Jazz man Lee Konitz on working in the trio format and the importance of a good drummer

A prominent figure in the late-'40s and early-'50s cool-jazz movement, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz performed on Miles Davis's Birth of the Cool and performed with Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh around that same time. While a number of players were copping Charlie Parker's sound, Konitz took a different approach, opting for more individual phrasing and tone. The now-85-year-old saxophonist, who's due at Dazzle this weekend, went on to release dozens of albums on various labels under his own name.

See also: - Lee Konitz Trio at Dazzle, 3/23-3/24 - The five best jazz shows in Denver this month - Ten essential jazz albums if you know squat about jazz

Among those releases, Konitz has issued some outstanding records recently, including Lee Konitz/Brad Mehldau/Charlie Haden/Paul Motian: Live at Birdland and last year's Enfants Terribles: Live at the Blue Note, which also features Bill Frisell, Gary Peacock and Joey Baron. Konitz is an innovative and masterful improviser whose lyrical phrasing is about as gorgeous as it comes. We spoke with Konitz recently about playing with Paul Motian and Lennie Tristano, the importance of a good drummer and playing in the trio format.

Westword: Have you been working on any new recordings?

Lee Konitz: I recorded with the Cologne Radio Orchestra, referred to as the WDR Band, a very fine band, some months ago. It was some really interesting arrangements of my tunes and Tristano's tunes and that kind of a groove, which was very nice. There've been some companies interested in putting it out but I haven't heard that word yet.

I did a session with Ethan Iverson -- a very nice man who I like him very much -- and Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy. We did some nice things. I've been listening to that every day, making sure that I'm hearing what I'm hearing. Sometimes it's difficult when you're listening to yourself.

Who are you playing with at Dazzle?

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George Schuller and Jeremy Stratton. I don't know what their flying schedule is at the moment. I think George is coming from California or something like that. Anyway, I'm supposed to arrive on the 22nd of March. I just learned on that day that I had made a commitment to Paul Motian's honorary tribute, and I don't think I'm going to be able to make that, regrettably. So I left a couple of words for Paul with Joe Lovano, who called me yesterday. So it's business before business sometimes, you know?

I really like the record you did with Paul, Brad Mehldau and Charlie Haden -- the Live At Birdland record.

Yeah, I like that very much, too.

How did you like playing with Paul?

I always enjoyed it very much. He kind of became a percussionist, which made it more musical in a way, but, sometimes, just not digging in and swinging, and maybe that's when he's playing with me rather than Lovano or some guys who play more digging in music.

How important is playing with a good drummer to you?

As with any of the instruments in the rhythm section, it's vitally important. The drummer, since he's not using notes so to speak unless he tunes his drums carefully, is probably... Well, I don't know exactly what I'm trying to say right now. Because of the lack of notes, the rhythm is more important and things like that.

Each instrument... if I can go into this short little lecture, which I'm sure you know by heart about the function of a rhythm section, and how to relate to a rhythm section as a horn player. This is has been a vital challenge up until today. It's still a serious concentration, if you will, and when it works, it's like magic, and when it doesn't work, it's like magic that didn't quite come off or whatever.

When I played with Brad Mehldau, Charlie and Paul, Brad was the chief interest to me, and I kept trying to refocus my attention, so I heard Paul's subtleties and Charlie was hard to hear frequently because of some amplification problem or whatever, which was settled on the record. But when we were playing, it was hard to hear him. So it's really a major challenge for someone who's trying to improvise to include all that in the process. It's a challenge I look forward to each time it happens.

How do you like playing in the trio format?

Well, I like it very much. I've been getting very used to playing with brilliant pianists like Brad and Florian Weber, the German pianists, Dan Tepfer, an American player who's very tuned in. It makes that part of playing where you can really improvise and play counterpoint to each other and all of those very compelling things fun. I almost got feeling like I've lost my orchestra here just playing with the drums and bass.

Do you feel that it frees you up a little more playing with the trio?

It definitely can happen, but that depends on all of the subtleties of the sound I'll be playing acoustically. Sometimes that doesn't work. So each situation is special. You have to bring a previous experience to the new one, et cetera.

I spoke with Joe Lovano a few months ago, and he was talking about how there's free jazz, but what he does is play jazz free. He was talking about playing free, like being liberated when he was playing. What do you think it takes to play jazz free?

Just an opportunity for everyone to relax enough to hear what they're listening to or something like that. Sometimes it's just hard to focus the attention or apply the attention to all the rhythm instruments individually, so you take it collectively and hope for the best. If you have the opportunity, which I haven't really had very much in my lifetime, to play with the same guys extensively, you can learn all those things a little better. But I think playing the basic "Body and Soul" and things like that, you have a better chance to get started to get into something.

Last night, I went to Dizzy's Club to Billy Hart's quartet -- Ethan Iverson, Ben Street and Mark Turner. They were playing new tunes that Billy and Ethan had written and they seemed to be pretty relaxed in doing it. It was a pleasure to come in and hear Billy, who has been a wailer all through the years but kind of going along with his age now, as I obliged to do, and not push too much and that kind of stuff. And that's a pleasure to listen to. Pushing can get exciting for a minute, but after it starts to feel pushy, the excitement gets lost in some other happenings, you know?

From what I gather, you and Lennie Tristano recorded some of the first free jazz tunes on Intuition, right?

Yeah. I've always enjoyed listening to that. It was something that was so spontaneous that sounded like a piece of music, each one a little different than the other. We finally decided along the way to just swing more and not play so classically, I guess you could call it.

You've referred to Tristano as a musician/philosopher. I was wondering what you learned from him about the philosophy of music.

Basically, I feel that he was a great example... to actually being able to play with him and be part of his group and seeing how it was possible to have some basic material that was familiar enough in the standard repertoire to kind of get into it spontaneously as we could each time. I thought some magic things happened in that situation.

I also heard that he kind of steered you away from following the Charlie Parker route.

He warned me that is was going to be dangerous because I learned my Charlie Parker solos and enjoyed playing them very much. When I came out to play, I didn't feel like I had to play that music. I just had the inspiration from doing that. So I avoided the trap that was inevitable for anyone who wanted to study that music, which was brilliant.

I read that in the early '60s you retired from music and I was curious what happened there and why you decided to come back and play again.

Well, I didn't really retire. I was just obliged to go to California for a while to get away for a while from my New York influences and try to re-evaluate things for myself and my wife at that time. And I did some day jobs in place of music jobs that didn't come pouring in. You know, that was it, and then I went back to New York and played a gig with Lennie at his request and then stayed there and got back into that.

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