Writings About Music

Beyond the Crowd: Lee Konitz

My personal choice for the second finest jazz artist who ever lived is Lee Konitz. He has a melodic, harmonic and rhythmic range that brings to mind Johann Sebastian Bach. The same is true for Charlie Parker, of course, but due to the ravages of addiction, his years and yield were deprived of the longevity and body of work Konitz has assembled over eighty-eight years. John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie and Bill Evans are four other jazz artists I feel are in this conversation, and while I find that no one can ultimately match the limitless inventiveness and lack of repetition displayed by Konitz over time, I've concluded that Stan Getz ultimately takes the cake, so to speak.

It is beyond amazing how Lee can play All the Things You Are (or any other jazz standard) on any given day or recording, and come up with phrases and ideas never heard before. And I’m not talking about one new phrase, but literally dozens of fresh ideas. This is the essence of improvisation, and even outside of jazz, looking into another improvisational form, the classical music of India, there is no one who can match Konitz in this specific regard, with Ravi Shankar and Pandit Jasraj being the only artists I feel are in that conversation.

So, remember that you heard it here first. Jazz insiders will know what I'm taking about, likely responding: What else is new? Come to think of it, go check out Lee’s interpretation of What’s New and every other track on his L’Age Mur album with Enrico Rava, Rosario Bonaccorso and Massimo Manzi from 1998. It’s like you never heard any of the standards played there before!

When I had lessons with Lee one cool summer, I began bringing John Coltrane's recording of What’s New, requesting that we begin each session by listening to that track from the Ballads album. At the time, listening to Coltrane’s What’s New was all about the expression for me, and his resplendent playing helped relax me enough to attempt to enter what Stan Getz termed the alpha state.

Lee Konitz is way beyond any alpha state, and has been there constantly for over seventy years of improvisation that would do Johann Sebastian Bach proud if one imagines the German composer-performer transposed from eighteenth century churches to the jazz clubs of our time with a copacetically germane transmogrification of his orientation.

Musicians and composers are often deeply spiritual beings for whom transcendental love is not an illusion. In that vein, these lyrics from All the Things You Are by Oscar Hammerstein II, which may be related to either a beloved or god (similar to Indian classical music traditions), are in tune with what we hear intellectually and feel emotionally and spiritually when listening to Lee Konitz in flight:

You are the promised kiss of springtime
That makes the lonely winter seem long
You are the breathless hush of evening
That trembles on the brink of a lovely song.
You are the angel glow that lights the star,
The dearest things I know are what you are.

My favorite vocal recording of All the Things You Are is by Helen Forrest with the Artie Shaw Orchestra from 1939. My favorite instrumental recording is the 1947 version, retitled Bird of Paradise, by Charlie Parker, who (learned after including the excerpt above) stated that this song had his favorite lyrics, even calling it YATAG, for You Are the Angel Glow.

The following is excerpted from my 1998 interview with Lee (complete interview above) discussing Charlie Parker:

You once mentioned to me something that I don't think anyone realizes, and it's really a fascinating story. When you... at one point in the fifties, I guess, you told a story that Stan Kenton engaged yourself, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie as soloists with his orchestra for the same performance!

Yes. I had been with the band for a year and a half, and I went home. Quit the band to be with my family. And he called sometime later, and asked me would you come on tour. And I said, "OK. Great. I'm familiar with the band. I'm familiar with the music. So it'll be a snap." And I said, "Who else will be on the program?" He said, "Charlie Parker." I said, "Whaaat!!! What's happening here???" Well, it was a nice experience. Bird was... it was a chance to get to know him a little better. I told the story a few times about him asking for ten dollars once, at the beginning of the tour, and I gave him ten dollars. And ten dollars was a lot of money in 1952. And a week later, as we were boarding the bus, I asked him for the ten. He said, "Just a minute," and the next guy who came up on the bus, he borrowed ten. Asked for ten, and handed it to me (laughs).

I never heard that!

And also, he sat with me when one of my children was being born in New York, and we were in Seattle, Washington, and kinda thought that I needed a friend. And we spent the day together. It was a very sweet gesture.

This is fascinating for people to hear because you and Charlie Parker are the two main alto stylists of modern jazz. So any interaction between the two of you is really fascinating.

I felt a very nice feeling from him. (Laughs) Another story that just occurred to me recently: A week ago was March 12, the anniversary of Charlie Parker's death, and it was also my father's birthday. At one time, Charlie came up to me, and said, "You know your father came up to me, and told me that he thought you could play better than me." And I said, "That's not possible because my father don't know who you are, and he's in Chicago!" This is in New York, when Bird told me this.

I remember relating the story of this tour to someone who told me that the musicians on the tour were saying that in those performances you were actually outplaying Charlie Parker.

"Cutting Bird" is the expression. I was comfortable playing music that I had played for a year and a half, and Bird was playing new music in a strange environment, and he wasn't terribly comfortable. So the way the story goes is that Dizzy said, "Hey, listen. The young guy is cutting you." And then Dizzy said, "I regret saying that because the next night I had to follow Bird, and he played his ass off."

This is excerpted from another writing pertaining to Lee:

Technically speaking, the piano is classified as a percussion instrument, and another of Lee’s finest achievements is Round Midnight, a duet recording with pianist Michel Petrucciani, found on the Toot Sweet album. In fact, this is my personal choice for the greatest jazz ballad recording of all. [Come to think of it, another duet recording, the title cut of the Windows album with Hal Galper is way, way up there too, as is Zingaro with Peggy Stern from The Jobim Collection album.]

A while back, I had opportunity to ask Lee about this Round Midnight, and he divulged that one reason it went on for so long – sixteen minutes – was due to Michel misplacing his glasses, and thus was unable to see Lee cueing him to end the piece! On top of that, Lee was experimenting with a new metal mouthpiece for the first time. Talk about being spontaneous …

For more specificity about why I feel so highly about Konitz, let's consider Just Friends. Charlie Parker's original Just Friends is one of his greatest improvisations, and that is why it is extraordinary that I believe Lee Konitz actually surpassed it. I’m unaware of any other version of Just Friends that stands alongside these two recordings.

Bird’s rendition focuses more on stunningly penetrating, byzantine embroidery, with Debussy/Ravel-like splashes of dazzling melodic-harmonic color, articulated with a rhythmic sophistication that surpasses any classical composer of his time, rivaling Alla Rakha, and informed with mostly light romantic rasa. Konitz’s version from his Satori album, spurred on by the equally resourceful playing of Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland and Martial Solal, builds a living architectural marvel that one never tires of, including an Artie Shaw riff executed in a powerfully original manner, and a compelling narrative that rivals Beethoven.

This Just Friends is suffused with a gritty and soaring passion, exhibiting Lee’s unconventional yet beautifully calibrated and compelling timbre, which may be compared to Bob Dylan’s extraordinarily unusual yet powerfully effective voice. I’m guessing Konitz loves Dylan about as much as Woody Allen, who once quipped in Annie Hall that he was unable to attend a Dylan concert because his raccoon had hepatitis.

Too often it’s underestimated how the fantastic crucible of complexity, speed and multifaceted sensitivity fostered by Lennie Tristano yielded this epiphanistically incendiary musician with a subtly masked yet absolutely rapacious bent who also penned what I feel is the most sublime jazz composition: Kary’s Trance. Lee’s aesthetic moniker would appear to exemplify Al Pacino’s filmed maxim: “No matter how good you are don’t ever let them see you coming.”

Leonard Bernstein knew how good Lee Konitz was, including telling him how the song Cool was inspired by his music.

One of many favorite personal memories is the time Lee and I went swimming together in a grand outdoor heated pool of Olympic proportions in the Hollywood Hills one fine afternoon. A friend of mine from France had invited us, and she was utterly charmed when Lee spoke in her native tongue. What was most amazing is how Lee did the backstroke while moving feet forward through the water, which I suppose is equivalent to what he does musically to jazz standards.

Konitz’s early experience in the late forties included playing opposite Charlie Parker on those evenings when the Lennie Tristano Quintet shared the same bill with the Charlie Parker Quintet. There was also the time when Lee filled in for the absent Bird, fronting the Charlie Parker Quintet himself. Talk about a baptism of fire!

Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and many others too numerous to list here, including pianists, drummers, bass players and vocalists, are among those who also created jazz improvisation, adding and making possible additional manifestations. And many of these provide an expressive catharsis and sheer pleasure of sound, in addition to intellectual profundity, without which, again, there would be no jazz. The point I’m making about Lee Konitz pertains to specific improvisational gifts within the focus of jazz standards over a sustained period of time. These are among the elements that have emerged from the test of time representing the distilled essence of the art of jazz for myself.

- Michael Robinson, December 2015, Los Angeles


© 2015 Michael Robinson All rights reserved

Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).