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Lee Konitz at the Iridium

Lee Konitz Lee Konitz Jos L. Knaepen
Lee Konitz appeared at the Iridium, a jazz club nestled just above the jostling and ever-awake Time Square in New York City. Celebrating his 76th Birthday, he appeared with stellar band mates Gary Peacock on bass, Bill Frisell on guitar and Matt Wilson on drums. Not quite packed full, the club must have seated 90-plus patrons. If it were not for the holiday weekend retreat in which people were packing kit and caboodle into cars and heading out of New York City, Konitz certainly would have had a full house. No matter as he had some fine company in the audience including New York City’s own Dave Douglas to help celebrate.

Konitz illustrious career began over 50 years ago. It was marked by the milestone, "Birth of the Cool" sessions in which he played with the equally hip and cool, Miles Davis. His work and collaborations with Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh have helped to make and redefine the sound of West Coast Jazz as one to be reckoned with on par with the intensive, brassy and heavily percussive Hard Bop from the East Coast. Konitz’ tone has evolved from the confluences of Miles Davis' sparse and economical but lyrical approach and Lester Young’s effortless and consummately understated swing to a unique sound completely and identifiably his own. Fifty years later, Konitz still continues to release strong concept albums that explores and expands the language of jazz and helps to spread the gospel, as he does on this Wednesday night, the 26th of November.

The set began shortly after 8pm. Konitz and his band mates quietly entered the stage where the quartet softly danced into their open number. "Cherokee" is a popular Bebop anthem. Its clever chord changes which taken at quick tempo could render and unnerve even the most accomplished of musicians. Taken at mid-tempo, the quartet took turns soloing in the all-set-order of alto, guitar, bass and drums. Wilson, substituting for Paul Motion, played with aplomb and finesse. He set to work with brushes to provide a shuffling perky gait to the beat. Konitz and his men answered with soft and supple solos.

Finally returning to Konitz, the rhythm section drops out while he introduces, "Lover Man." Not played like the plaintive blues of woe and longing, Konitz delivered it like a beautiful profession of one’s love to another. He was nicely foiled by his band mates who made similar statements.

During each solo, there was much interplay by each musician with each instrument given voice, albeit, the short one-hour set really didn’t allow much in the matter of stretching out and defining each individual voice, for that matter. Each player provided a slight lift to their cohorts. When Wilson tapped and played the drums to create a soft palette of colors, Konitz responded with equal breathy flourishes.

The music reminded me somewhat of the sound of the Chico Hamilton Quintets of the fifties. Music of this ilk was described as "cerebral" and "detached." That wasn’t the case for that quintet or for this quartet, for that matter. Reason being that you need a sensitive drummer of the type Hamilton was, and Wilson seems to be. It doesn’t hurt that Konitz is flanked by gifted and versatile musicians with Peacock and genre-crossing, Frisell.

The quartet picks up the pace with "All the Things You Are" with Wilson picking up the sticks and firmly planting the quartet. The musicians seemed to enjoy this tune and all contributed well with even and ordered solos. Konitz played the equally lovely Johnny Mercer classic, "I Remember You." When improvising, he kept the audience guessing as his solos were free of typical quotes and clichés. Konitz’ already breathy alto could at time be barely audible. Audiences were thrown off-guard when Konitz quietly finished his passage wherein people would abruptly launch into clapping when Frisell began the next order of solos.

The last number to complete the set was the Miles Davis’ staple, "Solar." Hardly used as a show stopper, the quartet rearranged this Hard Bop classic and turned it into a light romp. Just as they came in, Konitz and his men quietly left the stage to the polite applause in the club.

Overall, the music was effervescent, light on the palette, subtle and fleeting. Almost chamber like, the presentation was poised and, in my opinion, too composed. Much of the music had the same type of quality and sound. It lacked a little pepper. It didn’t help matters that each tune segued into one another ala the solo passages of Konitz between numbers. All did solo well save Konitz brief pause early in the set when he suddenly stopped in the middle of a solo. He good naturedly shrugged it off by sharing a laugh with the audience before finishing the passage. But as with all giants of jazz, that did not affect his playing as he continued unfettered.

The chamber like quality of the music does not necessarily mean that it cannot and does not groove. Hamilton never failed to make his quintets swing, or, for that matter, John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet which could swing the hair out of your ears. However, the performance--save the strong effort by the probably awe-struck, Wilson--was a mixed bag. The quartet played and executed well but seemed uninspired. It is as if they were looking for the next set. Maybe it was only the second night of their five day long engagement or maybe it was the overly polite and attentive crowd that didn’t provide the spark they needed. Don’t know. Whatever the reason, Jazz is an art form that is lived on the front line before all to see. Only the story teller knows what he needs to tell and how it is to be told. I will see Konitz next week where he will make a special appearance to play with the Larry Golding’s Trio at the excellent, Jazz Gallery. Hope to see you there.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Lee Konitz
  • Concert Date: 11/26/2003
  • Subtitle: Lee Konitz celebrates his 76th birthday at the Big Apple
  • Venue: The Iridium
  • City State Country: New York, New York
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