THE DOZENS: THE LEE KONITZ DUETS by Thierry Quénum



                     Lee Konitz, by Jos L. Knaepen


The first time Lee Konitz recorded a duet was in 1950 with guitarist Billy Bauer (who, like the altoist, was a disciple of Lennie Tristano) on a song named “Rebecca” after one of his daughters. Still Konitz was only to become a real specialist of these one-on-one exchanges in the late sixties and early seventies.

Jazz.com’s frequent contributor Thierry Quénum is an old Konitz buff and has interviewed him several times for the jazz press of his native country, France. Here he has compiled 12 tracks recorded by Konitz over a 40 years period that show him dialoguing with partners as diverse as can be. Konitz, who himself sometime trades his usual alto for a tenor or a soprano sax, has tried it all, matching up with everything from trombone to acoustic guitar, piano to drums. He has played duos with partners from Germany, France or Italy as well as with fellow Americans; with some who could have been his elder brothers and others who could almost have been his grandsons.

Through tracks covering a 1967 to 2007 period, this vision of Konitz’s career on the duo side should make anyone aware of his openness and eclectism. Indeed, few musicians have covered such a broad musical spectrum in such an intimate setting.


Lee Konitz & Richie Kamuca: Tickle Toe

Track

Tickle Toe

Artist

Lee Konitz (tenor sax)

CD

The Lee Konitz Duets (Milestone)

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Musicians:

Lee Konitz (tenor sax), Richie Kamuca (tenor sax).

Composed by Lester Young

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Recorded: New York, September 25, 1967

Albumcovertheleekonitzduets

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

Lee Konitz and Richie Kamuca both sat in the sax section of the Stan Kenton Orchestra from 1953 to '54, but in the ensuring decade recorded together only once, on Kenny Burrell's 1965 Guitar Forms. Still, it's no surprise to find them playing "Tickle Toe" on a record where Konitz engages various duet partners in a broad repertoire ranging from a Louis Armstrong song to an abstract improvisation with Jim Hall. The reason it's no surprise is Kamuca's and Konitz's shared love for Lester Young. This even brings Konitz to leave his usual alto sax in order to play the tenor (for the first time on record!), as did his idol.

Two tenors blowing on a Count Basie warhorse from the good ole times when Prez and Hershel Evans or Buddy Tate were neighbors and rivals on the tenor bench? Surely this smells of chase or tenor battle. But not at all: these two heirs are like brothers, first exposing the theme in unison before indulging in a swift counterpoint. Konitz, in the right channel, has a perfectly recognizable phrasing that doesn't change much from his usual one on alto, and tends to favor high notes. Kamuca's tone is typically harsher and virile, descending more often into the low register. They intertwine their lines in a delightful, easygoing way. To make this homage complete, their parallel melodic lines meet again in a unison when they tackle, note for note, the very chorus that Prez played on "Tickle Toe" in its historic 1940 version with the Basie Band, and that Lambert, Hendricks & Ross sang in 1958, with Basie and his band again, using words penned by Jon Hendricks. Konitz and Kamuca give us a truly Prezidential tribute on their toe-tickling instrument of choice.

Reviewer: Thierry Quénum


Lee Konitz & Sal Mosca: Kary's Trance

Track

Kary's Trance

Artist

Lee Konitz (alto sax)

CD

Spirits (Milestone)

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Musicians:

Lee Konitz (alto sax), Sal Mosca (piano).

Composed by Lee Konitz

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Recorded: New York, February 1971

Albumcoverleekonitz-spirits

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

What do two alumni of the Lennie Tristano school do when they reunite after some years? They play a tune that conjures up memories of their master, of course. Lee Konitz and Sal Mosca initially played together in 1949 on Subconscious-Lee, Konitz's first session as a leader, and recorded "Kary's Trance" together in 1956, though not in duo, on the altoist's Very Cool. More than two decades after their first encounter, and 15 years after their first version of this song, what is left of Tristano's lessons? Obviously his two former disciples have evolved, bringing his ideas into modern times.

Mosca is more faithful than Konitz, certainly because he's a pianist and studied longer with his mentor: his percussive touch and articulation are very close to Tristano's. But his angular approach is his own, and owes a lot to Monk's vision of the keyboard. Mosca is a brilliant accompanist with a unique conception of the pulse and of the relationship between the two hands. He's also a creative improviser with a great mastery of the piano's low register, and his melodic inventiveness leads him to insert a rare quotation from Rimsky Korsakov's "Scheherazade" in his solo. His style fully deserves to be reevaluated and studied in times when people have all but forgotten him.

As for Konitz, on this tune he penned while still sometimes playing with his former master, he shows how far he's drifted from Tristano's conceptions. His linear phrasing has evolved into a flurry of twirling, broken or daring melodic lines. His sound has grown harsher, and he sometimes searches for notes so high that he's on the brink of squawking or squealing. In other words, he takes chances, and sounds freer than many a "free jazz" player of the early '70s.

Reviewer: Thierry Quénum


Lee Konitz & Red Mitchell: Just One of Those Things

Track

Just One of Those Things

Artist

Lee Konitz (alto sax) and Red Mitchell (bass)

CD

I Concentrate On You (SteepleChase)

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Musicians:

Lee Konitz (alto sax), Red Mitchell (bass).

Composed by Cole Porter

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Recorded: Copenhagen, Denmark, July 30, 1974

Albumcoverleekonitz-redmitchell-iconcentrateonyou

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

Is it because Red Mitchell tuned his bass like a cello that it has this huge, elastic bouncing feel while he plays a 7-second opening romp before Lee Konitz enters? Then the bassist carries on playing the same efficient rhythmic pattern, as the altoist exposes the melody. Actually, all along the tune, Mitchell provides an original harmonic and rhythmic support, allowing his partner to explore the tune's chord changes with great freedom. Everything the alto plays is phrased in a rhythmically inventive manner, as Konitz winds his way through the harmonic pattern, creating new melodic segments every couple of seconds. This is exactly the opposite of "vertical" improvisation based on knowing all the scales and licks that can be used on each chord, but that often neglects to combine notes to tell a story.

Lee Konitz is a master of harmony, but never forgets the lessons of his idols Louis Armstrong and Lester Young, or of his master Lennie Tristano: the song comes first. Backed by such a strong musician as Mitchell, who plays few notes yet with maximum effect, making his bass sound like a low-register guitar, the altoist is ideally situated to display his art. At the time of this recording, Konitz had let various fashions like hard bop, free jazz or jazz-rock pass by without giving them a glance. Yet his own style had evolved during those decades, following nothing but its own momentum, to the point where he could now carve this little timeless gem and rejuvenate 10 other pieces from the Cole Porter songbook with stunning candor and freshness.

Reviewer: Thierry Quénum


Lee Konitz & Bill Connors: Tavia

Track

Tavia

Artist

Lee Konitz (soprano sax) and Bill Connors (guitar)

CD

Pyramid (IAI)

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Musicians:

Lee Konitz (soprano sax), Bill Connors (guitar).

Composed by Lee Konitz

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Recorded: New York, June 11, 1977

Albumcoverleekonitz-paulbley-billconnors-pyramid

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Although Lee Konitz plays the soprano sax on this track, his sound and his phrasing are nonetheless immediately recognizable. He'd started playing the straight horn on record the previous year with his Nonet, and doesn't use it in the same way as most tenorists who double on the smaller instrument. Like the tenor sax, the soprano is pitched in the key of B-flat, whereas the alto is an E-flat instrument, so few altoists (at least in those days ) doubled on soprano. But in the late '70s, Konitz played the soprano mostly for color and, in the context of a duo with an acoustic guitar as on this track, did so most efficiently. This song, penned by the reedman for this session, is essentially about melody. The soprano's fragile yet firm tone fits perfectly with the chords that Bill Connors strums on his guitar beside him. There is no real improvisation, except when the guitar is alone and launches a solo that brings more dynamism to the tune, while respecting its elegiac atmosphere. When Konitz returns the song to its original slow pace, his sound is so rich and dense that there's no feeling of entropy. His soprano is really a voice and, soft as it may be, it's hard to remain indifferent to what that voice has to say.

Reviewer: Thierry Quénum


Lee Konitz & Michel Petrucciani: I Hear a Rhapsody

Track

I Hear a Rhapsody

Artist

Lee Konitz (alto sax) and Michel Petrucciani (piano)

CD

Toot Sweet (Owl)

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Musicians:

Lee Konitz (alto sax), Michel Petrucciani (piano).

Composed by George Fragos, Jack Baker & Dick Gasparre

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Recorded: Paris, France, May 25, 1982

Albumcoverleekonitz-michelpetrucciani-tootsweet

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

The idea to bring Lee Konitz and Michel Petrucciani together for an entire duo album was an excellent one. French producer Jean-Jacques Pussiau had supervised some of Petrucciani's first records, and was fully aware of the young pianist's potential—though, at 20, he'd never played a duet with such a master as the altoist. Indeed, he sounds very respectful of Konitz's approach and, after a short intro, mostly plays the tune's chords as his partner states the melody, then choruses. But the piano's beautiful sound, and the way it follows the alto and develops parallel melodic lines while feeding the soloist strong bass notes as harmonic pillars, entices Konitz to express his most lyrical side. He never wanders far from the melody, and his sound is so close to that of the piano that you're hardly conscious of the transition between his solo and Petrucciani's. When the altoist restates the theme, the empathy between the two players becomes even more obvious, as is their choice to tackle this melody in the simplest way, without overly romantic effects to obstruct its genuine emotional power. With such inspired instrumentalists, music doesn't need to be loud and extroverted. Less is more.

Reviewer: Thierry Quénum


Lee Konitz & Albert Mangelsdorff: Creole Love Call

Track

Creole Love Call

Artist

Lee Konitz (alto sax) and Albert Mangelsdorff (trombone)

CD

Art of the Duo (Enja)

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Musicians:

Lee Konitz (alto sax), Albert Mangelsdorff (trombone).

Composed by Duke Ellington

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Recorded: Villingen, Germany, June 8-10, 1983

Albumcoverleekonitz-albertmangelsdorff-artoftheduo

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Notwithstanding their obvious differences, Lee Konitz and Albert Mangelsdorff have much in common. One is American, the other German; one plays a slow low instrument, the other a fast high one. But they were born hardly a year apart and, each on his respective side of the Atlantic, followed nearly parallel paths: fascination for Louis Armstrong, love of Lester Young and his melodic way of improvising, and interest in Lennie Tristano's ideas as an alternative to overwhelming bebop. Of course, Chicago-born Konitz was in the heart of things while Mangelsdorff got the information with some delay in Cologne, where he adapted Tristano-school phrasing to his trombone.

No wonder that when they first met in 1968 on an LP entitled ZO-KO-MA ("ZO" being Hungarian guitarist Attila Zoller) to play mostly Tristano-inspired music, they felt like brothers who'd had the same teacher. Fifteen years later, Konitz and Mangelsdorff dig even deeper into their common bag and tackle an Ellington tune of the "jungle" period. And what can better do the jungle thing than Manglesdorff's trombone, with its deep, ever-melodic growls stuffed with his trademark multiphonics?

Konitz's alto flies like a bird over the trombone's thick carpet of sound. He phrases the melody in a totally relaxed way, clustering notes or playing long ones without ever giving the impression that he quickens or slows down. When Mangelsdorff gets hold of the melody, he presents it in a slightly more extroverted way, putting forward its blues aspects, while Konitz plays a quiet descant. In other words, this interpretation is based on an intelligent use of their instrumental differences, building on the contrast between their sound, phrasing, timbre and approach. Just like some haute cuisine dish mixing hot and cold, rough and soft, sweet and sour … to the utter delight of our aural taste buds.

Reviewer: Thierry Quénum


Lee Konitz & Martial Solal: Just Friends

Track

Just Friends

Artist

Lee Konitz (alto sax) and Martial Solal (piano)

CD

Star Eyes Hamburg 1983 (HatOlogy)

Musicians:

Lee Konitz (alto sax), Martial Solal (piano).

Composed by John Klenner & Sam M. Lewis

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Recorded: Hamburg, Germany, November 11, 1983

Albumcoverleekonitz-martialsolal-stareyeshamburg1983

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

These two had played together on and off for 15 years at the time of this meeting, and each time they reunited showed the same empathy and telepathic relationship. So, although they talk about themselves as "brothers," it's only natural that they should tackle a tune called "Just Friends." Konitz begins alone, tentatively turning around the melody that he states in an oblique way only when Solal joins him. The alto then becomes more voluble, often rising to the upper register in a most expressive manner, while the piano comps in a comparatively restrained way. Only when the alto leaves him alone does Solal let his brilliant, extrovert style overwhelm the keyboard. And even then, he may be considered moderate. Which gives us a clue to the relationship between those two musicians: they tend to give one another what they possess, and their partner has less. Moderation from Konitz to Solal; extroversion from Solal to Konitz. Just friends? Much more than that, obviously!

Reviewer: Thierry Quénum


Lee Konitz & Clark Terry: Flyin' - Mumbles and Jumbles

Track

Flyin' - Mumbles and Jumbles

Artist

Lee Konitz (soprano sax)

CD

Rhapsody (Paddle Wheel)

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Musicians:

Lee Konitz (soprano sax), Clark Terry (flugelhorn).

Composed by Lee Konitz & Clark Terry

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Recorded: New York, July 7, 1993

Albumcoverleekonitz-rhapsody

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

At first listen, few would think that these two instrumentalists were venerable, seasoned musicians (Terry, 73 at the time, and Konitz, then 66) who'd been respectively members of the Ellington and Kenton bands. Right from the start, their playing is so free as far as melody, rhythm and tempo are concerned that you might even think of some "angry young men," as they were called in the early '60s. But listen closer: the blues is there, not far behind the apparently shapeless lines, and follow a rather clear question-&-answer pattern. The powerful, assertive sound, along with articulate phrasing, also tells you that these musicians have huge chops and know what they're talking about. Indeed, it takes a lot of self-confidence to indulge in such playfully informal blowing.

Yet who would recognize Lee Konitz on soprano sax (so far from his allegedly "cool" style on the alto) and Clark Terry (even though his lively fluegelhorn has actually often strayed from classic patterns)? And even if one could expect the latter to end this tune with his typical scatting and mumbling, who'd have thought that the usually introverted Konitz would sing along with his wild elder? These two definitely sound like old uninhibited kids who couldn't resist playing a good trick on listeners who think they know all about them. The fun that was theirs is amply shared by us, and the surprise makes it even more pleasurable.

Reviewer: Thierry Quénum


Lee Konitz & John Scofield: Some Blues

Track

Some Blues

Artist

Lee Konitz (alto sax)

CD

Rhapsody II (Paddle Wheel)

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Musicians:

Lee Konitz (alto sax), John Scofield (guitar).

Composed by Lee Konitz & John Scofield

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Recorded: New York, August 3, 1993

Albumcoverleekonitz-rhapsody-ii

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Some might think that John Scofield is as far from Lee Konitz as can be. Wrong! First, each has played with Miles Davis and with Gerry Mulligan, albeit at very different periods of these latter musicians' careers, and this undeniably creates a bond between them. The other link is their relationship to the blues: obvious and well documented in the guitarist's case, lesser known but still present for the altoist. And that's exactly what the two men explore here, for almost eight minutes: some blues, improvised on the spot by players who are as familiar with the idiom as they are with the art of dialogue. Four solo choruses (two apiece) alternate at the start to set the atmosphere.

Then the real exchange begins, more intense on Konitz's side and very casual on Scofield's. In fact, all through the tune, John stays essentially in the rhythmic field, almost never resorting to his usual distortion effects and "dirty sound" tricks. It seems as if Scofield had less to prove than Konitz, and wanted to let him display his blues chops. Indeed, anyone who may have had doubts about the latter's ability to play with a blues/rock-oriented guitarist and to tackle the blues changes in a convincing way should be satisfied with the altoist's inspired performance over Scofield's efficient, supportive strumming. "Some Blues" really is some blues!

Reviewer: Thierry Quénum


Lee Konitz & Franco D'Andrea: Love for Sale

Track

Love for Sale

Artist

Lee Konitz (alto sax) and Franco D'Andrea (piano)

CD

Inside Cole Porter (Philology)

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Musicians:

Lee Konitz (alto sax), Franco D'Andrea (piano).

Composed by Cole Porter

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Recorded: Milan, Italy, May 2, 1996

Albumcoverleekonitz-francodandrea-insidecoleporter

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Playing a moody, meditative paraphrase on the famous Cole Porter tune, Lee Konitz is alone for nearly 1˝ minutes before Franco D'Andrea joins in. Once the pianist does enter, it is he who maintains the strongest connection with the theme through a highly rhythmic comping that lets the melody trickle through block chords or bits of single lines. Meanwhile, Konitz drifts apart, though never too far, as he often does in a strange and familiar way, like one who knows the melody and the harmonies so well that he can play anything inside or outside of them. With such a complete pianist as D'Andrea, whose strong touch and rich chords are at times evocative of Thelonious Monk for the former and Art Tatum for the latter, Konitz can wander anywhere without getting lost. All the same, the listener can follow him without ever losing track of the harmonic and melodic progression of the tune. This diving into the improvising process by one of the greatest melodic "drifters" of all time, coaxed by one of Europe's best masters of harmony, is fascinating. Inside Cole Porter? Inside Lee Konitz's art, too.

Reviewer: Thierry Quénum


Lee Konitz & Matt Wilson: Winding Up

Track

Winding Up

Artist

Lee Konitz (alto sax) and Matt Wilson (drums)

CD

Gong With the Wind Suite (SteepleChase)

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Musicians:

Lee Konitz (alto sax), Matt Wilson (drums).

Composed by Lee Konitz & Matt Wilson

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Recorded: March 2002

Albumcoverleekonitz-mattwilson-gongwiththewindsuite

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Although Lee Konitz devoted one track on his 1967 duo album to performing with Elvin Jones, this 2002 session is Konitz's first album-length duet with a drummer. His choice of Matt Wilson, a younger (by 37 years) musician who played in Lee's Nonet as early as 1996, was wise because Wilson is basically a melodic drummer. This unusual situation also induces Konitz to play only new material, totally co-improvised (or roughly co-composed) with Wilson in the studio, instead of reworking standards as he often does. On this track in particular, it is obvious that the usual relationship between blower and drummer is inverted. Konitz starts with a melodic proposal and Wilson answers on drums, then cymbals, in a tentative way. Then he catches his own momentum and plays along with the reedman rather than "pushing" him, as lots of drummers do. As for Konitz, he carries on his melodic tack, developing new ideas while Wilson's drumming comments in a subtle way that's as musical as it is dynamic. A great lesson in free playing by masters of, respectively, "winds" and "gongs," who make their own rules and are unafraid to enter rarely trodden paths.

Reviewer: Thierry Quénum


Walter Lang & Lee Konitz: Farewell

Track

Farewell

Artist

Walter Lang (piano) and Lee Konitz (alto sax)

CD

Ashiya (Pirouet Records PIT 3026)

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Musicians:

Walter Lang (piano), Lee Konitz (alto sax).

Composed by Walter Lang

.

Recorded: Munich, July 20 & 21, 2007

Albumcoverlangkonitzashiya

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

For decades, Lee Konitz has shown a special liking for duets. In this context he has often favored pianists, many of them European. After the likes of Martial Solal or Enrico Pieranunzi, Lang – though fairly unknown outside of Germany – appears to be one of the best choices of accompanist the veteran alto player has made recently. On this track, as on most of Ashiya, Lang’s melodic talent as a composer and sparse, clear harmonic piano support create an atmosphere of vibrating melancholy. In this inspiring context, Konitz’s improvisational skills reach a rare level of understated emotion.

Reviewer: Thierry Quénum


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