rehearse. Weak accompanists made a more self-reliant. But a great rhythm section could free him up to carve shapely lines in the air that might or might not hint at the tune. Then he'd use that pliable tone like a scalpel.
(SOUNDBITE OF LEE KONITZ'S "CHEROKEE")
WHITEHEAD: "Cherokee," live at the Village Vanguard in 2009 with the trio Minsara. Lee Konitz made hundreds of records, playing jazzed up Bartok or the electric saxophone, guesting with pianist Dave Brubeck and Andrew Hill, even free improvising. He recorded dozens of duets with rhythm players and with other horns, practicing spontaneous counterpoint. Konitz the balladeer valued a good melody, though he rarely played one totally straight. This is "Crazy He Calls Me."
(SOUNDBITE OF LEE KONITZ'S "CRAZY HE CALLS ME")
WHITEHEAD: Lee Konitz and guitarist Bill Frisell in 1991. In this century, Konitz connected with a brace of admiring younger players. Saxophonist Ohad Talmor built a number of ambitious projects around Konitz, music whose bright colors might conjure Miles Davis' nonet. In his last years, Konitz played less in tune, but the mind still worked. His last album released in his lifetime, the recent "Old Songs New," was recorded in 2017, when Konitz was 90, 70 years after he debuted on record. Now that is dedication to pursuing the long, lucid improvised line.
(SOUNDBITE OF LEE KONITZ'S "IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS OF THE MORNING")
DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and TONEAudio. His new book is "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." Coming up, a concert from our archives with singer Catherine Russell. And film critic Justin Chang recommends two new crime dramas that are now available for streaming. I'm Dave Davies. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LEE KONITZ'S "IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS OF THE MORNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.