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Thursday, April 16, 2020

Lee Konitz (1927 -2020)

Lee Konitz in 2014. Photo by Hreinn Gudlaugsson.
By Martin Schray

Lee Konitz was present at the birth of Cool Jazz on Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool, he ignored genre boundaries playing compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach and ventured into modern realms with Anthony Braxton and Chick Corea. Downbeat voted him the best musician on the alto saxophone. Above all, it was his refined playing on the alto saxophone that earned Lee Konitz the respect of his colleagues, the critics and the audience. He always remained cool through and through. His fine tone with few overtones, practically no vibrato and without the rhythmic counter-accents of bebop, but with metronomic precision and a discreet feeling for swing, was style-defining. Sonny Rollins’s wild outbursts or Ornette Coleman’s angular lines were not his cup of tea. Instead, he had great influence on the jazz saxophonists of the American West Coast such as Art Pepper and Paul Desmond.

It was a Miles Davis quotation that made Lee Konitz famous. "And I remember one time when I hired Lee Konitz, some coloured cats bitched about me hiring an ofay in my band when negroes didn’t have work. I said if a cat could play like Lee, I didn’t give a damn whether he was green and had red breath." Hardly anyone has played so perfectly in form, in a style which was so calmly intoned and linearly elaborated. At the same time his expression was entirely in harmony and his tone was crystal clear.

Since the 1950s Konitz has recorded a veritable musical encyclopedia, many of his albums have become milestones in jazz history, such as productions with Lennie Tristano, Bill Evans, Joe Henderson, Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Bley, Dave Brubeck, Gil Evans, and also many European musicians such as Martial Solal, Albert Mangelsdorff and Attila Zoller. It’s difficult to single out highlights in this comprehensive oeuvre. Certainly Motion, his trio recording with Sonny Dallas (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums) in 1961, is among them, as well as Subconscious-Lee, actually his first recording (1949/50) with Lennie Tristano (piano), Warne Marsh (tenor saxophone) and Billy Bauer (guitar) and Lee Konitz And The Gerry Mulligan Quartet (1954; with Chet Baker on trumpet). In the late 1960s Konitz also recorded two excellent albums with Martial Solal (piano), Henri Texier (bass) and Daniel Humair (drums). Impressive Rome is particularly beautiful. In duos he was also shining, an album I really like is Art of the Duo (1988) with trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff. However, my personal favorite is Angel Song (1997), one of the most beautiful ECM albums ever, with Kenny Wheeler (trumpet), Bill Frisell (guitar) and Dave Holland (bass). I saw Lee Konitz once, in a duo with pianist Dan Tepfer, with whom he enjoyed playing in the 2000s. He always flirted with being completely out of breath after long solos, only to take the next attempt a minute later, smiling.

Since 1997, Lee Konitz and his German wife have lived alternately in Cologne and New York. According to his son Josh, he died on April 15th in a New York hospital at the age of 92 after pneumonia due to a corona infection. Goodbye, great master of the alto. Your music will remain in our hearts.

Watch Mr Konitz with Warne Marsh on the 1958 TV show “The Subject is Jazz“.

and at a private concert with Dan Tepfer at his 92nd birthday:


Colin Green said...

Another sad loss and a fine tribute to a musician who has left us a remarkable legacy.