LEE KONITZ – Splendid-Lee
Interview by Jack Kenny
Listening to the music of Lee Konitz you get a clear impression
of the man: clear, cool, direct, lucid. Talking to him you get the same
feeling. He is not weighed down by his lengthy history; he prefers to talk
about where he is now, where he is going. Nevertheless it was not long before
he talked about Lester Young. “Lester is still an influence on me and I
recommend him to all young people and older people including me. His taste was
exquisite. I am talking about his work with Count Basie. He was eloquent in
that situation. As he grew older he ran out of energy, he was drinking and
doing things but his playing was pure.”
If you watch one of the YouTube videos mentioned below you will see Lee Konitz and pianist, Dan Tepfer driving along a motorway travelling between gigs, Lee has slotted in a tape of Lester Young's solos from his Basie period. They both know the solos note by note and sing along joyously.
Lee laughed when I asked what he was going to do next. “I have been playing the saxophone for nearly seventy years and it is still a challenge to me. I play some piano but mainly at home. I have added singing to my public expression. Not ballad singing but scat. So that I can play on my horn “boo de o doo” and then sing “vo do de dee” the phrase vocally. My idea is that when we start out, before we decide what kind of instrumental voice we want, I in singing and whistling somehow expressing music. My obvious conclusion is that we should put more emphasis on our practice of singing instead of just perfecting our technique on the instrument. I am doing more of that. I sing this way and then follow it up on the horn. It is great fun and people are enjoying this additional voice. It's got to be fun!”
Complete faith in the spontaneous process is what Lee has. “Absolutely! I am still trying to define how spontaneous we can get in this way because I very much start from scratch when I get up on the stage. I have no plan at all except to play 'Body and Soul' or 'All The Things You Are'. I don't know what the people I am playing with are thinking. All those thoughts happen in the first few bars. If I am not stuck with a fixed plan I can enjoy the new dimension of where we are going. That way we can keep the music new, fresh.”
The soprano saxophone is used on three tracks of the First Meeting album. Many players shy away from the smaller horn. Why? 'The soprano is a high voice and tends to get higher, if you are not careful you can force the pitch up. I have a tendency on the alto to go over the pitch. After all these years of being accused playing sharp, I just say you're hearing flat. All that is not etched out mechanically. The way I play adds some brilliance to my sound.”
The purity and clarity of Lee's sound makes him instantly recognisable. How does he achieve that? “The clarity of the sound has always been a problem because I salivate heavily so I am constantly slurping. The actual quality if the sound is, I am talking to you now with some kind of conviction, and I play the horn with that kind of conviction. Making the proper sound is so dependent on the choice of reeds, the mouthpiece, the choice of horn, so we are constantly trying things to see if there is something better. I have a mouthpiece, well a draw full of mouthpieces given to me by Vandoren and three drawers full of reeds. I just enjoy trying them. Sometimes one doesn't work; years later I come back to it and it works perfectly”’
Listening habits have changed. Many players aggressively seek for attention. Lee is laid back. How should people listen? “Now I presume they will have heard other people so they will have to compare me with what they have heard. It might have been someone like Paul Desmond. What they should be looking for is being able to open themselves to what is happening and trying to receive what it is in the most positive way possible. It is being able to concentrate on what is going on and reacting to it.”
Have audiences changed over the years? “‘Yes they have been listening to all this show biz music. I have not worked in two months here in New York where all the festivals are happening. I am working at the Newport Festival on August 3rd and the reason I am working there is because I opened the very first Newport Festival with Lennie Tristano sixty years ago. I suppose I am a legendary figure! I saw an ad in Downbeat for the festival the other day but they hadn't included my name!”
Choosing people to play with cannot always be easy. “I firmly believe that each situation will bring out another aspect, a dimension of your musical personality. Playing with Kenton was not the same as playing with Warne Marsh. Playing with Lennie Tristano and Dan Tepfer are two different experiences and I react accordingly. It's all about how I feel and being with people who appreciate how I fall behind the beat and manage to adjust. It is a mutual thing. I need musicians who are interested in what others are doing. If they are just interested in themselves, I am not interested!
“There are a lot of people now who after years of trying different techniques are very sympathetic to me. In the past some put me down because I did not play like Charlie Parker. The Sonny Stitts and all the a*******s I learned to dislike very much because of their dumb temperaments. They put me down as a white boy who could not play hot. They would make fun of me on stage, I was told. Once when I was sitting in with Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt was doing a funny kind of dance as I was playing. At some point a lot of those people who criticised me are now praising me. It makes me feel that I did not choose the wrong way of life!
Tristano was my first inspiration; he was very true to his beliefs. He loved Charlie Parker; we all loved Charlie Parker. Charlie was very friendly with me. Charlie admired Tristano's way, his students' ways: Warne and me. He wanted to get some insight into what we were practising. We hung out together when Stan Kenton hired me for a concert tour he was doing, that was after I left the band. I said: “Who else is on?' He said: 'Charlie Parker.' I said; 'Wow!' There he was each night and I could not even listen to his performance because I was so affected by his perfection.”
Konitz's discography is remarkable and varied: big bands, solo sessions, duos, unaccompanied recitals. High points include a trio date with drummer Elvin Jones, duos with tenor player Richie Kamuca, guitarist Jim Hall and violinist Ray Nance. There are spell binding sessions with Martial Solal. Konitz recently recorded with Charlie Haden, Bob Brookmeyer, Randy Brecker, Paul Bley, Paul Motian, Steve Swallow, Dan Tepfer and Brad Mehldau.
TEN KEY ALBUMS
Birth of the Cool (Capitol)
New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm- Stan Kenton (Capitol)
Motion with Elvin Jones (Verve)
Lee Konitz Duets (OJC)
Three Guys (Enja)
Live at Birdland (Blue Note)
First Meeting (Whirlwind Recordings)
All The Things You Are (Lee Konitz Portrait) MEZZO 2011 (A documentary of a recent concert tour)
Lee Konitz and Martial Solal at the Atelier de la Main d'Or, first concert (A complete concert)