Sunday, March 22, 2015

Lover man: Lee Konitz, singing (to) the song

Last week, on the final night of the Village Vanguard's 80th birthday week, overseen by Jason Moran, I saw Charles Lloyd's quartet play an unreal set at the Village Vanguard. I had a feeling the show was going to be a good one, but I was unprepared for the slashing intensity of the band—Lloyd, Moran, Reuben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums—for what Nate Chinen referred to in his spot-on review as its "radical empathy."

The group operated like a team of elite fighter pilots, swooping instantaneously into tight battle formations and then dispersing into looser unities. They played free; they played pretty; they played funky—all with grace and intensity. However extreme, however state-of-the-art the band got, the 77-year-old Lloyd was right there—a veteran whose improvisational reflexes have only grown even sharper, whose sound on the tenor sax has only grown more commanding, fluid and expressive, and whose radiant onstage charisma has only grown more potent as he's aged. (Amen to Nate's observation that "[The band's] slanted rhythmic strategies, indebted to progressive hip-hop production, didn’t throw off Mr. Lloyd any more than the rolling, continuous energies of the set.")

Beyond some limited, yet awed exposure to Lloyd's classic ’60s quartet with Keith Jarrett, Cecil McBee and Jack DeJohnette, I don't know his discography well, but this show made me an instant super-fan. It exemplified the fruitful intergenerational friction that is the engine of so much great jazz, from Davis/Shorter/Hancock/Carter/Williams to Heath/Iverson/Street (the latter of which sounded extraordinary at the Vanguard the week prior to Moran's run).

Last night, I saw another fantastic intergenerational band, led by a veteran saxophonist exactly ten years Lloyd's senior: Lee Konitz, who's in the midst of a Jazz Standard run—concluding tonight, Sunday, March 22—with a quintet co-led by trumpeter Dave Douglas, and including pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Ches Smith. The energy of this set couldn't have felt more different from that of the Lloyd set, but there was one key similarity: the performance fully reflected the personality and agenda of its central figure, as though the other players were channeling their voices through Konitz's horn, or inviting Konitz to channel his through their own instruments.

Voices were a key theme during this set. As he did during the Charlie Haden memorial back in January Konitz spent a good portion of the performance singing, scatting wordless melodies, during a set that consisted mostly of his treasured standards—"Lover Man," "Solar" and one or two others—along with a Lennie Tristano theme, "317 E. 32nd St," written on the chord changes of "Out of Nowhere." (Here's a lovely 1952 version of the piece, featuring Tristano, Konitz and Warne Marsh.) Douglas and Oh also joined in the fun, the latter, prompted by Konitz, offering a mellow extended vocal meditation on "How Deep Is the Ocean?"

At first, I regarded these vocal passages as charming interludes, but as the set progressed, I realized that they were in some ways the meat of the set. At the club, I sat with a friend, the accomplished bassist Devin Hoff. Afterward, we talked about how the presence of an elder like Lee Konitz on a bandstand instantly confers legitimacy onto a set of jazz. Hoff, commenting on his own experiences playing standards with older players in the Bay Area, pointed out that these figures have a way of reminding you that standards like the ones we heard last night are actual songs—tunes with lyrics and shapes and sentiments, not simply launch pads for improvisers looking to show off the snazzy tricks they've developed in the practice room.

When Konitz scat-sings, it seems to me that he's not exactly singing the song in question, but singing to the song, serenading it. Part of the Konitz legend is how fixated he is on a core group of standards. Watching him sing, wordlessly, with a weathered but tuneful voice, eyes closed, is to watch a man in love, not so much with the music coming out of him, but with the music in his head, with the song that's fueling his reverie. "How Deep Is the Ocean?" was written in 1932, which makes Konitz's relationship to that song roughly analogous to my own relationship to, say, "Billie Jean." This abstract idea we have of standards, a tome of musical texts brought down from the mount (by Steve Swallow?), must seem rather foreign to the 87-year-old Konitz, a man who experienced many of these songs in their heyday, absorbed them through the air just as we do the pop songs of our age.

That's not to say that Konitz's playing is an afterthought. His sound on the alto is—still, as it seems to have always been—gloriously pillowy, fluid, sweet. (When you hear Lee Konitz live, you realize what the essence of "sweet" really is, and why that doesn't have to be a dismissive term.) Konitz puffs up his cheeks grandly when he plays, and, almost paradoxically, this act yields extreme softness, a sound with a certain kind of tartness of tone (at some moments, I thought of Eric Dolphy, an altoist who seems 180 degrees removed from Konitz but might actually be a good deal closer in spirit) but with a halo of breath around it. His melodies, the songs he sings to the songs he's singing, are precious cargo, and he pads them well for a safe journey.

Last night, his lines intertwined beautifully with Douglas's. The set featured a good amount of conventional solos, but my favorite moments by far were when Konitz and Douglas were improvising together, swooping in and out of one another's flight patterns like birds dancing a duet in the air. At these moments, the star was truly the song in question, and the imaginative feats it inspired in the players, not the players themselves.

The rest of the band played with tenderness and sensitivity. If the Lloyd set was about radical empathy, this set was about radical comfort, about the point at which casualness becomes so absolute, so soul-deep, that it achieves profundity. No obvious—to me, at least—"out" signifiers from any of Konitz's bandmates, all of whom are known for working in such realms to varying degrees. Everyone was on-message, which is not to say obedient or subservient—Ches Smith, for example, still sounded exactly like the drummer who plays in Tim Berne's Snakeoil—but simply conscious of the Lee Konitz Concept and fully committed to seeing it through. (Matt Mitchell shone on the ballads, at times playing duo with Konitz and laying out a handsome harmonic red carpet for him to blow over.) Everyone was there to celebrate these songs, and to celebrate the man who has devoted his entire career to reanimating them at every performance, to making them new not through radical reinvention, but through simple care and attention. Love, really.


*Lee Konitz on singing and playing.

*Ted Panken's invaluable Charles Loyd interviews.

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