© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Gordon Jack is a frequent contributor to the Jazz Journal and a very generous friend to these pages in his allowance of JazzProfiles republishings of his excellent writings. He is the author of Fifties Jazz Talk An Oral Retrospective and he developed the Gerry Mulligan discography in Raymond Horrick’s book Gerry Mulligan’s Ark.
The following article was first published in Jazz Journal June 2015..
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© - Gordon Jack/JazzJournal; copyright protected, all rights reserved., used with permission.
“Throughout a prolific career spanning seven decades Lee Konitz has usually chosen to showcase his talents within the confines of a small ensemble – often a very small ensemble. There are numerous duo recordings with Sal Mosca, Red Mitchell, Hal Galper, Jimmy Rowles and Gil Evans etc. Trios too have frequently been his modus operandi with Sonny Dallas - Nick Stabulas, Dick Katz - Wilbur Little, Harold Danko - Jay Leonhart and Don Friedman - Attila Zoller. All of which made his decision to organise a nine-piece group in the mid-seventies somewhat surprising.
Because of its similar size, the Konitz nonet has sometimes been compared to what became known as the Birth of the Cool ensemble. Miles’ group with its fragile, almost ethereal textures was essentially a scaled-down version of Claude Thornhill’s orchestra complete with french horn and tuba. Lee’s nonet with its wide-ranging repertoire was a far more extrovert affair. The instrumentation which was actually suggested by David Berger was also quite different – two trumpets, two trombones (one doubling bass trombone), alto doubling soprano, baritone, piano, bass and drums.
Returning to New York in May 1976 from a short European tour with Warne Marsh, Konitz recorded with Buck Clayton and then Chris Connor before getting together with Jimmy Knepper and David Berger to discuss plans for his nonet. He was living on West 86th Street at the time and Stryker’s which had opened in 1972 was his local club. The nonet started playing there and for the next 18 months or so they appeared quite regularly once or twice a week. The club did not have a piano so Ben Aronov had to bring in an electric instrument. They also performed at the Tin Palace, a little known club in the Bowery. Apparently nobody was paid very much (usually just cab fare) but Lee managed to keep the same core of players throughout the residency. In an interview for Jazz Journal (December 1996) he told me that he could not afford to pay for arrangements but Sy Johnson, Jimmy Knepper, David and Kenny Berger and Sam Burtis were all happy to write for the band without a fee. Kenny Berger recently told me that musicians at the time were willing to donate their services for a worthwhile project because there was still enough decent paying work available elsewhere. Today it would probably be different.
Their first recording (Roulette SR 5006) took place in October 1976. It features totally fresh looks at If Dreams Come True, Tea For Two, Without a Song and A Pretty Girl is like a Melody from the twenties and thirties as well as some more up to date originals by Chick Corea - Matrix and Times Lie. There is also an outstanding ensemble reading of Wayne Shorter’s classic Nefertiti which is virtually a through-composed chart arranged by Kenny Berger with brief solos from Konitz, Berger and Ben Aronov.
Their next visit to the recording studio a year later was even more impressive (Chiaroscuro CRD 186). A particular feature of the date is the way famous solos have been orchestrated into many of the selections: - Louis Armstrong‘s 1927 Struttin’ With Some Barbecue; Charlie Parker’s 1953 Chi Chi; Lester Young and Slam Stewart’s 1943 Sometimes I’m Happy and John Coltrane’s 1959 Giant Steps have all been seamlessly woven into the charts. The leader once said, “A great solo doesn’t care who plays it” - a philosophy probably inspired by his friend and mentor Lennie Tristano who used the study of classic instrumental solos as a teaching aid. A highlight here is Konitz and Ronnie Cuber performing Coltrane’s choruses in unison on Giant Steps, the harmonic minefield originally inspired by Have You Met Miss Jones? By now the hugely talented Cuber had replaced Kenny Berger on baritone and after the leader he was the most heavily featured soloist. His ballad feature If You Could See Me Now is alone worth the price of the CD. Drummer Kenny Washington from Staten Island was recommended by Jimmy Knepper who apparently raved about him. Just nineteen at the time and making his recording debut, Konitz said he read all the music and was “really great” if a little loud sometimes. He told him to check out Mel Lewis which Kenny subsequently did.
The band performed at the Half Note early in 1977 with some interesting additions to the repertoire and tapes of their performance have circulated for years. They opened with 317 East 32nd. Street which Konitz and Warne Marsh had introduced with the composer Lennie Tristano back in 1952. An Out of Nowhere contrafact and a favourite Konitz sequence the title refers to Tristano’s studio address in Manhattan where he did his teaching. Gil Evans’ chart on Moon Dreams from the Birth of the Cool is heard together with an unusual Konitz original Kary’s Trance which was dedicated to his daughter. It was first heard on a 1956 album with Billy Bauer and is based on Play, Fiddle Play. This is surely the only time Emery Deutsch’s 1933 hit has been the inspiration for a jazz original.
In Andy Hamilton’s excellent book on Lee Konitz he points out that Kary’s Trance has been analysed in George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. He quotes Russell saying, “Lee is one of the important figures in jazz – he endured and did it his way”. Unfortunately Lee’s most well-known composition Subconscious-Lee based on What Is This Thing Called Love? never seems to have been performed by the nonet. Another regular source of inspiration to him over the years – All The Things You Are - is also conspicuously missing from the group’s repertoire.
Their last studio recording was the humorously titled – Yes, Yes Nonet – for the Steeplechase label in April 1979 (SCCD-31119). It opens with Jimmy Knepper’s fanfare-like Dearth of a Nation which has some fine Clark Terry-inspired trumpet from John Eckert who also has an impressive ballad outing on My Buddy. Knepper’s accurately titled Languid has the leader front and centre on an original that would have been a perfect vehicle for Johnny Hodges. One of Lee’s students (Bill Kirchner) arranged Wayne Shorter’s Footprints which had been introduced by the composer in 1966 and was regularly performed by Miles Davis. It is notable for some intriguing duets – Sam Burtis with Jmmy Knepper – Lee Konitz with Ronnie Cuber and John Eckert with Tom Harrell.
Four months later the nonet was invited to perform in Holland at the Laren Jazz Festival with an interesting addition to the line-up – trumpeter Red Rodney (Soul Note 121069-2). Red had a habit of turning up unexpectedly because a year later he performed with Gerry Mulligan’s big band in Sweden when one of Mulligan’s trumpeters was indisposed. He is featured at length on April which is a Tristano original based as the name implies on the well-known Gene de Paul standard. The nonet achieves an outstanding ensemble reading both here and especially on Chick Corea’s difficult Matrix which includes a long extract from the composer’s 1968 solo recording. The leader’s arrangement of Without A Song is especially memorable. It was transposed to B natural as a writing exercise and only Konitz or Warne Marsh would choose such a challenging key. It features two extended soli passages for the ensemble (one unaccompanied) completely changing and even improving Vincent Youman’s standard. With so much re-writing he could have claimed composer royalties for an ‘original’ – Warne Marsh probably would have.
The following night they appeared at Middleheim performing their standard repertoire plus one of Lee’s favourites – You Stepped Out Of A Dream which they had not recorded before. Konitz once told me that he considered Ronnie Cuber to be “pretty special” but he went a little further at this concert when he introduced him to the audience as, “Sensational, inimitable and unbelievable” prior to his feature on Giant Steps. One of the last nonet appearances took place in Washington D.C. at the Smithsonian Institute on the 31st. January 1981 when they were asked to perform material from the Birth of the Cool album. The band already had Boplicity, Israel and Moon Dreams in the pad but Lee also wanted to include Godchild, Rocker and Jeru at the concert. He asked Miles Davis if he still had the arrangements but he was not interested in helping so Lee attempted to transcribe the charts from the records. There were ensemble passages he could not decipher which required a visit to Gerry Mulligan at his home in Darien, Connecticut who rewrote the arrangements in four hours – “It was great to see him work” Lee told me later.
It was not easy finding regular work for such a large group and Lee often found himself, “Talking to eight answering machines” whenever there was a booking or a rehearsal. More importantly his own opportunities to play were severely limited within the confines of a nine-piece ensemble which is why he eventually decided to disband. The original nonet recorded on four occasions but high quality tapes exist from the Half Note (1977), a radio broadcast (1978), Middleheim (1979), Washington D.C. (1981) and the Village Vanguard (1981). Hopefully some enterprising label might eventually release them commercially as a welcome addition to the recorded legacy of the Lee Konitz nonet.
There was one final occasion in Copenhagen when Konitz revisited the nonet format. In 1992 he received the Third Annual Jazzpar Award and he celebrated the event by recording with the Jazzpar All Star Nonet for Storyville (STCD 4181).
The following video features the nonet on Giant Steps with Lee and Ronnie playing Coltrane’s solo in unison beginning at 3:06 minutes into the track.