Montreal International Jazz Festival 2003

At age 75—more than 50 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"—alto sax legend Lee Konitz is remarkably spry, full of wry humor and taking immense risks on the bandstand night after night. His participation in the Invitation Series, an annual Montreal rite of passage in which a guest artist appears over a string of consecutive nights in a variety of musical settings, is an indication of just how much Konitz still thrives on challenges in his seventh decade as a performer. In four nights at prestigious Monument-National Hall, the master improviser blended his butterscotch smooth alto tone and trademark fluent lines into wildly divergent proceedings with typical poise, guided always by his keen instincts for playing in the moment.

G. Belfiore

Lee Konitz at the Umbria Jazz Festival, Umbria, Italy 1998

"Playing in groups isn't my favorite activity," Konitz admitted during his four-night run in Montreal. "Having to read the music and having to wait around to get another turn to play, trying to remember what you're supposed to be playing—that's a little bit daunting for me." But you never would've known it by how comfortable he seemed cutting such a wide stylistic swath at this year's Invitational Series.

On opening night, Konitz addressed the largely French-speaking Quebecois audience with the greeting "Merci be cool," a hipster's turn on the commonly heard French phrase "Merci beaucoup." After that bit of ice-breaking levity, Lee joined the Paris-based François Théberge Quintet for an astonishing set that revived familiar themes from the alto player's earlier days. Théberge, a Montreal native who spent five years living in the States, where he earned a master's degree at the Eastman School of Music, before relocating to France in 1990, wrote all of the inventive arrangements for alto and tenor saxes, trumpet, trombone, bass and drums by extrapolating from direct transcriptions of Konitz solos from the 1950s and from other lines and sketches that Konitz had faxed him. After playing four nights together with Konitz in a Paris nightclub last year, they documented their special sextet chemistry and Théberge's fresh arrangements on Music of Konitz, released on the French-Canadian Effendi label. (It was named record of the year for 2002 by France's Jazzman magazine). As Théberge explained, he takes a less-is-more approach to dealing with Konitz's music: "First thing, the melodies are so strong, the lines and the rhythm are so strong on these tunes that I decided to just bring them out naked. And all I did was just reorganize the form. It's four horns in the band but most of the writing is just two lines—I'm in unison with Lee and the trumpet and trombone are in octaves. So my goal was not to reharmonize and embellish too much but to just keep it simple, not impose on the music but bring out what's already there."

The Konitz-Théberge sextet opened with an abstraction of "All the Things You Are," which Lee had retitled "Thingin'." With swirly allusions to bits of the melody, the piece was underscored by the brisk, lightly swinging touch of drummer Karl Jannuska, a percussive colorist in the mold of Bill Stewart and Jim Black. With burnished backing from Jerry Edward's muted trombone and Stéphane Belmondo's muted trumpet and with tenor man Théberge playing Warren Marsh alongside Konitz, the group sailed on the form as Lee luxuriated in the melody. Their collective extrapolation on "Just Friends," retitled just "Friends," had Konitz skating on top of the familiar melody, which he merely alluded to in the vaguest of ways. Similarly, "It's You or No One" was recast as "It's You," featuring a beautiful flugelhorn solo by Belmondo, a particularly strong tenor solo from Théberge and some utterly hip restraint from Konitz.

"Subconscious-Lee" opened with Konitz blowing solo before the horns came in with sparse unison riffs on the second chorus. The ensemble continued with just fragments of the head as Konitz kept improvising fluidly over the top. It wasn't until the end of the tune that they played the head all together. And for his haunting arrangement of Thelonious Monk's "'Round About Midnight," which was retitled "Midnight Mood," Théberge used Lee's solo from a 1957 recording of that Monk tune on Stereo Lee as his source material. A formidable improviser and gifted composer-arranger, Théberge is a major new talent who bears watching. (His upcoming Effendi release, due out in the fall, is a collection of original compositions for 10-piece band).

The second day of the Konitz Invitation Series was devoted to freewheeling duets with pianists Jason Moran, Kenny Werner and Paul Bley. Jason and Lee, who had never played together before, opened with a seamless flow of melodic extrapolation on "Isn't It Romantic." Konitz played with an impish quality while Moran struck like a cobra at the keyboard, forever surprising with his attack and dynamics, alternating between buoyant bits of James P. Johnson stride and turbulent passages of Cecil Taylor-style right-hand pyrotechnics. Lee's slow, deliberate manner of navigating the changes on "Body and Soul" was supported by sensitive, sparse accompaniment from Jason and together they took Trane's "Giant Steps" at a leisurely ballad tempo with neotraditionalist Moran adopting an easy going swing-era style, à la Teddy Wilson.

Werner, a playful deconstructionist, spurred Konitz into some spirited cat-and-mouse on a frisky reworking of "'Round Midnight" before they settled into a groove that addressed the emotional depth of Monk's moody piece. Werner's sly penchant for provocative reharmonization was also put to the test on a radically reworked rendition of "Solar." Montreal homeboy Paul Bley received a hero's welcome in his duet collaboration with Konitz. Their impressionistic take on "All the Things You Are" and a moving rendition of "I Can't Get Started," which shifted from reverie to pathos to playfulness, were the highlights of a highly interactive set from these two white-haired dancing partners. They closed on a jaunty note with "Sweet And Lovely," with Konitz dropping in a quote from "The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" and Bley adding on a "Crepuscule" touch at the tag. Paul saved his most radical reinvention for their encore number, "These Foolish Things," which full of wild reharmonizations, all manners of rhythmic extrapolation and byzantine twists on the familiar theme. To watch two such distinguished gentlemen of jazz with so much history and so much in the collective well to draw on was a genuine thrill.

The third night of Konitz's Invitation Series run dealt strictly with classical repertoire as Lee joined Austria's Spring String Quartet for a program of French Impressionist music. His dry, vibratoless tone and unhurried approach fit right in with the warm strings like an olive in a martini. With young colleague and right-hand man Ohad Talmor switching from clarinet to bass clarinet to tenor sax while conducting the proceedings, they delved into sensitive readings of Claude Debussy's gorgeous "Reverie" and "Valse Romantique" as well as Talmor's clever arrangement of Konitz's "My Themes" and "Interrogation." Lee's twist on "With a Song in My Heart," which he dubbed "Lieben Hartzen," was given a dark, dissonant and slightly sinister spin through new voicings by Talmor, who also adapted Konitz's "Interrogation" for the highly flexible string quartet. A precise and aggressive unit, the Spring String Quartet ate this boppish material up with bold exchanges of eights and a genuine sense of swing feel. Their slapping and tapping of the strings and bodies of their instruments attained the desired percussive backbeat effect, giving this precious-sounding music an edge.

"Sunday in Cologne-ia" was a lovely piece that Konitz wrote in Cologne, where he's resided since 1997. With Talmor on bass clarinet and the strings once again tapping and slapping in syncopated fashion, Lee flowed and improvised in and around the form with the heart of a true improviser. They encored with a stirring rendition of Erik Satie's evocative "Sur un Laterne."

The Konitz Invitation Series concluded in grand fashion with his New Nonet, an aggregation of superb New York musicians conducted by Talmor, who also wrote new arrangements on several themes associated with Lee. With 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 chordal voicings, and a horn section featuring Talmor on tenor sax, Konitz on alto sax, Jacob Garchick on trombone, Dennis Lee on bass clarinet and Ron Horton on trumpet, this agile nine-piece ensemble was in particularly strong form following engagements at Birdland in New York and a whirlwind tour of Brazil. Ohad's new arrangements for the nonet brought lushness to Lee's early music and other pieces that Konitz previously played with his acclaimed nonet from the late 1970s.

The evening opened with Konitz walking out on stage alone and sounding the opening notes to one of his old themes, "Subconscious-Lee." Wilson soon joined him on stage to recreate their unique chemistry heard on last year's duet collaboration Gong With Wind Suite (Steeplechase). Bassist Bowen and tenor man Talmor soon joined them until one-by-one the whole nonet was assembled and flying collectively.

Their adventurous rendition of "How High the Moon," dubbed "Moon," was an exercise in collective free-form playing while "Lieb in Herzen," Konitz's take on "With a Song in My Heart," was a springboard into some heady improv by the nonet. The jaunty, jazzy "Waltz" was derived from an eight-measure sketch with a skeleton of chord changes that Konitz faxed to Talmor while Jobim's "Luiza" was rendered as an intimate duet between Lee and guitarist Monder, whose dark chordal voicings added a haunting allure to the gorgeous ballad.

A highly interpretive take on "Cherokee," dubbed "O' Kee," featured Wilson on a miraculously melodic solo on kit. And the New Nonet closed the set with "Chunks," a piece based on fragments that Konitz had faxed to Talmor over a year's time.

Konitz is at the top of his game right now. He remains a restless creative, eternally open-minded force in jazz. His presence on any bandstand is ultimately inspiring for his audiences and bandmates alike.

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