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Lee Konitz at 83: Taking It Slow and Steady on "Live at Birdland"

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The latest entry in All About Jazz's Legends series is alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, who first arrived on the scene back in the late 1940s when he played in Claude Thornhill's orchestra. As a teen, he studied with the legendary Lennie Tristano, eventually playing and recording with the master. He was also a member of the group that recorded Miles Davis' landmark 'Birth of the Cool,' and soon thereafter began to lead bands of his own. One of the great stylists on alto sax, Konitz's tone is light but sharp. He has a singular attack when he plays where the notes seem to bleed over, creating a liquid effect where you'd swear that he was squeezing his horn into different shapes as he plays.

At 83 years old, he's played in just about every setting imaginable (including the landmark 'Duets' from 1967) while always remaining steadfastly unique. His new 'Live at Birdland,' due out June7, is a 2009 live set recorded with drummer Paul Motion, bassist Charlie Haden and pianist Brad Mehldau. Spinner caught up with Konitz at his home in New York City.

The new album features a marvelous quartet of guys you had ongoing associations with.

Long casual relationships, except for the music part of it. Brad lives a couple of blocks from me on the Upper West Side. I actually saw him in the supermarket one day with his daughter. It's small town sometimes, but a big town too. It's different from Los Angeles where guys there won't see each other for years. I walk a lot and I'm always looking for a familiar face. I don't see that many, but I'm always happy when I do.

Is walking the secret to staying healthy for you?

Yeah, I know it helps the health, but I just enjoy moving around and listening to the birds in the park.

When did you first play with Paul Motion?

We played together in Lennie Tristano's band. He played on my 'Live at the Half Note' in 1959, but we met somewhere along the way before that, as musicians do. Same with Charlie, though it was later. I'm not quite sure when. But we've continued to cross paths occasionally over the years and its always nice.

We look at 'Live at Birdland' as a follow-up to 1997's 'Alone Together' and 1999's 'Another Shade of Blue' because both feature you, Charlie and Brad in the live setting. Were those records sort of the blueprint for the chemistry on this new one?

They could have been. I didn't really think about it in that way. Maybe it ran through other people's mind when it was coming together. I knew it would be different though. It's 14 years later and of course there is the addition of Paul. I've been listening to the new one for the last year and a half and enjoy it every time.

Is there enough material from the run of shows to do another CD?

There was one tune that I liked very much, but Paul and Charlie didn't agree with me. Brad wasn't available for the mixing session when we mixed it and picked the material. But I think there a few very good ones I think. There were some ballads that were really nice. So, let's see, this took a year and a half to come out. I'll be 86 when they decide to release the rest of it [laughs].

It's nice to be putting out records at 83, isn't it?

Well, I'd rather be putting [out] fresh ones instead. I'm recording next week at the Blue Note club with Gary Peacock, Bill Frisell and Joey Baron. I'm looking forward to a nice fresh rendition of 'All the Things You Are' or whatever.

The Birdland record featured a lot of standards at slow to medium tempos. Was that a decision you made ahead of time, or was that just how the dates evolved?

Brad and I usually like to take turns starting tunes when we play together, but Charlie didn't want to play that game. When that happens different guys may count something off at the same tempo, or just a shade slower or faster. But along the way I've made it clear that I don't want to play very fast tempos.

Why not play at the faster tempos?

I find it difficult to improvise at a faster tempo. I still like the improvised product better than the prepared one.

Based on the variety of musical settings and your willingness explore each to its fullest, you seem to still be the student.

That's a fact. I've confined myself to the same small body of material and it's made me realize that there is an infinite possibility on how to rearrange those same 12 notes. And it is based on those great songs, which I need to hold it all together.

The Blue Note gig and the Birdland album aside, you play with a lot of young players. What's the allure?

Young people have fresh ideas, and young people call me. I've never been much of a leader where I go out and look for work and things like that. So if young people didn't call me I'd just be home practicing.

So you still practice at this point?

Every day I play some. Mostly I'll just improvise, whether there are patterns, free kinds of things, whatever. I just enjoy playing and finding a good reed and all those kinds of things.

You studied under Lennie Tristano as a kid. What did you learn from him?

Mainly that it was possible for me to stand up in front of an audience and make it up, as opposed to bringing a prepared product.

You were coming up when Charlie Parker was taking the jazz world by storm. Was it a little daunting that you both played alto sax?

It was a lot daunting! I was fortunate that I had the Tristano situation, which encouraged me that music was the master that was playing the instrument. That's what I did and it allowed me address my own needs. Back then, there was a lot of disapproval of my playing on the part of those guys who played like Charlie Parker. They didn't think I was very hip. Now I get thanked for developing an idea of my own.

Were you actually were good friends Bird?

He was always very friendly during the times that we met. He was always thanking me for not playing like him. We actually toured together in the Stan Kenton Orchestra in 1953. I later realized that I never listened to one of his sets [as a leader] because of how daunting it would be. It would be hard to step up and do my thing after hearing him do his. In the Stan Kenton band we were playing arrangements so it was different. I had already left the band at that point and when they called to bring me back for the tour, I asked who else was playing. They told me Charlie Parker and I couldn't believe it. I never did find out why they wanted both of us. I asked, but I never found out.

This story appears courtesy of All About Jazz @ Spinner.
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