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Lee Konitz: Hold the Schmaltz

Lee Konitz
Lee Konitz (photo: Nick Ruechel)
Lee Konitz

A memorable Lee Konitz moment occurred just a few minutes before we met. Stepping off the elevator onto his hotel floor, I heard the faint sound of an alto saxophone gradually growing louder as I approached his room. I stood outside his door listening to him practice, transfixed by his smooth, even lines and melodic variations. When he took a break, the spell was broken. During this B&A, the 82-year-old Konitz was outspoken, unguarded and often responded with animated gestures and facial expressions while listening. He also talked about his latest duets recording, Duos With Lee, with pianist Dan Tepfer (Sunnyside). In April Konitz released Live at the Village Vanguard, featuring his New Quartet (pianist Florian Weber, bassist Jeff Denson, drummer Ziv Ravitz), on Enja.

1. Benny Carter

“The Midnight Sun Will Never Set” (from Further Definitions, Impulse!). Carter, Phil Woods, alto saxophone; Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Rouse, tenor saxophone; Dick Katz, piano; John Collins, guitar; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Jo Jones, drums. Recorded in 1961.

BEFORE: Schmaltz-o-rooney. Oh god. It might be good dance music, but I don’t feel like listening to this right now. I can’t imagine who’s guilty for that, but they had very serious intentions to reach the ladies. Music has many different functions and I don’t have time to witness all of them. Is that a Benny Carter piece? Is that a Benny Carter band?

AFTER: Benny was a great saxophone player, but it’s a little schmaltzy. When Charlie Parker came on the scene, you saw the perspective, because Benny was a hero of mine before that. After Charlie came along, Benny seemed old-fashioned to me. There was a solo of Benny’s on the Commodore label with Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge, “I Can’t Believe I’m in Love With You.” Benny plays a great solo on that. Not very improvised, but very composed and very effective.

2. Bill Frisell

“Sub-Conscious Lee” (from History, Mystery, Nonesuch). Frisell, guitar; Ron Miles, cornet; Greg Tardy, tenor saxophone; Jenny Scheinman, violin; Eyvind Kang, viola; Hank Roberts, cello; Tony Scherr, bass; Kenny Wollesen, drums. Recorded in 2006.

BEFORE: They don’t write ’em like that anymore [laughs]. Lou Donaldson calls these “funny lines,” “funny melodies” or something. Is the violin player Jenny Scheinman? I think I’ve heard part of this before. It’s very interesting. Is that Craig Handy or someone like that [on saxophone]? It’s so imaginatively orchestrated, and with no solos it’s such a relief. Because I’m involved in that I really appreciate it. I don’t remember who is responsible for this, but I congratulate him or her. The tenor player is someone I don’t love, not in that context.

AFTER: Right, of course. Every time I would meet him he’d say, “I’m working on ‘Sub-Conscious Lee.'” [laughs] Wow, bless his heart. I have to let him know I heard that in its entirety, finally. I really enjoyed listening to the treatment.

What do you like about this melody?

I was just writing out a solo, a one-time thing that I’m still collecting royalties on 60 years later [laughs]. It’s a unique version of “What Is This Thing Called Love?” based on diminished scales. I love to play with Bill; he loves space and certain kinds of simplicity that’s great to play with. I’m trying to realize more and more for myself, and in listening to others, how much they use the theme in their variations. I say this in workshops: Let me hear you play the melody and let me hear you embellish the melody a little bit; don’t lose the melody. That’s going to form the groundwork that you need to continue building. That was a good selection. Thank you.

3. Elvin Jones

“Everything Happens to Me” (from Dear John C., Impulse!). Jones, drums; Charlie Mariano, alto saxophone; Richard Davis, bass. Recorded in 1965.

BEFORE: [commenting on the saxophone solo] Oh yeah, he’s going to do a lot of that. Yeah, I knew he was going there and I don’t want to hear that. It’s a very fine saxophone player. He should pay royalties to Charlie Parker. He didn’t play the melody convincingly, although he’s good. He’s mixing his schmaltzy feeling with the Charlie Parker influence and it doesn’t quite go. Charlie Parker got away with it with the strings record because he’s a genius. I had no impression of the drummer at all and the bassist was very loud. The saxophone player was compelling. I was trying to figure out where he was going and who he could be: the sound, the way he finished the phrase with a classical kind of vibrato, things like that. So he knows what he’s doing. He just chooses and makes wrong decisions.

AFTER: Wow. Bless his soul. I never heard him play like that. You know, he was living three blocks from me in Cologne, Germany, for some years and I tried to befriend him and he didn’t respond too much. One time we played at a place in Cologne and it wasn’t very good. I guess we were both hoping we could do something and it would lead to something, but it didn’t really work out. I heard one of his records with Indian influences and a lady singer [R.A. Ramamani] that was interesting. And I heard something he did with Stan Kenton, and he was really playing straight-ahead Charlie Parker and doing that very well. I love this song.

4. Francesco Cafiso

“Why Don’t I” (from Angelica, CAM Jazz). Cafiso, alto saxophone; Aaron Parks, piano; Ben Street, bass; Adam Cruz, drums. Recorded in 2008.

BEFORE: Is this Phil Woods? It sounds like somebody who’s studied Phil Woods, but his sound isn’t as big as Phil gets. This guy is very good and very expressive in a more subtle way. It’s not Francesco Cafiso, is it?

AFTER: He’s gotten better. I was working at Birdland once, and I heard a record being played and I said, “Turn that off”: It was Cafiso trying to fill Charlie Parker’s shoes, and it was not making it. But this sounds more secure in some way, more settled. It sounds all figured out, not so improvised. But he’s a special talent.

The rest of this column can be found in the June 2010 issue of JazzTimes. Originally Published