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Disregarding Trends, Lee Konitz Carries On

For almost five decades, the sax player has built a varied, valuable body of work--typically as an outsider.

December 15, 1996|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

Lee Konitz comes on stage looking like a studious, mild-mannered rabbi. White-bearded, introspective, he lifts his alto saxophone and begins to play, the sounds unfolding with a cool, intimate focus. Like the late pianist Bill Evans, his concentration, his urgent desire to reach into the heart of the music, makes every solo an adventurous quest.

Konitz, who starts a six-day run at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City on Tuesday, has been an enigmatic figure in jazz for nearly five decades. At 69, the veteran performer has survived big bands, bebop, rock, fusion and rap, continually following a less-traveled path of his own choosing.

His playing, almost from the beginning, has been masterful, the voice of a genuine original. Regularly recording and performing, he has built up a large and valuable body of work. Yet he has never really received the acclaim that his talent seems to have warranted.

So why is this quiet performer--the antithesis of the jazz man as outgoing entertainer--such a persistently fascinating artist?

For two primary reasons.

The first has been Konitz's resolute insistence upon taking on the role of jazz outsider, moving beyond the mainstream, especially in the early years of his career, to play in a style that was at significant variance from the then-dominant bebop style. His career has taken full advantage of jazz's historical respect for individual expression, and he has used the intrinsic liberation provided by his role as outsider to explore a wide range of musical options--a stint in the unlikely setting of the Stan Kenton band, the organization of his own nine-piece ensemble, solo and duet performances, recordings with strings, singers, and almost every imaginable combination of instruments.

His appearance at the Bakery, for example, will find him in the company of pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist Charlie Haden--two strong players with ideas of their own about improvisation, rhythmic grooves and harmonic structure.

Equally important, there will be no drummer, opening the possibility for subtle, multilayered rhythmic interaction between the musicians, with more opportunity for Konitz to stretch his improvisational wings.

Switching gears for his final day at the Bakery next Sunday, he will perform in an entirely different musical setting, with entirely different parameters, when he appears only with guitarist Larry Koonse. (The day after the engagement concludes, Konitz will marry his German fiancee at the club.)

"This is going to be a relaxed, inspired, and very spontaneous gig," says Haden, "because spontaneity is where Lee comes from, and that's where Brad and I come from. In fact, the only program idea that Lee suggested wasn't even specifically musical. He said, 'Why don't we do some tunes associated with dreams--like "Weaver of Dreams" and "Dream," things like that.' And then he talked about maybe a tribute to Nat Cole. But that's Lee. He just doesn't want to do the things that everybody else does."

Konitz fascinates for a second reason, as well. And that, to paraphrase Marlon Brando, is because there was a time when he very well "coulda been a contenda," a primary influence upon the trends of jazz. Instead, he became an independent voice, an outsider who still managed to attract the attention and admiration of the insiders.

Konitz came on the scene as a true original in the late 1940s, his style already remarkably well-formed, a potentially influential player by the time he was in his early 20s.

There was, however, a problem: Konitz arrived at a time when alto saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker (with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and others) was already inventing a new jazz language--bebop. It was a language, along with a vocabulary and a dialect, that would become so pervasive that it eventually encompassed the jazz world, leaving little room for alternative approaches. Virtually every saxophonist in jazz who came to maturity after the late 1940s was indelibly affected by Parker's playing.

But Konitz, seven years younger than Parker, insisted upon making his own musical passage. The decision, at the time, was a courageous one; to not play bebop in the late '40s and early '50s was to be stamped as either a "moldy fig" or a cold intellectual.

And Konitz's sound, with its pure-centered quality, similar to the traditional French classical approach to the alto, was often described as "chilly." His improvisations--unlike the blues-based, harmonically intricate lines of bebop--moved in and around the harmonies, sometimes in near-modal fashion, sometimes in dissonant opposition to the chords. Finally, his music, almost without exception, never made concessions to commercial considerations. He was a true original, determinedly moving against the growing widespread, tidal mainstream of bebop.

Although his method was, for alto players, one of the few viable alternatives to Parker, Konitz's direct influence upon his contemporaries then and now has been limited.

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