Dan Tepfer on Lee Konitz
Today’s top jazz performers pick 10 favorite tracks by the players, singers and styles that helped define them.
Lee Konitz started recording in 1945 and he’s still going strong today. He appears on hundreds of records, with an incredibly wide array of musical associates. Lee was unique from the get-go: His tone and phrasing are as instantly recognizable on his recordings from the ’40s as they are now. I’m fortunate that I’ve gotten to play regularly with Lee over the past four years; here are some tracks of his that have struck me along the way.
Subconscious-Lee (Prestige, 1950)
A classic cut with Lee and Warne Marsh tearing up a lightning-fast written line in close harmony, something they did peerlessly. This is Lee’s first session as a leader; he’s barely 21, and he plays a super-tight, blistering solo.
Miles Davis/Stan Getz/Lee Konitz
Conception (Prestige, 1951)
I like this track because it shows Lee completely at ease in the modernist, classically influenced style that was coming into vogue at the time, two years after the Birth of the Cool sessions. The composition is by George Russell, and the interplay between Lee and Miles is mysterious and fascinating.
“All of Me”
Motion (Verve, 1961)
When people talk about “the long Tristano line,” this is what they’re referring to. With Elvin Jones providing the rhythmic backbone, Lee spins out line after line, each longer and more intricate than the last. He sounds like he could go on forever. It’s some of the most expressive bebop playing I know, and a clinic in staying relaxed under pressure.
The Lee Konitz Duets (Milestone, 1967)
Not everybody realizes that Lee, best known for playing consonant music, is a devoted free improviser, beginning with the famous Lennie Tristano cut “Intuition” from 1949. Here he is in a deeply contemplative mood, playing a spectral duet with Jim Hall.
“Duet for Saxophone and Drums and Piano”
European Episode (CAM, 1968)
Some of the wildest playing from Lee that I’ve heard—totally dissonant and free, and he even plays through an octave harmonizer for part of the take! This is exciting stuff that still sounds fresh 40 years later. With Martial Solal and Daniel Humair.
“The Song Is You”
Lone-Lee: Lee Konitz Solo (SteepleChase, 1974)
What other saxophonist has an unaccompanied track of himself playing over a standard for 38 minutes? Lyrical, freewheeling, mischievous, operatic, irreverent, resolutely noncommercial: This bold stand sums up a lot about Lee, especially when you put it alongside his virtuosic “inside” recordings.
Lee Konitz & Martial Solal
Star Eyes, Hamburg 1983 (HatOLOGY, 1998)
This album holds special significance for me. It was my introduction to hearing Lee with a pianist in a duo setting. And Solal isn’t just any pianist: He’s as pianistic as a pianist can be—a constant stream of fireworks. But Lee isn’t thrown for a second, and plays with power and conviction. To me, this track is a model of how two very different musicians can create something exciting out of the tension between them.
Three Guys (Enja, 1999)
A prime example of Lee delivering a ballad, one that happens to be outside of the American Songbook tunes he most often plays. Lee can take a melody and infuse it with profound humanity. He does that and more here, with Steve Swallow and Paul Motian.
“Another Shade of Blue”
Another Shade of Blue (Blue Note, 1999)
I know a number of musicians of my generation who got into Lee’s music through this album. I’ve heard Lee say that he can’t stand blues licks; here’s a great example of how he plays the blues without employing any. It’s still very much the blues, though. With Brad Mehldau and Charlie Haden.
“Elande No. 1 (F#)”
Dan Tepfer/Lee Konitz
Duos With Lee (Sunnyside, 2009)
With apologies for picking a track that I play on, I wanted to include this because it shows a side of Lee that you don’t hear very often: his ability to generate perfectly balanced melodies in a freely improvised, yet tonal, context. There was no planning at all for this cut, aside from a loose tonal center. Still, Lee weaves through my improvised harmonies with total fluidity and an impossibly quick ear for tension and release.