Lee Konitz presented himself as the aging hipster he seems to be — sunglasses, laconic presence, and an I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude.
By Steve Provizer
Not many jazz musicians active in the 1940’s are still around, never mind on the road, gigging. Last Friday at the Regattabar one of these rare jazz birds, alto sax player Lee Konitz, came through town, celebrating his 90th birthday. Konitz was an early experimenter with Lennie Tristano, an important member of Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool gang, went on to play with Stan Kenton, and since the mid 1950’s, has led groups that comprise a who’s who of late 20th/early 21th century jazz.
At the Regattabar, Konitz was backed by a trio with George Schuller on drums (leader of Boston’s now defunct all-star group Orange Then Blue) and Jeremy Stratton on bass. Stratton often plays with Schuller as well as a number of other groups. Frank Kimbrough was on piano and, although he had never played with the group, as is often true in jazz performers at this level, that was not a problem. The tunes were well known to all: “Stella By Starlight,” “Body and Soul,” “Out of Nowhere,” a couple of Tristano variations on standards. The group’s interplay and cohesion was unassailable.
Konitz presented himself as the aging hipster he seems to be — sunglasses, laconic presence, and an I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude. He played seated most of the time and was comfortable with the fact that he sometimes couldn’t remember the names of tunes or the names of his sidemen — it was all seen, by musicians and audience members, as part of the gig. This was a love fest, so you accepted whatever Konitz instructed.
In terms of Konitz’s solos, when you hear players who have reached an advanced age, you expect certain things. The energy is distinctly mellow (trumpeter Roy Eldridge was an exception) and there’s a stripped-down quality to the solos. Such was the case with Konitz. He played like a guy with nothing to prove, no one to compete with — he shaped his solos with few adornments, with no flash-for-flash sake. He did some singing and some scatting in the same relaxed to the max vein. Not much voice was there, but it added a nice flavor to the mix. it also let Konitz chill a bit between horn solos. There were some failings of breath and tone control in his performances, but, overall, he delivered a simple, distilled clarity.
Some of this distillation had always been in his playing. Going back to the late 1940’s, when alto players were imitating Charlie Parker en masse, Konitz presented an alternative approach. His tone was softer, his solos often more angular and sparser than Bird’s. In his association with the pianist and teacher Tristano, Konitz explored unusual harmonies, as well as free playing, opening up a direction pursued by many subsequent musicians –not just alto players.
His show at the Regatta may well have been a valedictory lap — who knows how his health will hold up? –but if Konitz comes back to town he is well worth a listen. Jazz is all about telling a story in an individual voice. Konitz has always done this and now, at age 90, he tells his story with an almost childlike simplicity and beauty.
Steve Provizer is a jazz brass player and vocalist, leads a band called Skylight and plays with the Leap of Faith Orchestra. He has a radio show Thursdays at 5 p.m. on WZBC, 90.3 FM and has been blogging about jazz since 2010 here.