by Leo Cahalan
(Leo is a jazz head, an audiophile and a vinyl maven. If it’s on Blue Note, he probably has a copy.)
Sadly, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz passed on 17 April 2020 at the age of 92 of COVID-19 complications. On the scene for eight decades, he debuted with the Teddy Powell band in 1945, and his contributions to the evolution of jazz in the 40s & 50s were foundational. He enjoyed his greatest success in the “cool jazz” idiom, and is considered one of that style’s top alto players. He was a big influence on Art Pepper and Paul Desmond, altoists who became two of cool jazz’s biggest names.
Konitz had his first big break out with Claude Thornhill & His Orchestra in 1947. While touring with various swing bands, including the Stan Kenton Orchestra, he began studying with the controversial improvisation pioneer, pianist Lenny Tristano. With Tristano, he developed an atonal, chromatic and freer approach that countered the lightning-fast bop of Charlie Parker and challenged the tried-and-true swing formula of the day that was on the fade. The three albums Tristano and Konitz recorded of this new laid-back and cerebral sound were the first examples of free-improvisation jazz. Their first release, Crosscurrents, contained the George Russell composition, “A Bird in Igor’s Yard,” a striking, free-ish homage to both Charlie Parker and Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.
With the free jazz movement some ten years away, the Tristano/Konitz recordings never gained their deserved attention. But Miles Davis was paying attention. In 1949, he invited Konitz to be the alto player in a new nonet he and Gerry Mulligan were forming to play some Gil Evans charts. Their three sessions, recorded in 1949 and 1950, would end up on Davis’s landmark Birth of the Cool record. This was the official beginning of the cool jazz sound that would later become associated with west-coast jazz.
In discussing how the Birth of the Cool sound began, Miles wrote in his autobiography, “See, the whole idea started out just as an experiment, a collaborative experiment. Then a lot of black musicians came down on my case about their not having work, and here I was hiring white guys in my band. So I just told them that if a guy could play as good as Lee Konitz could play – that’s who they were mad about most, because there were a lot of black alto players around — I would hire him every time, and I wouldn’t give a damn if he was green with red breath.” Konitz’s runs in the Montgomery & Mercer classic, “Moon Dreams,” are sublime and one of the many highlights on that record.
Konitz’s unorthodox phrasing and chromatic shadings were perfect for the hip, relaxed, detached and graceful sound that was the cool style’s stock-in-trade. In 1961, he recorded Motion, a record that became a classic in the cool style. With Elvin Jones on drums and Sonny Dallas on bass, the trio stretched out on five standards with laid-back but searching urgency. It is my favorite Lee Konitz-led album.
Konitz continued to record and tour to the very end of his life, incorporating styles ranging from dixieland, bop and modal, to avant-garde and spiritual. A great example of his modal, avant-garde work is the track, “Five, Four and Three,” found on Stereokonitz, an album he put out in 1969 with jazzman, Giovanni Tommaso.
I was fortunate to hear Konitz play at the Detroit Jazz Festival in 2013. He played the closing-evening set dressed in all black with dark sunglasses, looking and sounding as cool as you’d imagine the greatest living alto player would. “I Remember You,” Lee, and so do many others. Rest in peace.