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2001 Vitoria-Gasteiz and San Sebastian Jazz Festivals

Lee Konitz

Free jazz-normally relegated to such downtown haunts as the Knitting Factory, Tonic and Cuando-came uptown with full authority in the presence of these four world-class improvisers. The stately Kaplan Penthouse, a venue that caters mostly to Jazz at Lincoln Center patrons and subscribers along with the more well-heeled jazz fans (those who can afford the $45 admission), has never before experienced such a carte blanche approach to jazz. Past shows have tended to follow a more traditional presentation, often including the listing of set tunes in the program notes. But the watchwords of this evening’s performances were “unpredictable spontaneity.”

On Oct. 13, the night of his 74th birthday, alto sax great Lee Konitz took the stage with his 70-year-old colleague, the eternally youthful and eminently hip drummer Paul Motian, and proceed to launch into what he announced as “a suite.” It was, in fact, a free, uninhibited flow of ideas between the two that shifted and evolved organically while making some startling connections along the way. The wily Motian referenced Papa Jo Jones one moment, Max Roach the next, before conjuring up stripper bump-and-grind beats or laying down a rumbling pulse beneath Konitz’s melodic, butterscotch tones. His brush movement at times resembled Jackson Pollack’s action-painting strokes while in his more forceful polyrhythmic mode he gave the impression of a drum kit falling down a long flight of stairs. Konitz reacted to it all with quick wit and good taste, seamlessly tossing off well known melodic nuggets like a circus juggler-snippets of “Nature Boy” followed by bits of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” a giddy reference to “Swinging on a Star” followed by snatches of “Yesterdays,” “You Took Advantage of Me,” The Song Is You,” “Just the Way You Look Tonight,” “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” and “Bye Bye Blackbird” before coming full circle back to “Nature Boy.” The space that Konitz left in his phrasing gave all the more authority to Motian’s resounding bass drum accents, snare statements and delicate, well-placed cymbal textures. And the telepathic endings that they arrived at were often as surprising as the unpredictable detours along the way. This was probing music-making by two sonic alchemists, each with a large reservoir of ideas to draw on along with the patience and ears to let the flow of music take its course. At the end of their set, promoter Todd Barkan presented Konitz with a chocolate birthday cake with lit candles. As the crowd joined in on a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday,” the revered saxophonist playfully improvised facile lines around the changes of that anthem like Bird blowing new life into “Back Home in Indiana.”

Mark Feldman opened the second portion of the evening’s performance with a stunning solo showcase entitled “Calista.” Beginning with some unorthodox bowing that produced unusual flutelike tones, the technically dazzling violinist went on to display breathtaking facility while imbuing each note with uncommon conviction. At its peak, there’s a passionate, operatic sweep to Feldman’s expression, which proved to be highly simpatico with Paul Bley’s spare lyricism. A last minute replacement for the acclaimed French accordion virtuoso Richard Galliano, who cancelled 48 hours prior to the event due to an acute attack of gastrointestinitis, Bley answered the call and responded with the kind of bold, wide open playing that has marked his career since the ’50s. For his solo portion of the show, Bley extrapolated on Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” with stunning ingenuity, his touch ranging from delicate introspection to defiant pounding on the keys. In between he wove swinging melodic themes that revealed a bebopper’s heart beneath the free improviser’s exterior.

For a grand finale, Konitz and Motian joined Feldman and Bley for a coy rendition of “Perdido” in which the participants only alluded to the familiar theme in passing, and even then it was in the most abstract terms. But then, cleverly avoiding the obvious was the basic thrust of this whole nonconformist evening.

Originally Published