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Lee Konitz/Barbara Casini: Outra Vez

I’d rather hear saxophonist Lee Konitz sing than most any other scat vocalist. He does it in “Meditacao” on the Outra Vez CD: After the sweet-voiced Barbara Casini warbles the song straightforwardly, Konitz doo-doo-wees for a jaunty chorus and an obbligato to her second vocal chorus. Its lovely melody, and his modest tenor voice and occasionally precarious intonation add to the illusion of pleasant humor. The truth is, like his alto sax playing, Konitz’s vocals are bold and confident, with subtle rhythmic and harmonic touches.

These three CDs are subtitled Lee Konitz in Italy, but the program for Outra Vez is Brazilian in nature, filled with bossa novas. The contrast of Casini and Konitz is delightful. Far from a melismatic diva, she’s an artful singer whose dramatic sense is restrained by good taste; she varies her vibratos and her on-the-beat versus offbeat phrases. Against her pop sensibility, Konitz is all jazz, always improvising, with beautifully irregular accenting, frequent touches of blues and sax lines mostly within Casini’s soprano range. Again and again his melodies flow in shapely solo choruses with a bare minimum of ornamentation; don’t miss Konitz on take one of the title piece and in “Rapaz de Bem,” especially. His “cool” sound, with its variable density, fine-grained edge and infrequent narrow vibrato, has warmth. Like the sweet-hot contrasts of early jazz, Casini and Konitz excellently demonstrate how jazz expression and creation can transform pop concepts into musical-emotional revelation. In place of a full rhythm section, the fine electric guitarist Sandro Gibellini provides understated accompaniment with a gentle tone and, with bows to Jim Hall, the occasional solo.

On Duas Contras, Konitz sings once again, not quite as effectively, on the fast “Samba de Una Nota So.” On alto, against guitarist Irio De Paula’s busy and unamplified samba accompaniments, Konitz stays closer to the themes and also plays the rare double-time passage on a different “Meditacao.” The big surprise is a sambafied version of Miles Davis’ “Four”: the familiar chords, with the weepy half-tone drop that ends strains, fits the stylized sadness of bossa nova. The alto solos are generally more pensive here, though the best, “But Not for Me,” vitiates the Gershwin theme’s self-pity. There and in “On a Slow Boat to China” De Paulo abandons samba to play swinging jazz accompaniments. There’s an expansive, sparkly quality to his playing; especially on his “On a Slow Boat” and “Ho-Ba-La-La” solos. As on the Outra Vez CD, half of this one comprises Jobim songs.

The live quartet date At the New Mississippi Jazz Club in Rome has its ups and downs. Pianist Giovanni Ceccarelli recurringly sounds like a sparser Bill Evans whose solos dissipate as if he wants to disappear (“Thingin’,” “Body and Soul”). Bassist Mauro Battisti and erratic drummer Carlo Battisti complete the group. Of course, it’s a challenge to keep up with Konitz, in frequent one- to four-man combinations (“I Remember You” is all unaccompanied alto). The low point is the long, wayward “Yesterdays/The Song Is You,” and the high point is “Cherokee,” with lyric alto and Ceccarelli making interplay by caricaturing Konitz’s phrases. “Gundula” is a striking theme with Tristanoesque leaps, and “Boo Doo” is a swinging blues waltz.

Originally Published