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JAZZ | Spotlight

Lee Konitz Disc Indeed Delivers a 'Surprise'

April 02, 2000|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

"Composer" is not exactly the first association that comes to mind when alto saxophonist Lee Konitz's name is mentioned. Although he was responsible for several classic lines recorded in the '50s with Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh, his game is primarily centered on improvisation.

So it's surprising to see a new album--"Lee Konitz: Sound of Surprise" (*** 1/2, RCA Victor)--described by his record company as the first complete recording of his compositions (although one track was, in effect, created on the spot by his entire quintet). As it turns out, it's a bit of a stretch to describe most of the pieces as compositions. Like Tristano, Konitz writes melody lines based on the chord changes of standard tunes such as "Out of Nowhere," "Body and Soul" and "All the Things You Are" (all of which, among others, serve that purpose in his works for the album).

Konitz has always been a difficult listen for some. In the early years, it may have been simply the result of Konitz's insistence on playing with his own sound and style when the Charlie Parker sound and method were the dominant modality for alto saxophonists. But there's another issue that can make Konitz's improvisations a thorny listening experience: his determination to avoid repetition, to consciously attempt to limit expression of a personal lexicon of phrases, licks and riffs. "As soon as I find myself playing a melodic segment that I already know," he told writer Henri Renaud, "I take the mouthpiece out. The art of improvisation implies . . . that the slate is clean."

Working with a fine ensemble--tenor saxophonist Ted Brown, guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joey Baron--Konitz is as good as his word on the album's 12 selections, soloing in a voice that is utterly his own, in a style that can lead a willing listener through an array of subtle musical nuances. Brown, like Konitz a former Tristano student, plays a Marsh-like companion role on a few of the tracks, but it is Abercrombie's floating lines that seem best suited to the Konitz paradigm. Longtime Konitz fans will be intrigued by new renderings of his "Hi Beck" and "Subconscious Lee" and amused by his scat vocal on "Singin'."

Tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips, who celebrated his 85th birthday in February, was already a veteran performer when Konitz arrived on the jazz scene in the mid-'40s. Yet, amazingly, "Swing Is the Thing" (*** 1/2, Verve) is his major-label debut as a leader. It would be both patronizing and ageist to note the quality of Phillips' playing in the context of his advanced years--especially since his performances of a group of standards, originals (written with guitarist Howard Alden) and straight-ahead swing numbers are delivered with a confident musicality that transcends his longevity.

In addition, Phillips has surrounded himself with a first-rate assemblage of top-level, take-no-prisoners players--in addition to Alden, saxophonists James Carter and Joe Lovano, pianist Benny Green, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Kenny Washington. And it's fascinating to hear Phillips--whose saxophone battles in Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts in the '40s and '50s were legendary--exchanging licks with Carter and Lovano, two players who would undoubtedly cite him as an important influence.

Phillips also plays with lush tenderness on three ballads, each performed as a duet: "In a Mellow Tone" with McBride; "Music, Maestro, Please" with Green; and "This Is All I Ask" with Alden. If his maturity has bestowed any special quality, it is the capacity to play ballads with respect for the melody and an understanding of the song's story. Swing may be intrinsic to Phillips' music, but it is his ability to use it with grace and maturity that gives his playing its irresistible appeal.

Benny Golson, another veteran saxophonist, is, at 71, slightly younger than the 72-year-old Konitz. But Golson comes from a markedly different musical background: the spirited hard-bop sounds of the late '50s. Playing with a muscular sound and a fluid, swinging approach to rhythm, he was also a vital compositional influence in the period via such now-classic originals as "Killer Joe," "Stablemates," "Whisper Not" and "Blues March."

Only the latter, however, is included in "That's Funky" (***, Arkadia Jazz), along with such other hard-bop/soul-jazz classics as Bobby Timmons' "Moanin'," Lee Morgan's "Sidewinder" and Nat Adderley's "Work Song." Recorded in 1994 with Adderley on trumpet, pianist Monty Alexander, bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith, it was one of the last recordings made by Adderley, who died earlier this year.

Given the lineup and the material, the result is easygoing, comfortably swinging, eminently listenable jazz, with some particularly noteworthy contributions from Alexander (especially his gospel-drenched choruses on "Mississippi Windows," a new Golson blues). It's also interesting to hear Golson's alternative takes on Kurt Weill's "Mack the Knife"; the first is described as the "funky" version, the second--which bears the original title of "Moritat"--is called the "modern bebop" version. The only mystery about this appealing set of performances is why it took so long to be released, and why Arkadia failed to note the recording date anywhere on the liner notes.

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