Alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, born in Chicago in October 1927, is one of the indisputable living greats of jazz. He’s playing in London next Wednesday 19th and Thursday 20th at the Pizza Express Dean Street. in a quartet with pianist Dan Tepfer, bassist Michael Janisch, and drummer Jeff Williams.
I talked to Lee Konitz about next week’s London dates by telephone. Konitz is eagerly looking forward to them. He worked with 28 year old Dan Tepfer on a well-received duo album in 2009 entitled “Duos with Lee” (Sunnyside)
Konitz describes Dan Tepfer as “a very nice man, very talented. He likes to play communicative music, the kind I like, so we have a very good conversation.” Konitz has worked with Jeff Williams in the past, “but it’s been quite a while,” so he’s looking forward to renewing the collaboration. The association with bassist Michael Janisch is a new one.
Konitz is one of the most reflective people on his craft in the business. He talks about the greater economy with which he now plays. It’s partly by necessity: “I don’t have the breath control I once had. But also by choice: “The more notes you play, the less attention you can pay to each one. So I tend to put more faith in single notes. Held notes.”
We got talking about the floating concept of rhythm and metre. He talks of having a sense of embarrasment when things free up completely. And in this context he has particularly enjoyed playing recently – and recording – with Brad Mehldau. Konitz is a firm admirer of Mehldau’s “contact with the one.” (first beat).
I asked Konitz where any sense of embarrasment on issues like that might come from? To whom, then, does he feel responsible to when performing? “We’re responsible first to ourselves, then to each other, then to the audience. Definitely in that order. “
But doesn’t that possibly imply detachment, I asked him? “I’ve been called cool, in a negative way. Because,” – and he enunciated these words carefully – “I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve. But emotion is the main point. What it’s all for is to make an emotional contact. When I’m playing, when I ‘m listening to myself, that’s always what I’m listening out for, and hearing.”
And what about life and still playing at 82. I was curious if Konitz knew the works of another Chicagoan from a similar Jewish background, Saul Bellow. He hasn’t read any Bellow recently. Bellow was interviewed at exactly the same age, (by Joanna Coles in the Guardian) and he said:
‘When I opened my eyes 82 years ago I found myself suddenly here, in existence, which struck me as marvellous, tremendously moving and energising. I’m here, this is my life! And these people coming at me, these strange, beautiful, marvellous people! You want to get a grip on that, to clutch that sense of what it is to be in the world.”
Konitz, as you might expect, has very similar sentiments, but he is more succinct:
“I’m lucky I can still play. I’m enjoying it more than ever.”
Catch him while you can. Pizza Express Dean Street, May 19/20.