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Concert Review: Lee Konitz New Quartet
(2013 Halifax Jazz Festival)

Posted in music

Lee Konitz New Quartet
Mon-8-Jul-2013 • Main Festival Stage • Halifax Jazz Festival (link)

When I see artists who have been around for as long as Lee Konitz has, I immediately wonder what inspires them to keep performing today. Are they like some runners I know, who don’t feel like themselves if they haven’t gone for a run yet that day? Does Lee Konitz ever let the sun go down without having played his alto sax at least once?

I know a few people who have studied privately with him, and they’ve told me that he has several horns set up in several rooms of the house. Whenever he wants to, he can pick up one of those horns and start playing, and I gather that he does that several times a day.

Now in his mid-80s, Lee Konitz looked more like a 60-year-old when he walked onstage. “It’s tough being legendary…” he quipped while clanging his sax keys noisily into the mic. He said, “Now one of us is going to start playing a tune and the rest of us will try to figure out what it is.” And he began to play. And within 2-3 measures, the rest of his quartet joined in. It was a bit like a collective magic trick, performed simultaneously by a group of individuals on stage. They did this for every tune of the show.

Accompanying Lee Konitz requires VERY good ears + a kind of musical mind-reading power. He knows every standard every written and can probably play them in all 12 keys. He never writes a set list for his shows ahead of time, so his quartet has to be prepared to play anything, in any key, and probably at any tempo. That’s quite the high-wire act.

Fortunately for Lee and last night’s audience, his accompanists were absolutely rock-solid. Pianist Florian Weber, bassist Jeff Denson, and drummer Dan Weiss are all pretty young guys, but they’re all deeply seasoned professionals who held it down in fine form. Their contribution had to be held within a very narrow dynamic range; it is a tribute to their listening skills, along with their constant ability to respond appropriately in the moment, that they could turn in such a good performance. As a musician myself, I found it inspiring to witness that level of interplay.

As one might expect, Lee’s own playing was completely filled with melody. I sincerely cannot recall a single gratuitous bebop lick in any of his solos; every melodic phrase seemed to form part of an ongoing musical narrative within each song. Having written the book on totally spontaneous improvisation, he also hews to no rigid harmonic form other than the overall length of the song itself. This creates a delicious tension in the listener, who thinks they know what song is being performed based on the melody they’ve just heard, but who is now suddenly lost because the entire band has taken a 90-degree left turn towards what sounds like a different song. Then as if by magic, the band then suddenly resumes playing the original song, and you have observed no visual cues between the musicians as to when they would all make that change.

Partway through the set, trumpeter Dave Douglas slipped silently onto the stage to join Lee in his rendition of Body and Soul. He stayed for most of the rest of the set, making a positive, albeit unexpected, contribution to the concert. Improvising off at least one other horn player is also a particular signature of Lee Konitz; when Dave Douglas unexpectedly sat in, it provided Konitz with the opportunity to do so.

Set List: Once I Had A Secret Love, Alone Together, Body and Soul, Stella By Starlight, You Don’t Know What Love Is, Solar.

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