With Lee Konitz
Splasc(H) CDH 859.2

Grafting an outstanding soloist onto an existing big band is a longtime jazz tradition, as is having an international — read American — player guest with a regularly working large European ensemble.

Yet this meeting between altoist Lee Konitz and the Bansigu Big Band (BBB) of Genova, Italy is outstanding because the veteran jazzman doesn’t grandstand, but integrates himself into BBB.

BBB did cheat, a bit however. This mixed program of standards and originals includes three Konitz lines, one written by his initial mentor, pianist Lennie Tristano, and one (“Aprilee”) written by Istrian Cesare Marchini, one of BBB’s saxists, who studied with Tristano and played with Konitz years ago in New York.

While definite about what he wants, Konitz, is also an accommodating type, His playing situations have included sessions with nearly every jazzer extant from drummer Elvin Jones and pianist Paul Bley on one extreme to saxist Gerry Mulligan and pianist Bill Evans on the other. Someone whose first recorded solo - - with Claude Thornhill’s big band in 1947 — preceded the formation of BBB by about 50 years, the reedist — 75 at the time of recording — has also been collaborating with Europeans since 1953.

Although BBB is an unabashedly mainstream ensemble, chief arrangers, Genova-native bassist Piero Leveratto and Loano-born pianist Gianluca Tagliazucchi, are sophisticated enough not to settle for the standard big band run-throughs. Listen for instance how Konitz as soloist and Leveratto’s arrangement transform Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight”, which may be modern jazz’s most-overplayed tune. Taking the piece faster than the dirge-like pace at which it usually moves, Leveratto invests it with andante swing and Latin suggestions, brought to fruition with passing tones from the sections. Meanwhile Konitz’s distinctive half-bop/half-cool reed timbres soar over the others.

Konitz may have already been a professional when bop was born and played on Miles Davis’ BIRTH OF THE COOL session in 1950, but he hasn’t stopped evolving. On his own “Kary’s Trance”, for instance, his smooth line still has a certain tough angularity to it, something subsequent cool players seemed to forget. This is most noticeable when the more straightforward leaning Marchini solos after Konitz does on that track. Drummer Karmer, who also plays valve trombone elsewhere, acquit himself impressively here as well. He takes a drum solo that swings without being wedded to the Swing Era, an often-difficult task for someone who drives a 16-piece band that has dedicated programs to that era and to Duke Ellington.

As well as boasting smooth section work that expands the dynamics to give some of the pieces an almost (Stan) Kentonian sheen, the tunes allow for low key, open-horned affirmations from trombonist Luca Begonia and trumpeter Giampaolo Casati at different times. Keeping things on an even keel are the comping and fills from pianist Tagliazucchi, as well as the rhythm work of alternating drummers Kramer and Massimo Sarpero. Four square, unspectacular, but powerful bass work is handled by Aldo Zunino on all tracks but two, when Leveratto, allows the pianist to take over the conducting duty so he too can play with the guest on “Kary’s Trance” and “The Song Is You”.

With no pretense of a star soloist being shoehorned into an existing aggregation, WITH LEE KONITZ provides instruction in how to produce musical accommodation without strain.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1.Wow * 2. Love Variation I+ 3. Love Variation II+ 4. The Song Is You* 5. ‘Round Midnight+ 6. If I Should Lose You* 7. Kary’s Trance* 8. Star Line^+ 9. Grundula* 10. Aprilee*

Personnel: Giampaolo Casati, Giampiero Lo Bello, Massimo Rapetti, Fulvio Di Clemente, Stefano Ferraro (trumpets); Luca Begonia, Denis Trapasso, Stefano Calcagno, Martino Biancheri, (trombones); Lee Konitz, Attilio Profumo, Cesare Marchini (alto saxophones); Livio Zanellato (tenor saxophone and flute); Stefano Riggi (soprano and tenor saxophones); Roberto Moretti (baritone saxophone); Gianluca Tagliazucchi, (piano); Piero Leveratto [tracks 4 and 7], Aldo Zunino [except tracks 4 and 7](basses); Massimo Sarpero+ (drums); Alfred Kramer (drums* or valve trombone^)