Before & After: Lee Konitz


A memorable Lee Konitz moment occurred just before we met. Stepping off the elevator on his hotel floor, I heard the faint sound of an alto saxophone gradually growing louder as I walked toward his room. I stood outside his door listening to him practice, transfixed by his sound and melodic variations. Eventually, he took a break, which broke the spell and I knocked. For this B&A (from the June, 2010 issue of JazzTimes ), the 82 year-old Konitz was characteristically outspoken and unguarded.

1. Benny Carter

“The Midnight Sun Will Never Set” (from Further Definitions, Impulse). Carter, Phil Woods, alto saxophone; Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Rouse, tenor saxophone; Dick Katz, piano; John Collins, guitar; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Jo Jones, drums. Recorded in 1961

Before: Schmaltz-o-rooney. Oh god. It might be good dance music, but I don’t feel like listening to this right now. I can’t imagine who’s guilty for that, but they had very serious intentions to reach the ladies. Music has many different functions and I don’t have time to witness all of them. It’s oversweet and wearing it on its sleeve, and all that kind of shit. Is that a Benny Carter piece? Is that a Benny Carter band?

After: Benny was a great saxophone player but it’s a little schmaltzy. When Charlie Parker came on the scene, you saw the perspective, because Benny was a hero of mine before that. After Charlie came along, Benny seemed old-fashioned to me. There was a solo of Benny’s on the Commodore label with Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge “I Can’t Believe I’m In Love With You.” Benny plays a great solo on that. Not very improvised, but very composed and very effective.

What do you think makes a great solo?

It’s all the ingredients: the sound, the rhythm, the choice of notes and how they fit together, the way it relates to the rhythm section.

2. Bill Frisell

“Sub-Conscious Lee” (from History, Mystery, Nonesuch). Frisell, guitar; Ron Miles, cornet; Greg Tardy, tenor saxophone; Jenny Scheinman, violin’ Eyvind Kang, viola; Hank Roberts, cello; Tony Scherr, bass; Kenny Wollesen, drums. Recorded in 2006.

Before: They don’t write ‘em like that any more [chuckles]. Lou Donaldson calls these funny lines, funny melodies or something.  Is the violin player Jenny Scheinman? I think I’ve heard part of this before. It’s very interesting. Is that Craig Handy, or someone like that? It’s so imaginatively orchestrated, and with no solos it’s such a relief. Because I’m involved in that I really appreciate it. I don’t remember who is responsible for this, but I congratulate him or her. The tenor player is someone I don’t love, not in that context.

After: Right. Of course. Every time I would meet him he’d say, “I’m working on Sub-Conscious Lee.” [laughter] Wow, bless his heart. I have to let him know I heard that in its entirety finally. I really enjoyed listening to the treatment.

What do you like about this melody?

I was just writing out a solo, a one-time thing that I’m still collecting royalties on 60 years later [chuckles]. It’s a unique version of “What Is This Thing Called Love” based on diminished scales. I love to play with Bill. He loves space and certain kinds of simplicity that’s great to play with. I’m trying to realize more and more for myself and in listening to others how much they use the theme in their variations. I say this in workshops: let me hear you play the melody and let me hear you embellish the melody a little bit. Don’t lose the melody. That’s going to form the groundwork that you need to continue building. It’s an admirable continuity.

That was a good selection. Thank you.

3. Elvin Jones

“Everything Happens To Me” (from Dear John C., Impulse). Jones, drums; Charlie Mariano, alto saxophone; Richard Davis, bass. Recorded in 1965.

Before: Oh yeah, he’s going to do a lot of that. Look out. Yeah, I knew he was going there and I don’t want to hear that. It’s a very fine saxophone player honoring Charlie Parker. He should pay royalties to Charlie Parker. He didn’t play the melody convincingly, although he’s good. He’s mixing his schmaltzy feeling with the Charlie Parker influence and it doesn’t quite go. Charlie Parker got away with it with the strings record he made because he’s a genius. I had no impression of the drummer at all and the bassist was very loud. The saxophone player was compelling. I was trying to figure out where he was going and who he could be. The sound, the way he finished the phrase with a classical kind of vibrato, things like that. So he knows what he’s doing. He just chooses and makes wrong decisions.

After: Wow. Bless his soul. I never heard him play like that. You know he was living 3 blocks from me in Cologne, Germany for some years and I tried to befriend him and he didn’t respond too much. One time we played at a place in Cologne and it wasn’t very good. I guess we were both hoping we could do something and it would lead to something. But it didn’t really work out. I heard one of his records with Indian influences and a lady singer that was interesting. And I heard something he did with Stan Kenton and he was really playing straight ahead Charlie Parker and doing that very well. I love this song.

4. Francisco Cafiso

“Why Don’t I” (from Angelica, CamJazz). Cafiso, alto saxophone; Aaron Parks, piano; Ben Street, bass; Adam Cruz, drums. Recorded by 2008.

Before: Is this Phil Woods? It sounds like somebody who’s studied Phil Woods. He has a way of putting things together like that. But his sound isn’t as big as Phil gets. This guy is very good and very expressive in a more subtle way. It’s not Francisco Cafiso, is it?

After: He’s gotten better. I was working at Birdland once and I heard a record being played and I said turn that off. It was Cafiso trying to fill Charlie Parker’s shoes, and it was not making it. But this sounds more secure in some way, more settled. It sounds all figured out, not so improvised. But he’s a special talent.


5. Miguel Zenon

“Villa Coope” (from Esta Plena, Marsalis Music). Zenon, alto saxophone; Luiz Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; Henry Cole, drums. Recorded in 2008.

Before: That’s ok. I don’t know who the saxophone player is but he’s very good. He has a very expressive sound. In the first chorus I thought he was going to start weeping, physically. But that’s what he wanted to express. It’s well done. I could have used about 20 minutes less of that rhythmic thing.

After: Oh, that’s Miguel? He’s a fine player but I’ve never heard him schmaltzy like that. He got $500,000 and that’s what he did [chuckles]? But he’s got the compositional thing and he’s doing ok. I’ve heard him a few different contexts, but not with his own band. He’s brilliant.

6. Sonny Stitt

“It Might As Well Be Spring” (from Best of the Rest, 32 Jazz). Stitt, alto saxophone; George Duvivier, bass. Recorded in 1980.

Before: Ok, this is going to take a half an hour to get through the melody. And he goes into his little trite licks in between, before he even finishes the melody. The little fill-in phrases that could fool someone who’s never heard that before. Sounds very inventive in some ways. He’s a good saxophone player. I don’t know who that is, either.

After:  Well, he was a thief of the first order because he thought he made it up. He was a great musician who never recognized his own creativity. And that was the extent of it, to play Bird in such a way that he thought he had invented it. Or so he was quoted. And I can believe that, because he was a little nuts. It’s a great song. Duvivier is a great bass player. Ok, next!

7. Marty Ehrlich

“Rites Rhythms” (from Rites Quartet, Clean Feed). Ehrlich, alto saxophone; James Zollar, trumpet; Erik Friedlander, cello; Pheeroan Aklaff, drums. Recorded in 2008.

Before: I’m just waiting for the saxophone solo, because he’s imitating Ornette Coleman, I’m sure. Ok, I don’t know who that is. It’s interesting for a little bit and then he started going into the screaming. It’s kind of a cutesy theme, very well done, very fine bass player. And the trumpet player is good too with questionable taste when he took his solo. That’s not easy to play one scale or one tonality. I can’t do that very well, so I’m always interested in hearing guys do that. The saxophonist started out playing a figured out solo and doing it very well. But when he started screaming, I lost interest.

After: I don’t really know him but he’s a fine musician who plays clarinet and alto very well. I think he writes those pieces. He’s good. The cellist is good. I have a couple of album covers that his father did [photographer Lee Friedlander]. I didn’t like them too much because I looked like I was pouting. But I couldn’t care less.

8. Charlie Christian & Lester Young

“Ad-Lib Blues” (from Together, Archives of Jazz). Christian, guitar; Young, tenor saxophone; Benny Goodman, clarinet; Buck Clayton, trumpet; Count Basie, piano; Artie Bernstein, bass; Jo Jones, drums. Recorded in 1940.

Oh boy. He’s feeling no pain. That’s one of his classic solos. You can’t duplicate that vibrato. It’s very enjoyable level of intensity. Nobody is trying to prove anything in the usual hot jazz way. That’s always a relief to me. It’s what I call restrained intensity with the trumpet player, and I’m sure Count Basie with his noodling. Then Lester comes in with a masterpiece. I love Lester Young. I think he was a perfect composer for this kind of music. I’m judging that mostly on the records with Count Basie at that time. That was obviously a context that really stimulated him. You’d hear one chorus that was a masterpiece, or two choruses if you are lucky. He was in great shape at that time. He also made some very good records with Nat Cole and Buddy Rich. Even at the end, when he was a sick Lester Young, he played creatively in his way.

If he were here with us right now, what would you like to talk with him about?

[chuckles] Just where his next gig was and how practices those things, things like that. He goes to those things in a very creative way. Talk about tabula rasa, I feel like I do that a lot, but that’s a result of playing the saxophone for 70 years. I just like to come up with different combinations and not depend on the things that I know.

What’s the most difficult part of that challenge?

Oh, just to not think of it as a challenge, probably, and to have sympathetic people to do it with. My concept is more and more playing with people to take the emphasis off of soloing–which is a totally egocentric procedure–to playing together and make it all fit together some way. It’s supposed to be fun, and when it’s not fun it’s extremely difficult.

9. Red Mitchell & Warne Marsh

“It Could Happen To You” (from Big Two, Storyville). Marsh, tenor saxophone; Mitchell, bass. Recorded in 1980.

Oh, this is Warne and Red. [chuckles] He loves to bend his notes. Yeah, that’s very special. Count the number of notes in the solo and evaluate each note in that solo. To make a perfect solo every note has to fit in some way. It has to mean something. Lester said it has to tell a story, and that’s the story, how beautiful the feeling for the note is. I feel that with Warne. Red is already a little bit of a showman. But Warne was playing real music.

What do you hear when you listen to Warne?

I hear a brilliant composer who did most of it on the saxophone. He didn’t write much music. He studied Lester Young and Charlie Parker thoroughly and he was a serious student with Tristano’s inspiration, and every time he gets up to play it’s never predictable. It’s a new kind of exposition every time he plays. It’s never trite or show-bizzy or anything like that. He has his way of showing off his brilliance. And Warne has a very emotional vibrato. He can end the phrase with a straight tone and then it breaks up a little. It’s very in the moment. That’s the final thought about him, that he had the brilliant ability to compose different kinds of motifs. I never prepared my solos. I had the comfort and security of playing something I knew. I had to go through a lot of shit to try and justify why I’m standing up there trying to play and not feeling anything in between inspired moments. But here I am.

I get to sounding a like a real kvetch about a lot of these things, but I really admire all these efforts, whether they’re trite or whatever.

Some recordings that changed your life?

Lester Young. Hearing Johnny Hodges rang bells for me when I was a kid, like “Passion Flower.” And Coleman Hawkins’ “Body & Soul.” I used to know that one. They’re great etudes.

Photo by Larry Appelbaum

2 comments on “Before & After: Lee Konitz

  1. Brew says:

    Thanks for this splendid interview. Lee is a true master. I learned a lot in the two workshops I attended when I was a student at the Cologne Music College. Loved watching him when he played a cassette tape with his favorite solos.

    He told me to transcribe Roy Eldridge’s “Rockin’ Chair” …which I didn’t. I took Roy’s “Wild Man Blues” instead, his duet recording with Claude Bolling (Paris, 1950). It was easier to play, not so much circus, you know 😉

  2. Ron says:

    I think Lee Konitz has gotten even better with age and his voice more unique. i heard him at the Kennedy Center with Minsarah in an unplugged concert that was the most beautiful sounding jazz experience I’ve ever had. (too bad other jazz musicians don’t have the courage to play without amps). This past summer at the DC jazz festival my wife and I were both taken by Sarah Hughes’ solos with the Bohemian Club Jazz Orchestra. Turns out Sarah studied with Lee and his influence as interpreted through her was evident and wonderful. What i like about Lee’s later work is that it’s lost more of Charlie Parker’s influence and has a more distinctly modern character; not unlike the later Brahms’ being distinctly more modern than Beethoven.

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