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Lee Konitz/Brad Mehldau/Charlie Haden/Paul Motian: Live at Birdland

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An early favorite for best live release of 2011, Live at Birdland documents extended improvisations on a half-dozen jazz and pop standards over two nights in December 2009. Lee Konitz, Charlie Haden and Brad Mehldau had done something similar in Los Angeles more than a decade ago, resulting in a pair of albums. This time they’re joined by Paul Motian, with whom they’d each worked previously-anywhere from the decade or so Motian and Haden logged together with Keith Jarrett in the ’70s to Mehldau’s first encounter with Motian a few months earlier at the Village Vanguard.

These masters couldn’t be better suited philosophically. Konitz and his breathy, cerebral alto sax were there at the birth of the cool with Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan, and for the contemporaneous birth of free jazz with Lennie Tristano. Motian cut his teeth underpinning Bill Evans’ refined freedom. Haden helped Ornette Coleman make free jazz famous, but his Quartet West is latter-day cool at its best. And while at 40 he’s half the age of two of his bandmates, Mehldau shares the group’s reverence for standards and the notion that “free” can be soft, slow, smart, subtle and sophisticated. And pretty.

They worked sans set lists. Konitz or Mehldau would back his way into a classic of his choosing, and the others would join in, adhering to Ezra Pound’s dictate that artists “make it new.” Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo” gets the freest workout; Motian adds a strong solo to his colorful rhythmic support on Miles Davis’ “Solar”; and George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland” has extra resonance with Shearing’s death earlier this year. (December 2009, not incidentally, was the 60th anniversary month of the original Birdland’s opening.) Haden takes the best of his deeply melodic and meditative bass solos on “I Fall in Love Too Easily.” And Konitz and Mehldau leave enough crumbs behind in their dazzling deconstructions of familiar melodies to prevent anyone from getting lost.

Originally Published