10 Tracks I Can't Do Without

10 Tracks by Lee Konitz I Can’t Do Without…by pianist Liam Noble

In LJN’s series where musicians tell us about tracks by their idols that have inspired them, pianist Liam Noble writes about Lee Konitz. He starts with a moment when there was suddenly a gap where a Lee Konitz album ought to have been:

Lee Konitz in Bad Mergentheim, Germany 2015. Photo credit Schorle/ Creative Commons

Liam Noble writes: One night, after doing a gig in Hartlepool, I came out to my car and found the boot open. Instead of my vinyl copy of “Motion” by Lee Konitz, there was a big square hole in the air. Konitz is one of those musicians I listen to not just for pleasure, not because he’s “one of the greats”, but because I am periodically required to. There are times when Lee Konitz is the only thing that wakes my brain up and gets me hearing things again. I can listen closely, or I can have it on in another room. I just need to be reminded that he did what he did.

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Every line opens out like a flower and, like flowers, every part seems economical in its beauty.  There’s no bravado, and I like bravado (as my previous enthusiasms here for Earl Hines and Sonny Rollins will reveal). But there’s something about removing it that has a kind of excitement all its own. Konitz ruminates on things, winds the line around itself. There’s a stubbornness, a dedication to the idea, whatever that idea is: and that he got from Lennie Tristano. But where I find Tristano a bit “cold” somehow (he didn’t like drummers much…it’s all about the drums for me), Konitz had an edge of the blues, he could wail. He cut his course through the hot and the cool of it all.

He was around a long time, first recording in 1949 and playing right up to the pandemic in 2020. That’s seventy years. I wouldn’t like to have to re-invent myself too many times in a career that long, and indeed it always seemed to me that, like Derek Bailey, he mostly surrounded himself with interesting players and did his thing, a thing which seemed endlessly surprising in the variety of its detail. His sound got gruffer, sharper, his later work had that old master’s tone that Threadgill’s has, and has perhaps a little of the “struggle” that Monk wasn’t afraid to show. But it was always his thing.

1: Move from “Miles Davis: The Birth Of The Cool

Right from the beginning, this seems to recast the frenetic, dog-eat-dog world of rhythm changes into a light and airy walk in the park. Miles fluffs his opening phrase here, and it seems somehow to encapsulate the aesthetic. He’s doesn’t sound bothered. Konitz doesn’t have long to get his point across, but I remember hearing this as a teenager and feeling there was some other thing running through it. He kind of recycles his ideas, spins them out, no waste.

2: Too Marvellous For Words from “Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan

This is such a laid back rendition, but Konitz, having started in that territory, really takes it out. This tempo is pretty brisk to start double timing everything, but the ease with which he brings it off is deceptive: like Parker, it sounds like it shouldn’t be difficult…this era of jazz produced recordings of such remarkable consistency and quality, and this is one of them. The music is being forged in the moment, it’s radical in its own way, and the idea that it happened at the same time as Monk and Bud Powell is astonishing.

3: Palo Alto from “Lee Konitz/Warne Marsh: Live At The Half Note

There’s something about Konitz with a really burning rhythm section, as if one brings the best out of the other. Jimmy Garrison and Paul Motian are a great combination, pushing and pulling the accents around as Konitz simply sails above it all. Bill Evans, depping for Tristano, lays out. Journalists love us musicians to reinvent ourselves, and it’s often a good idea, but with Konitz you feel that he’s just getting started on his thing. To hear it again in another room, with a different band, is fresh enough. 

4: All Of Me from “Lee Konitz: Motion”

If I could only have one album, and one track from that album, this would be it. Listening to this, I’m always hearing a phrase where there isn’t one, filling his gaps…it’s as if he invites the listener to finish his sentences. There’s no sense of preparation here, and whether that’s true or not, he seems to be living on the edge, which for an improviser should be the most comfortable spot in the room.

5: Alphanumeric from “Lee Konitz: Duets

Konitz in a rather unexpected experimental mode, recording a series of duets with musicians as wide ranging as Joe Henderson and Ellington violinist Ray Nance. This track takes it for me, I particularly like Konitz’s sound through the Varitone, doubling his dark sound at a snarling octave below. In the horn section, it lends the third stream voicings an otherworldly quality, and when he solos (or duets with himself) it swings like crazy. 

6: Out There from “Lee Konitz, Paul Bley, Bill Connors: Pyramid

Konitz provides the ideal counterpoint to Bley’s cranky lyricism. Everyone seems to be cautiously marking out the path of the music, and the saxophonist’s commitment to line somehow holds together the fleeting textures and gestures of the other two musicians. That kind of stubbornness in a band mate is a gift, and you can almost hear the musical connections between everyone forming as the piece unfolds. 

7: Candlelight Shadows from “Lee Konitz: New York Quartet”

Harold Danko’s tune is a beautiful and contemplative meditation on a short phrase, which I imagine Konitz approving of. He adds a touch of grouch to the prettiness and in the process proves he can fit right into this new and harmonically challenging environment. A kind of melancholy wail gets more pronounced in these later period recordings, but the clarity of thought remains.

8: Thingin’ from “Lee Konitz: It’s You”

Well, only Lee Konitz would make an already tricky tune like “All The Things You Areeven more difficult by adding more chords, although it’s a big improvement on the melody if you ask me (don’t feel you have to). Another fantastic rhythm section, Ron Mclure and Billy Hart are light and airy. The solo is almost uncomfortably patient, refusing to leave the germ of the tune for almost a whole chorus, and when he does Billy Hart catches it and the whole thing flies. 

9: How Deep Is The Ocean from “Paul Motian: Motian On Broadway Vol 3” 

This is a real sonic treat, the band veering between cutting syncopation and washy impressionism. In the middle of it all is Konitz, seemingly unwilling at first to move further than one step at a time from his note before the phrases start to pour forth. Something about this recording always inspired me to look really closely at any tune I played, get inside and underneath it. It’s like having Schenker analyse the structure whilst giving you a head massage.

10: Billie’s Bounce from “Lee Konitz: First Meeting”

There are some great Konitz recordings of this tune, but this one, recorded when he was 83, is like a continuous ensemble meditation on the blues. Konitz is permanently at the centre, making terse statements and then backing away and watching the band bounce off in all directions. It’s a real gem, the elder statesman seemingly egging his bandmates on to ever increasing feats of edgy inventiveness. Still crazy after all these years.

LINK: Liam Noble’s blog

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