Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Konitz, Lee

           Lee Konitz with Miles Davis, Bud Powell and Art Blakey at Birdland
                                                (Photo by Marcel Fleiss)

Lee Konitz is right to call himself "an international traveling salesman of improvisation": his idiosyncratic approach to jazz has earned him worldwide acclaim without ever leading a steady band of his own. An early convert to bebop, he was one of the first to expand the sonic palette of the alto saxophone beyond the innovations of Charlie "Bird" Parker.

Konitz has been both criticized and praised for his personal, and at times fragile sound, which was first inspired by trumpeter Louis Armstrong and tenor saxophonist Lester Young. He later added the modernist influence of pianist Lennie Tristano to carve out a kind of musical "Northwest Passage" between swinging improvisation and architectural, almost Baroque, lines.

Lee Konitz was born in Chicago, Illinois on October 13, 1927. After hearing bandleader Benny Goodman on the radio at age eight, Konitz asked his parents for a clarinet, then switched to tenor and then alto sax in his teens. His first – unsuccessful – professional experience came at age sixteen, as a sub for Charlie Ventura in guitarist Teddy Powell's band, and he then joined clarinetist Jerry Wald's band, with whom he played off and on for two years.

At age nineteen Konitz met another Chicagoan, Lennie Tristano, who had developed a sophisticated harmonic approach in parallel to the innovations of the New York beboppers. From 1947 to 1948, Konitz played in the band of pianist Claude Thornhill, with whom he recorded Yardbird Suite, which was arranged by Gil Evans.

In 1949, Konitz settled in New York, where he played with trumpeter Miles Davis's nine-piece “tuba band” at the Royal Roost alongside another Thornhill alumnus, baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, and over the next year the group recorded the tracks which were packaged by Capitol Records on the 1954 album “Birth of the Cool.” Konitz’s contribution to these tracks is well exemplified by his highly creative and fluid solo on John Carisi’s composition “Israel.”

Simultaneous to this, Konitz recorded "Wow" with Tristano in March of 1949. In New York, Tristano became an active educator, and in his circle ot students Konitz met tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh, with whom he established a long and fruitful musical relationship.

That same year, Konitz made his first recordings as a leader, with Marsh and other Tristano associates. They played original tunes, which were mostly Broadway standards recast with new melodies and altered harmony, in the Tristano vein. The level and fluidity of the counterpoint interplay between Konitz and Marsh on these tracks influenced West-Coast players like saxophonists Art Pepper and Paul Desmond, who were later described as exponents of "cool jazz."

As if this were not enough, in May of 1949 Konitz explored formless improvisation on the Tristano-led session “Intuition,” ten years before “free jazz” had a name, which further cemented Lee's reputation as a unique improviser. Still only 21, he was arguably the only alto sax player to propose an alternative to Charlie Parker’s overwhelming influence at the time.

Nonetheless, Konitz never really sought to assert his originality as a bandleader. He played and recorded in a seemingly haphazard fashion under his own name, or on sessions with arranger Ralph Burns, bassist Charles Mingus, as well as Tristano.

In 1952, Konitz joined the famous Stan Kenton Orchestra, with which he recorded Stan Kenton: 23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West. Tristano was said to resent Konitz's decision, since the Kenton band didn't really encourage the kind of musical exploration he expected from his pupils. Chances are, Konitz took the gig for financial reasons, but it also gave him an opportunity to confront his comparatively thin alto sound with a big orchestral mass. Indeed, Konitz emerged from his two years with Kenton with a more confident sound.

After Konitz's tenure with Kenton, his longest in a steady band, he became a full-time freelancer. In January of 1953, while still with Kenton, he recorded "Too Marvelous For Words" in a small group with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker for Pacific Jazz. In September, he recorded in Paris with French pianist Henri Renaud and a couple of other American musicians. In 1954, he had a quartet in Boston. In 1955, he recorded "If I Had You" live in New York with Tristano, and tracks such as "Topsy," first recorded in 1937 by his idol Lester Young with the Count Basie band, in the studio with Marsh on the simply titled Lee Konitz & Warne Marsh, one of their best works in this period.

In 1955 and 1956 he recorded several times in Germany with Swedish baritone sax player Lars Gullin. In 1957, Konitz joined the 19-piece orchestra that surrounds Davis’s flugelhorn on tracks such as "My Ship" the seminal “Miles + 19” session arranged by Gil Evans. A couple of months later, under the anagrammed name “Zeke Tolin,” he was one of the ten instrumentalists who the arranger gathered for the “Gil Evans + 10” session.

From 1958 to 1960, Konitz brought several small groups, ranging from trios to quintets, into the studio, and even recorded two solo tracks. His most interesting session of this period is the beautiful Lee Konitz meets Jimmy Giuffre from 1959, which Giuffre arranged tracks such as "Palo Alto" for a nine-piece band featuring pianist Bill Evans.

Evans was also present on a live recording Konitz made at the Half Note a few months earlier, whose story is interesting to tell. Tristano led a quintet with Konitz and Marsh which played at the Half Note every night, but Konitz decided to record an afternoon set, while the pianist was teaching, and asked Evans to record tracks such as "Subconscious-Lee."

The first curiosity of this session is that Evans doesn’t play when Konitz solos, supposedly because his pitch was too high. The second is that Tristano managed to get the tapes and issued them on his own label, without Konitz’s solo. This dramatic tableau of a prodigal son and an outraged father tells a lot about the strange relationship between Konitz and Tristano, a Freudian enthusiast who encouraged his students to undergo psychotherapy.

The altoist made a bold jump in 1961, when he hired Elvin Jones, the drummer of the John Coltrane quartet, in a trio setting completed by bassist Sonny Dallas on tracks such as "I Remember You." To this day, Konitz still considers this album, called Motion, as one of his best.

After this point, it becomes difficult to follow Konitz’s path. He went to California, where he taught and sometimes played with pianists Clare Fischer and Vince Guaraldi, and he only recorded again in 1964, in New York, with Tristano and Marsh. From 1965 to 1968, he travels frequently in Europe, through Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Germany, and Italy.

In Europe, Konitz formed bonds with a series of collaborators: trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff, guitarist Attila Zoller, and pianist Martial Solal, with whom he recorded "Stella by Starlight" in October of 1968.

Paradoxically, after Konitz rejected Tristano as his guru, he became one of the greatest propogators of his approach in Europe, amongst younger players who had listened to the pianist's recordings and embraced his ideas, and relished the notion of playing with a direct apostle of Tristano's alternative to bop orthodoxy.

Over the next 30 years, Konitz received countless invitations from European musicians to teach and play. In fact he has performed so often in Italy that Philology Records, a label partly dedicated to the recorded output of saxophonist Phil Woods, created a sub-label called Lee-ology, which has released dozens of his sessions and concerts.

But Konitz’s connections in the United States have remained strong, as the interesting 1967 session The Lee Konitz Duos demonstrates. He dialogues on the disc with musicians as varied as guitarist Jim Hall, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, trumpeter Ray Nance in a rare turn on violin, and tenor saxophonist Richie Kamuca, with whom he recorded "Tickle Toe," another Lester Young classic. Among the dozens of musicians he recorded duos with in coming years are Sal Mosca, Hal Galper, Red Mitchell, Michel Petrucciani, Kenny Werner and Matt Wilson.

In 1975 and 1976, Konitz reunited with Marsh to tour Europe, and they recorded a two-part invention by John Sebastian Bach rarely played by jazz musicians. In 1977, the pair reunited with Bill Evans to record the album Crosscurrents, which includes "Eiderdown."

In March of 1978, Konitz recorded a full album on tenor sax, which includes a further homage to his early idol, Lester Young, which he dubbed "Tenorlee / Lady Be Good." From 1976 to 1981, he also led a nonet with rotating personnel, in which he often played soprano sax.

In the 1980s, Konitz performed and recorded prolifically on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1987, he played with members of Company, a group of radical improvisers based in Britain. He is the only American among them, as well as the oldest, and the only one with roots in the jazz tradition. But like Lester Young, Konitz hates repetition and loves to be surprised and to surprise himself. So it became less and less unusual to find him experimenting in the most uncommon situations, such as with the Woodstock Workshop Orchestra, which featured LeRoy Jenkins on violin and Tom Cora on cello, or the Creative Music Studio, which included saxophonist Anthony Braxton, pianist Chick Corea and guitarist Pat Metheny.

In the 1990s, he concentrated more on duos. He also played more often with his age peers, like drummer Paul Motian, with whom he recorded "Just One of Those Things" and other Broadway classics in 1991. He also recorded with Marian McPartland, Paul Bley and Gerry Mulligan, who cast him in his “Rebirth of the Cool” band. In 1992, in Copenhagen, Denmark, he received the Jazzpar Prize for “musicians deserving wider recognition.”

In the following years he mostly recorded outside of the U.S. for Philology in Italy, Paddle Wheel in Japan, SteepleChase in Denmark, HatOLOGY in Switzerland and Enja in Germany. An exception to this is the two beautiful drummerless trio records he recorded for Blue Note with bassist Charlie Haden and pianist Brad Mehldau, which include "Everything Happens To Me."

After many years of living in Cologne, Germany, Konitz has now returned to the U.S., though, prompting some to imagine his native country is finally ready to better acknowledge the talents of its “prodigal son.” At more than 80 years old, he still has a remarkable ability to improvise in any context, and his fragile alto sound has become rounder with age. In Konitz's hands, the sound of the saxophone is stil, above all else, “the sound of surprise.”

Select discography as a leader:

Subconscious-Lee (Prestige, 1949)

Lee Konitz & Warne Marsh (Atlantic, 1955)

Live at the Half Note (Verve, 1959)

Meets Jimmy Giuffre (Verve, 1959)

Motion (Verve, 1961)

Lee Konitz Duos (Milestone, 1967)

Zo-Ko-Ma [with Atilla Zoller & Albert Mangelsdorff] (MPS, 1968)

European Episode (CamJazz, 1968)

Spirits (Milestone, 1971)

I Concentrate on You [with Red Mitchell] (Steeplechase, 1974)

Tenorlee (Candid, 1978)

Yes, Yes, Nonet (Steeplechase, 1979)

Toot Sweet [with Michel Petrucciani] (Owl, 1982)

Round & Round & Round (Music Masters, 1988)

Thingin' [with Don Friedman & Attila Zoller] (HatOlogy, 1995)

Strings for Holiday (Enja, 1996)

Alone Together [with Charlie Haden & Brad Mehldau] (Blue Note, 1996)

Three Guys [with Steve Swallow & Paul Motian] (Enja, 1998)

The Sound of Surprise (RCA, 1999)

Deep Lee [with German Trio Minsarah] (Enja 2008)

Contributor: Thierry Quénum