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Lee Konitz/Matt Wilson: Gong With Wind Suite

The billing of Paris-based Canadian tenor saxophonist Francois Theberge’s album with Lee Konitz is telling. Despite having a relatively common name compared to, say, Ornette, it now almost always goes without saying who “Lee” is. What distinguishes the venerable alto saxophonist from most other members of jazz’s first-name-only pantheon is the quality of affection that is conveyed by folks intoning his name. It’s something you very rarely hear when people talk about Miles. Given that Konitz remains a principle exponent of cool, he seems an unlikely icon for an unabashed love fest. Yet Konitzians will not be outdone in gushing about their Lee.

Undoubtedly, the praise spigots will be fully opened for Gong With Wind Suite, and with good reason. Not only does this album of duets with drummer Matt Wilson confirm that Konitz’s command of syntactical elegance remains very much in force, but that his offhanded probity has melded with an appealing, understated avuncularity. In recent years, there has been more of a misdirecting ease to Konitz’s tone, attack and rhythmic motion that only slightly veils the incisive inventiveness of his playing. Konitz’s ability to be both soothing and challenging is in ample evidence in this sparse setting. To this end, Wilson is the perfect foil, patiently coiling and uncoiling rhythmic patterns that allow Konitz to freely pivot about. It’s Konitz’s best recording since his glorious take on French Impressionism with the Axis String Quartet, recorded in 2000 for Palmetto.

Konitz has done his share of less-than-transcendent guest-artist walk-ons, but Music of Konitz is not one of them. Theberge’s arrangements of Konitz chestnuts for a four-horn pianoless sextet are well honed, full without a hint of lushness. This is particularly the case when trumpeter Stephane Belmondo switches to flugelhorn, teaming with Theberge and trombonist Jerry Edwards to create a burlier ensemble sound than is usually associated with Konitz’s compositions. Additionally, the determined swing of bassist Paul Imm and drummer Karl Jannuska provide an efficient heat source, instead of a cushiony glide. These elements give Konitz a fresh set of stimuli with which to revisit familiar territory. The results are thoroughly satisfying.

Sound-Lee! is a Dutch quartet whose main points of interest are pianist Guus Janssen, whose fluency in Lennie Tristano’s vernacular extends to a deft incorporation of Bach into his solos, and alto saxophonist Jorrit Dijkstra, whose hard edge and angular lines makes him a refreshingly unlikely front man for a Konitz project (bassist Raoul van der Weide and drummer Wim Janssen round out the group). They know Konitz’s compositions well enough to create interpretations that generally contrast markedly and intriguingly with Konitz’s originals. The quartet conveys the bustle and buoyancy usually associated with New Dutch Swing, but without the broad humor. It is a welcome celebration of Lee.

Originally Published