Saxophonist Lee Konitz, opened the fall session of A Place for Jazz on Friday night, filling the First Unitarian Society’s Whisperdome with a thoroughly adventurous sound. Konitz is well known to jazz audiences for his role in the Cool Jazz Movement with pianist Lennie Tristano. The veteran saxman was also on the landmark album “Birth of the Cool” by Miles Davis.
Since then, Konitz has followed his own way through jazz, often taking an avant garde approach to traditional jazz standards.
Known for recording duets together, Konitz and pianist Dan Tepfer blended the First Unitarian Society’s church organ timbres against the rich, mellow tones of the alto saxophone to open the first set. Bassist Jeremy Stratton and drummer George Schuller added their talents to the mix once Tepfer moved to the grand piano.
The overflow audience had originally expected saxophonist Lou Donaldson to perform, but he had cancelled due to respiratory illness. While Konitz and Donaldson are of equal renowned prominence in the jazz world, they come from very different schools of improvisation.
Konitz studied with blind pianist Lennie Tristano, who had a strong theoretical style of playing along the melody line with the rhythm accenting off-beats to keep the listener’s interest. As Konitz has evolved his sound over the years, it has become more free and atonal. Donaldson, on the other hand, followed in Charlie Parker’s bebop footsteps, using chordal structures and thematic passages to harmonize with the melody.
Konitz dedicated the performance to Donaldson and explained, “We’re just going to play some standards of the ’50s and ’60s with a contemporary sound.” Play they did, with wonderful renditions of “Softly as a Morning Sunrise,” “All the Things Your Are,” and “Body and Soul.” The 82-year-old saxman used a towel as a mute in the bell of his horn to create a softer sound.
As his band members would solo, he retired to a seat off the stage. Without his presence on stage, it gave the listener an opportunity to close their eyes and concentrate on the life the music took on as the night unfolded.
The second set opened like the first with the church organ playing a dominant role in a free-form composition. A sense of “Phantom of the Opera” built in the Whisperdome. Again, Konitz added his alto sax to the blend, and the rest band joined in the creation of music. Konitz looked out at the crowd – who had diminished in number to about half – and quipped, “Where did everybody go? I was going to play some disco in two more songs!”
Engaging the audience in some of his fun, he instructed everyone to hum a single tone for about five minutes into the next song titled, “Alone Together.” It worked! The crowd became part of the music and the band. We were jamming with Lee Konitz and his quartet! Near the closing of the piece, he encouraged everyone to hum again. Thunderous applause followed.
A mellow version of “Darn That Dream” with soft brushes on the drums, step-like movement on the bass, quiet piano and the rich warm sounds of the saxophone calmed everyone down. The quartet ended the night with the standard “Cherokee” in a manner which was above the norm by playing the chord changes and soloing over twelve different keys. A standing ovation was given to honor these
In a Downbeat article by David Kastin titled, “Lee Konitz: Back to Basics,” Konitz is quoted as saying, “Music is more than a series of tones set in time. It is nothing less than a life force.”
It was an honor to hear him play.
Review by Cheryl Jenks
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
See Rudy Lu’s photographs at AlbanyJazz.com