CD Review: Lee Konitz, Dan Tepfer, Michael Janisch, Jeff Williams – First Meeting: Live in London, Volume 1

Lee Konitz, Dan Tepfer, Michael Janisch, Jeff Williams – First Meeting: Live in London, Volume 1
(Whirlwind Recordings, WR 4638. CD Review by Andy Boeckstaens)

American bassist Michael Janisch relocated to the UK ten years ago. Since then, he has become a major figure on the international scene as a bandleader, composer, teacher, promoter and producer, and he established the independent label Whirlwind Recordings in 2010. Through these media, he has presented an astonishingly wide range of enterprising music.

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Janisch convened occasional gigs at London’s Pizza Express Jazz Club from 2007, and curated a monthly series between September 2009 and November 2011, showcasing – and sometimes taping  – top instrumentalists including Mark Turner, Tim Warfield and Till Brönner.

First Meeting: Live in London, Volume 1 is the result of one of Janisch’s biggest coups. It involves the appearance, for two nights in May 2010, of the legendary saxophonist Lee Konitz, alongside fellow American Jeff Williams on drums and Paris-born pianist Dan Tepfer. As the title suggests, it’s the first time that the participants worked together as a quartet.

With no rehearsal or plan, everyone in the technically-leaderless group was given the freedom to start tunes, develop them at will, and, indeed, to choose whether or not to play at all. In the event, half of the eight pieces are initiated by Konitz, and four are taken as a duet or trio. The set-list alone gives little indication of the music in store.

The opening Billie’s Bounce is staggering. Konitz exudes fluency, passion and humour, and his beautiful melodic shapes are incredibly moving. He says “I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve”. Maybe not, but his tone has evolved over the years and is now more affecting than ever. The occasional fragility that emerges in his execution serves only to reinforce his assertion that “Emotion is the main point”. Despite his supreme improvisational originality, he’s not averse to quotations. The naturalness with which he fuses snatches of “Star Eyes” and “Let’s Fall in Love” into the heart of this blues is one of the reasons why he is so revered.

In places, Stella by Starlight is almost unrecognisable. The musicians stray into murky waters and it’s fascinating to hear them negotiate passages that teeter on a knife-edge. Janisch says “It is those moments when Lee tends to be decisive, to shine”. The ethos may be egalitarian, but sometimes there’s not much doubt about who is in charge.

An audacious Giant Steps – without Konitz – contains expansive solos for piano and bass. It benefits greatly from Williams’ sensitivity; he knows when to drive hard, when to take risks, and when to do nothing but listen. Janisch’s breathtaking, unaccompanied introduction to Alone Together is another highlight. He bristles with energy, and seizes the opportunity to raise his game at this significant juncture in his distinguished career.

Tepfer’s adroit pianism is a key part of this performance, and his unselfish, skeletal chording allows his cohorts maximum freedom. He and Konitz have worked together for several years, and Body and Soul becomes a ruminative duet that oozes delicate beauty. Their parallel lines towards the end of Subconscious-Lee are lovely, yet the deep empathy between the two men is most striking earlier in the tune when their paths diverge.

This is a collaborative success, but the presence of Konitz will be the main attraction for many listeners, and he makes all the difference to this wonderful album. His mode of expression is remarkably resistant to the passing of the years, and more importantly, no-one in the world sounds remotely like him.

Janisch plans another CD – and maybe more – from the remaining five hours of material from the same engagement, supposedly of music that is even more exploratory.

Michael Janisch will be touring the US and France in September with Cedric Hanriot, Jason Palmer, Donny McCaslin and Clarence Penn, and is lined up for London’s Pizza Express on 4th December with pianist Bobby Avey’s band, featuring saxophonist Miguel Zenón and guitarist Ben Monder.

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