Lee Konitz Nonet: Old Songs New (Sunnyside)

A review of the new album from the nonagenarian saxophonist-led group

Lee Konitz Nonet, Old Songs New
The cover of Old Songs New by the Lee Konitz Nonet

The title might just as easily have been Old Freedoms Reimagined. Lee Konitz, who in 1949 as a member of the Lennie Tristano Quintet helped blaze the trail for free improvisation on the landmark “Intuition,” here explores a very different, but no less challenging, kind of freedom. Rather than creating spontaneously with no preset plan or structure, he takes on material already familiar to him (including his own bebop-tinged “Kary’s Trance”), immerses himself in arranger Ohad Talmor’s richly colored aural landscapes, and then, as Talmor’s liner notes explain, proceeds to “either play over or fit inside the lush sounds at will … where the music would simultaneously stand on its own and complement Lee’s inspiration when he chose to play along with it.”                                  

Indeed, this set is as much a showcase for Talmor as it is for Konitz; the nonet orchestrations are fully conceived works in themselves—mini-symphonies, in fact. For his part, the nonagenarian Konitz’s pitch has loosened somewhat, his vibrato wider and more watery in places, and, especially on ballads, he’s not above adding some syrup to his tone, his heart more visible on his sleeve (as if he can now afford to reveal a vulnerability that might have been anathema in his Young Turk days). He continues to improvise primarily on melody instead of chord structure, and despite his cerebral approach and his steadfast avoidance of sentimentality, he remains a deeply soulful player, if for no other reason than his deep-running, palpable infatuation with beauty. While there’s a sense of isolation, a stark loneliness, at the heart of his storytelling, he nonetheless basks in the intimacy of communication with his fellow musicians (and, by implication, with the listener), invoking a spirituality every bit as profound, if not necessarily as overt, as that of such free-jazz mystics as Coltrane, Ayler, and their latter-day disciples.

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David Whiteis

David Whiteis is a critic, journalist, and author based in Chicago. He is the recipient of the Blues Foundation’s 2001 Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Achievement in Journalism. His books include Southern Soul-Blues (U. of Illinois Press, 2013) and Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories (U. Of Illinois Press, 2006). He is currently at work completing a book on contemporary Chicago blues and a co-written autobiography of the late soul singer Denise LaSalle.