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Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser’s Art by Andy Hamilton

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In jazz circles there is always talk about the importance of individuality, and there are always legions of musicians striving to play like someone else. A journeyman striver who patterns himself on one of the music’s geniuses may practice hard, embed in his brain and muscle memory an arsenal of phrases and techniques, reach high levels of accomplishment, develop a following and be a success. Most of the great individualists worked hard to develop their means of expression, but hard work neither requires nor supplies originality. Paul Quinichette worked diligently to learn to play like Lester Young. That is one way to approach jazz. Then there is Lee Konitz’s way.

In a generation loaded with alto saxophonists who wanted to be Charlie Parker, Konitz never wanted to be anyone but himself. He tells Andy Hamilton in this book of transcribed conversations that as a youngster he was impressed when he was studying with Lennie Tristano and encountered Parker’s records. He went on to learn some of Parker’s solos. But, he says, “When I first heard him I was already formulating a style. … It was very fortunate that I started with Tristano before hearing Bird-I would have gone the way of all the others, the imitators.” Based on six decades of recorded evidence and on the cogency and clarity of his thinking expressed in this book, that seems unlikely.

In answer to informed and stimulating questions from Hamilton, Konitz provides insights into what he got from Tristano and why he left his teacher’s orbit. He discusses the difference between playing on changes and his approach involving note-to-note development of melody. In non-technical language, he reflects on questions of tone, pitch, time, volume, the relationship of sound quality to note choices, and such intimate artistic matters as why he prefers to play with his eyes closed. Konitz illuminates the creative process. He is forthright, prickly, wry and sometimes very funny in his comments about music and musicians. Among the players he evaluates, for better or for worse, are Tristano, Warne Marsh, Chet Baker, Anthony Braxton, Clare Fischer, James Moody and Dexter Gordon.

Hamilton gives the book balance with his introduction, his well-written transitional paragraphs and interviews about Konitz with other musicians. The diverse lot of 38 interviewees includes Phil Woods, Wayne Shorter, George Russell, Clare Fischer, Sonny Rollins, Gunther Schuller, Greg Osby and John Tchicai, with a foreword by Joe Lovano. Hamilton provides chapter notes, seven transcriptions of Konitz’s music, eight pages of photographs, a limited discography, a bibliography and the comprehensive index essential to a book that will have a long shelf life as a reference.

The transcribed interview format is often used in lieu of writing. It usually induces, at least in this reader, frustration followed by boredom and premature closure of the book. That is not a problem here. Konitz’s disarming candor about himself and others, and Hamilton’s skill as a writer and organizer, overcome the handicap of the form.