Lee Konitz – Frescalalto
(Impulse! CD review by Peter Bacon)
Now, what do we make of this? It’s a new Lee Konitz album. He’ll be turning 90 later this year.
Some reviewers have responded favourably – John Fordham gave it three stars in his Guardian review; other listeners – friends of mine – have dismissed it as an album too far in what has been a fairly illustrious and certainly very long career.
The opener, Stella By Starlight, features an innovative way to introduce the band: first the alto of Konitz, unaccompanied, taking his characteristic ruminating wander, circling the tune without quite stating it, then, like the first of a relay team, handing over to a solo Kenny Barron on piano, then a solo Peter Washington on bass, then a solo Kenny Washington on drums. It’s a piano-less trio before the whole quartet finally comes together to finish.
I’ve never been able to resist the “dry as a Martini” simile when it comes to the Konitz tone, but I fear now the comparison might be better made with a water biscuit – the risk of bits flaking off is ever-present. And the caveat has to be repeated: he’s nearly 90!
The programme follows the customary format of the altoist’s latter – and not so latter – years with songbook classics like Stella… and Darn That Dream, bebop standards like Invitation and Cherokee, and Konitz originals like Thingin’.
There is the rather disconcerting experience of hearing Konitz sing Darn That Dream before taking up the alto. It’s a mix of “dah-di-dahing” and singing the lyrics, the scatting making the same oblique approach towards the melody as his playing.
I’m quite a fan of the non-singing singers – Burt Bacharach does a marvellously urbane Hasbrook Heights and Charlie Haden’s Wayfaring Stranger is a poignant joy, for example – but Konitz stretches beyond even my indulgence.
It feels really lazy, which is not a word that befits even an 89-year-old Konitz. And his alto playing is still never lazy: the maximum that a man his age can muster, which means pared to the minimum; melodically still seeking – and often finding – a new way around the familiar verses and chroruses; rhythmically shrewd even if dynamically diminished.
You’ll be tiring by now of my references to Lee Konitz’s age, but I’m afraid that’s the only way to listen to Frescalalto. Yeah, sure, it’s a fabulous piano trio album by three musicians at the height of their jazz powers, and we get generous doses of them. But there is also this other old guy in there and the concessions continually have to be made.
Lee Konitz once shared his opinion on retiring. His fellows who had done so spent their time sitting watching sport on TV, drinking beer and quickly dying; he wasn’t going gently into that good night – I paraphrase. But it reminds me that his main reason for releasing this album is because this is what he does: he plays music. And while he’s able to put mouthpiece to lips and fingers to keys he’ll carry on doing just that.