Making the Old Sound New
84-year-old Lee Konitz
Wows at Burlington Jazz Fest
By Luke Baynes
The headliner of the 2012 Burlington Discover Jazz Festival was as unassuming a man as you’re ever likely to meet.
Were it not for the alto saxophone gripped in his smallish hands, the man in the baggy black cargo shirt who stepped from the backstage shadows into the spotlight of the FlynnSpace on June 10 might have been mistaken by the casual observer as a local barber or a friendly neighborhood postman.
The man was 84-year-old Lee Konitz.
With the possible exception of Sonny Rollins—the closing performer of the 2010 Burlington Discover Jazz Festival—Konitz is the greatest survivor from the 1940s bebop era of jazz.
Tellingly, neither was long associated with the movement that claimed many a jazzman from drugs, booze or commercial disillusionment.
Rollins played on Bud Powell’s seminal 1949 bebop recordings for Blue Note Records at the tender age of 19, but by the time he found his mature voice during the hard bop era, he had moved beyond categorization.
Like Rollins, Konitz’s singular approach to his horn is instantly recognizable.
Born in Chicago, Konitz joined the postwar New York City jazz scene in the mid-1940s and came under the tutelage of fellow Chicagoan Lennie Tristano, the blind pianist who introduced classical dissonance and jagged counterpoint to bebop chord changes.
Despite critics’ insistence on pigeonholing Konitz into the West Coast school of “cool jazz,” he was never truly a part of the movement that sprung from Miles Davis’ 1949 “Birth of the Cool” sessions, on which Konitz played alto.
Konitz’s legacy is instead as the most consistently adventurous interpreter of the Great American Songbook through his famous 10-level system of improvisation, in which a familiar melody is incrementally deconstructed until a tangentially related melodic structure emerges.
“I’m very pleased to be here tonight,” Konitz said as he shambled onto the stage at the FlynnSpace with his comparatively youthful backing band of pianist Dan Tepfer, bassist John Hebert and drummer Matt Wilson. “In the words of Dizzy Gillespie, I’m very pleased to be anywhere.”
Konitz turned to make sure his bandmates were set, adjusted his mouthpiece and stepped to the front of the stage.
“We’re going to play some old songs and make them sound new,” he said.
During the next hour, the ageless Konitz validated the timelessness of the jazz standards of yesteryear.
The centerpiece of the set was an extended workout of Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?”—which Konitz reworked as early as 1949 as “Subconscious-Lee.”
Here its melody began cryptically before progressing beyond recognition, with the band lithely shifting between tempos and time signatures and bouncing fragments of ideas off each other before settling into an eastern raga trance.
The interplay between the band members was telepathic, with a simple cymbal accent or pizzicato bass run spurring Tepfer and Konitz into new realms of melodic interplay.
Playing without amplification in the FlynnSpace’s intimate club setting, Konitz’s dry tone jabbed through the swath of his mates’ improvisations with the concentrated poise of a flyweight boxer. Like his hero, Lester Young, Konitz’s playing was simultaneously engaged and detached, sitting just behind the beat with lines of constantly fluid invention.
Konitz and company closed with the archetypal standard “Cherokee,” the Ray Noble tune that gave 21-year-old Kansas Citian Charlie Parker his musical epiphany in a 1941 trio session, and in the process laid the framework for modern jazz.
After the set, Wilson commented on the band’s oblique reading of the jazz standard.
“It was ‘Cherokee’ in all 12 keys,” Wilson quipped. “We call it ‘Chero-keys.’”
As the FlynnSpace crew rearranged the stage to make way for the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival Nonet—an ad hoc group of local musicians formed for the occasion—Konitz stood offstage in a baseball cap, politely shaking hands with the crowd.
The BDJF Nonet’s program for the evening was a selection of tracks from “Birth of the Cool”—the very songs Konitz recorded over 60 years prior.
It was further proof that Konitz doesn’t just make old songs sound new.
He makes them eternal.