NEWPORT BEACH — The art of the jazz improviser is much like that of the storyteller. Both seek to keep the listener engaged with a developing plot, colorful descriptions and unexpected twists, all presented with just the right amount of flair and drama. In one sense, the musical improviser has a more difficult task, since he must imply meaning with sound, rather than relate it directly with words.
So as storytelling sessions go, Friday's appearance of alto saxophonists Lee Konitz and Gary Foster at the Hyatt Newporter's outdoor amphitheater topped most anything you might have heard told around a campfire. Both men, in their own styles, conveyed a powerful sense of meaning and narrative, whether playing individually or in tandem. That most of what they played was spontaneously created makes the session all the more remarkable.
As a means of introduction, the first set opened with individual statements from each of the quintet members. Konitz initiated the series, working in unrushed phrases built on tones that, at times, echoed with his breath. Then Foster stepped in to pick up the winsome theme, playing in longer lines that seemed to accelerate as they unwound. At one point, he hit a beautifully transparent high note that he held for just a moment before swirling back down the scale.
Next came bassist Putter Smith, who framed the notes of his solo as if each was the effort's most important. Then pianist Cecilia Coleman took a turn, adding emotional range and harmonic depth to this musical round robin. Finally, drummer Paul Kreibich rolled and rattled by himself, working up interesting combinations from his kit topped off by simultaneous cymbal and bass drum hits.
This glimpse into the individual musician's style gave way to ensemble playing, signaled by Smith's solid bass line. Konitz led with short, plaintive phrases that recalled fellow altoist Ornette Coleman, but stated quietly, without screaming or overtones.
Foster jumped into the fray, with Konitz responding to his every line. Before long, the two men were working simultaneously, pushing each other into more and more revealing statements. Smith pulled the excursion back to Earth with a strong, up-tempo walk and suddenly the piece metamorphosed into a thinly disguised version of "What Is This Thing Called Love?"
Both the interplay and individual statements of the saxophonists became more involved as the evening went on. Foster was featured on Tadd Dameron's "If You Could See Me Now," displaying an uncanny knack for twisting a part of its melodic theme into something even more striking. Without the saxophonists, Coleman used "Young and Foolish" to show her preference for embracing a melody when soloing, rather than taking off from it. This treatment resulted in the evening's longest ovation.
Billed as a tribute to Konitz's mentor, the late pianist and educator Lennie Tristanto, the set more honored Tristanto's adventurous spirit than his actual music. The one Tristanto tune aired, "317 East 32nd St.," found Foster and Konitz playing in unison on the be-boppish theme line, before Konitz took off to once again show why he's the O. Henry of jazz.
Here, though, there were no surprise endings. Instead Konitz pulled his solo to a logical climax, one that brought everything before it, including his references to "As Time Goes By" to a neat little conclusion. You could almost hear the audience begging: "Tell us another one, Lee."