At age 79, Lee Konitz remains a restlessly creative, eternally open-minded spirit. Nearly 60 years after playing a key role in Miles Davis’ landmark Birth of the Cool sessions and Lennie Tristano’s seminal free-jazz recordings, “Intuition” and “Digression,” Konitz is still remarkably spry and taking immense risks on the bandstand night after night. Two simultaneous releases on Omnitone—one capturing his current nonet live at the Jazz Standard in New York, the other a string-quartet project recorded at Studio Weinberg in Austria—document the master improviser reacting in typically liberated fashion, guided always by his keen instincts for playing in the moment. Arranger-conductor Ohad Talmor, a key collaborator over the past few years, brilliantly frames Konitz’s butterscotch alto sax voice in both ambitious settings, allowing him to waft freely (and sometimes provocatively) over the proceedings like a feather caught in an updraft.
The centerpiece of New Nonet is the six-part “ChromaticLee Suite,” co-composed by Konitz and Talmor. Lee comes out of the gate on the swinging opener “Outward” sounding friskier and more Ornette-ish than the restrained, burnished tones he exhibited on Birth of the Cool more than half a century ago. Backed by a rhythm section consisting of Matt Wilson on drums, Bob Bowen on bass and guitarist Ben Monder playing the role of pianist with his remarkable fingerstyle chordal voicings, Konitz blows mercurial lines above the fray, at one point nimbly dropping in a wry quote from Alexander Borodin’s “Love Song From the Polovitsian Dances” (a romantic theme later popularized by a string of crooners as “Stranger in Paradise”). From there the nonet smoothly segues into the earthy “Big Easy,” a riff on “Ol’ Man River” that features Wilson in shuffle mode. Konitz again plays it untethered, floating on top of the groove and eventually engaging in a vocal conversation with trombonist Jacob Garchick. The mellow midtempo “West Coast” features some supple counterpoint between Lee’s alto sax, Dimos Goudaroulis’ cello, Russ Johnson’s trumpet and Garchick’s trombone. Konitz blows with freewheeling authority over the uptempo swinging section paced by Wilson, Bowen and Monder.
On the aptly named “Funky,” a showcase for cellist Goudaroulis, Wilson shifts to Clyde Stubblefield mode. That bluesy number builds to a dissonant crescendo before segueing to the perfectly titled “Ominous.” In the midst of this forbidding blues, which sounds like it could’ve been penned by Mingus for a Godzilla movie soundtrack, the rest of the band drops out, leaving Konitz and Wilson to engage in a dialogue reminiscent of their telepathic interaction on the superb duet recording from 2002, Gong With the Wind Suite (Steeplechase). This resolves to an uncannily melodic and very dramatic drum solo by Wilson. The ambitious six-part suite concludes with the Monk-ish stop-time vehicle “Colorful,” full of challenging unisons, radical shifts in dynamics and featuring another blues-drenched, Ornette-ish solo by Konitz.
The gorgeous ballad “Springin’” showcases Lee’s most lyrical and poignant playing on New Nonet while the bristling “Ohad” features a remarkable guitar solo by Monder, the most amazing legato stylist this side of Allan Holdsworth. Talmor’s moody fugue “Warmer in Heaven” is a moving piece highlighted by Konitz’s expressive reading of the theme, while on the breezy “Waltz,” Lee plays it free and easy, swirling over the top with aplomb.
On the wonderful Inventions, featuring the Austrian-based Spring String Quartet, Konitz is free to wander the terrain of Talmor’s hip arrangements, some of which are built on familiar Konitz themes contained in his classic solos from the past. Talmor’s bass clarinet joins with the strings to create a lush bed for Konitz’s alto sax on Ohad’s hauntingly beautiful ballad “Pretty Peace.” “Moon,” based on “How High the Moon,” is a perfect example of Konitz’s penchant for melodic improvisation, particularly when the droning strings drop out, leaving him to blow unaccompanied (again, sounding eerily reminiscent of Ornette Coleman). “Lied im Herzen” is a minor-key extrapolation on the standard “With a Song in My Heart” while the brief, Ornette-ish “General Cluster” provides a dark, dissonant segue to “Chunks,” a funky piece based on fragments that Konitz faxed to Talmor over a year’s time in which the string players provide a syncopated undercurrent with staccato bowing and by slapping and tapping the wooden bodies of their instruments.
Talmor’s fuguelike “FeeBeMe” is a piece of bittersweet introspection while the bluesy “Alone in Cologne” once again incorporates grooving, percussive elements into the mix via the strings. The collection closes with an ebullient note with a joyous take on Lil Armstrong’s “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” featuring some spirited call-and-response between Konitz’s alto and Talmor’s clarinet while the string players strum their instruments behind them, comping like a choir of Freddie Greens.
No alto burner in the Bird-Stitt mode, Konitz luxuriates in melody and enjoys extrapolating on themes throughout these two excellent offerings. And while his intonation may not always be laser-sharp, his singular alto voice contains the cracks and imperfections that made Billie Holiday’s and Miles Davis’ voices so poignant, compelling and human.