At age 79, Lee Konitz remains a restlessly creative, eternally open-minded spirit. Nearly 60 years after playing a key role in Miles Davis’ landmark Birth of the Cool sessions and Lennie Tristano’s seminal free-jazz recordings, “Intuition” and “Digression,” Konitz is still remarkably spry and taking immense risks on the bandstand night after night. Two simultaneous releases on Omnitone—one capturing his current nonet live at the Jazz Standard in New York, the other a string-quartet project recorded at Studio Weinberg in Austria—document the master improviser reacting in typically liberated fashion, guided always by his keen instincts for playing in the moment. Arranger/conductor Ohad Talmor, a key collaborator over the past few years, brilliantly frames Konitz’s butterscotch alto sax voice in both ambitious settings, allowing him to waft freely (and sometimes provocatively) over the proceedings like a feather caught in an updraft.
The centerpiece of New Nonet is the six-part “ChromaticLee Suite,” co-composed by Konitz and Talmor. Lee comes out of the gate on the swinging opener “Outward” sounding friskier and more Ornette-ish than the restrained, burnished tones he exhibited on Birth of the Cool more than half a century ago. Backed by a rhythm section consisting of Matt Wilson on drums, Bob Bowen on bass and guitarist Ben Monder playing the role of pianist with his remarkable fingerstyle chordal voicings, Konitz blows mercurial lines above the fray, at one point nimbly dropping in a wry quote from Alexander Borodin’s “Love Song From the Polovitsian Dances” (a romantic theme later popularized by a string of crooners as “Stranger in Paradise”). From there the nonet smoothly segues into the earthy “Big Easy,” a riff on “Ol’ Man River” that features Wilson in shuffle mode. Konitz again plays it untethered, floating on top of the groove and eventually engaging in a vocal conversation with trombonist Jacob Garchick. The mellow midtempo “West Coast” features some supple counterpoint between Lee’s alto sax, Dimos Goudaroulis’ cello, Russ Johnson’s trumpet and Garchick’s trombone. Konitz blows with freewheeling authority over the uptempo swinging section paced by Wilson, Bowen and Monder.