Lee Konitz made one of his rare forays into L.A. last week, working at the Jazz Bakery -- as he usually does -- in the minimalist setting of alto saxophone, bass (Matthew Brewer) and drums (Joe La Barbera). Having had the good fortune to take saxophone lessons with Konitz many years ago, I've been fascinated to observe, over the years, how his playing has evolved and developed.
It's no mystery that Konitz was one of the few saxophonists -- and, specifically, alto saxophonists -- who escaped the omnipresent influence of Charlie Parker when he was coming up in the '40s and '50s. Cool where Bird was hot, line-driven melodically where Bird spoke the blues in almost everything he played, rhythmically disjunct where Bird's time was energized by the the flow of bebop, Konitz was his own man. And he paid a price for it, usually via reviews and commentary describing him as cold, intellectual and non-swinging.
I could never understand that perspective on his playing. Yes, his early work with Tristano glistened with the sheen of carefully controlled improvising, and Tristano (and his students) tended to prefer rhythm sections that literally "kept the time." But, even then, Konitz's tone had a subtle warmth, and his off-center, bar line-ignoring phrases nonetheless were delivered with an inherent, if subtle, sense of swing.
Although he had some reed problems in his opening night at the Bakery, Konitz with reed problems is still more fascinating to hear than most alto saxophonists with perfectly functioning reeds. He played "Solar," after pointing out that, although the tune is usually credited to Miles Davis, the reportedly real composer was guitarist Chuck Wayne. And he took a close look at a pair of familiar standards, "What's New" and "Just Friends."
In each case, Konitz illustrated his mastery of the art of using harmonic patterns -- often very familiar harmonic patterns -- as the launching platform for the invention of constantly compelling rhythmic melodies. One of Konitz's teaching techniques was the assignment of phrases that were to be played from every starting point -- on downbeat and upbeat -- in a measure. It's challenging and I never quite got it under control. But in Konitz's hands, it was magical: bar lines seemed to disappear, phrases appeared to move into other meters; yet the fundamental rhythmic structure remained.
He was joined for the last two numbers in the set by Gary Foster, a superb altoist in his own right, who has taken a style clearly influenced by Konitz, and transformed it into his own unique improvisational voice. They were particularly impressive together -- powerfully reminiscent of the classic Lee Konitz-Warne Marsh combination -- in a happy romp through "Subconscious Lee," Konitz's tricky melodic variation on the chord changes of "What Is This Thing Called Love?"
After the program, I hung out for a while with Konitz and the others. Although he turned 80 last October, his youthfulness, vitality and sense of humor are undimmed. When someone asked what kind of saxophone player I'd been when I was studying with him, Konitz replied, with a chuckle, "Oh, he was good. But he didn't like to practice." That got a laugh, and an even bigger one followed when he added, "and then Don found out he could make more money writing than he could with his saxophone."
Not exactly true, but a good line, anyhow. And a warm conclusion to one of those rare evenings affirming the importance of jazz, and the infinite value of those players -- like Konitz -- who have given their lives to its perpetuation.