Lee Konitz, Conversations on the Improviser's Art

By Andy Hamilton
University of Michigan Press

By Ken Waxman

Definitely the only musician ever to have toured with both Stan Kenton’s lumbering big band of 1952 and played as a special guest with Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz quartet in 1998; American alto saxophonist Lee Konitz epitomizes the questing, peripatetic, improviser.

Yet, as author Andy Hamilton makes clear, Konitz, who turned 80 in 2007, is a diffident sound explorer, who prefers his experimentation within the confines of well-known jazz standards and familiar lines from American popular songs. Through an extensive series of one-on-one interviews with the saxophonist and briefer discussions with 37 of his associates, Hamilton presents an all-around view of the stylist, who has been a professional for 65 years. Considering the interviewees range from the staunchest of mainstreamers – including bassist Rufus Reid and pianist Alan Broadbent – to the most committed experimenters – such as saxophonists John Zorn and Evan Parker – this pinpoints the breadth of Konitz’s work.

Someone who has always been an outsider, Konitz is best known for his so-called 1940s Cool Jazz sessions, whose influence he put aside in the 1950s; is a voluminously recorded musician, who never really had a working band. He’s a Caucasian in a music that grew from the Black experience; a Jew, who neither hides nor promotes his ethnicity; and a restrained player in an idiom that prizes passion and extroversion.

As he once humorously remarked when a fellow musician wanted to play a Thelonious Monk tune, “I only play Jewish composers – meaning George Gershwin, Jerome Kern etc. That’s Jewish music to me…” When asked about his improvisational methods he states at different times: “It’s always a challenge to revisit these same simple structures” and “I like all 12 keys and like to play in the less familiar ones,” and, most revealingly, “I’m still enjoying good old 4/4”.

Konitz’s importance is that the distinctive modern saxophone style he created was practically the only modern alternative to the overriding influence of Charlie Parker until the advent of Ornette Coleman in the early 1960s. Furthermore, while he and pianist Lennie Tristano created completely improvised music as long ago as 1949, his style introduces subtle improvisation within mainstream jazz rhythm, melody and harmony.

Born in Chicago, Konitz’s initial reputation came in the late 1940s after he moved to New York and joined Tristano’s combo and participated in trumpeter Miles Davis’ celebrated “Birth of the Cool” sessions. Even then, he was playing “more intervallicly than scalar,” as he terms it, in a conscious effort to avoid aping Parker. Although lumped together with so-called Cool School, supposedly vibrato-less, saxophonists, Konitz insists that his playing isn’t so much cerebral as intuitive. “I just pick up my horn every day and start to play. And the process of playing will suggest things.”

This process not only differentiates his playing from such hard-core Parker followers as Sonny Stitt and James Moody, who Konitz sees as mechanical improvisers repeating routines each time they solo, but also from the overly stylized melodists, like alto saxophonist Paul Desmond. Although he admits that melody is a concern, Konitz says that “I’ve been trying to eliminate ‘pretty’ from my sound and expression.” Jazz, he emphasizes “is not a perfect art”, and that every improvisation courts imminent failure.

Perhaps this constant challenging is why British guitarist Derek Bailey, the theorist of Free Music, invited Konitz to play with European improvisers at one of his Company Weeks in the 1980s. Other advanced musicians such as Canadian-born trumpeter Kenny Wheeler cite Konitz’s work as nudging him to find his own style. Unlike beboppers who frantically pack as many notes as possible within every solo, the alto saxophonist’s frequent admonition: “Nothing to say, don’t play” was an inspiration.

The book is organized so that discussion about Konitz’s instrumental technique and material he prefers to play is interspaced with a decade-by-decade breakdown of his professional life. Along the way the saxophonist discusses his time teaching improvisation (“unless the basic groundwork – melody – is strong, the variations won’t be convincing”), and gives his opinions on others ranging from iconic trumpeter Chet Baker whose lyrical conception he praises, to composer/saxophonist Anthony Braxton, whose attempts to emulate Konitz’s sound he questions.

The book points out that while one of Konitz’s most celebrated LPs of the 1970s is a series of cerebral duets with mainstream players such as valve trombonist Marshall Brown, another in the 1960s, featured drummer Elvin Jones, the epitome of fiery, in-the-moment creations. Konitz admits that when he first heard Coleman, “I resented the fact that he was leaving out all those details that I spent my life being concerned with every day”, that didn’t preclude later collaboration. A visitor to Europe since the early 1950s, Konitz, who now lives in Cologne, has established a series of partnerships with advanced pianists ranging from Harold Danko in the United States, Martial Solal in France and Frank Wunsch in Germany.

Although the saxophonist says he writes music daily, he’s not really a composer; just someone who notates lines and harmonies. Even the originals he’s most closely associated with such as “Sub-conscious-Lee” are based on the chord progression of popular songs such as “What is This Thing called Love”.

Hamilton shows that Konitz has proven that quiet innovation within the tradition can be as musically satisfying as radical innovations. Someone who, when asked about bassist who plays in the upper register states: “I don’t enjoy competitive music, period”, the saxophonist stays true to his ideals.

“Just like eating my breakfast … playing is part of the daily activity – and I am doing it more than ever as I get older,” he states. “I play for half an hour …or an hour, whatever. I really improvise”

Fittingly another of his statements puts his philosophy into boldest relief : “I’m still fascinated with the basic discipline of theme and variations, he muses. “I’m not looking for new rhythms or world music expressions … I ‘m not looking to be original; just to play as sincerely as possible in the discipline I inherited.”

In MusicWorks Issue #99