Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Lee Konitz - "Excerpts from Conversations on the Improvisor's Art" by Andy Hamilton

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“That's my way of preparation — to not be prepared. And that takes a lot of preparation!”

—Lee Konitz

"An extraordinary approach to a biography, with the man himself speaking for extended sessions. The main vibration I felt from Lee's words was total honesty, almost to a fault. Konitz shows himself to be an acute observer of the scene, full of wisdom and deep musical insights, relevant to any historical period regardless of style. The asides by noted musicians are beautifully woven throughout the pages. I couldn't put the book down - it is the definition of a living history." 

-David Liebman, saxophonist

The preeminent altoist [perhaps too often] associated with the "cool" school of Jazz, Lee Konitz was one of the few saxophonists of his generation to forge a unique sound independent of the influence of Charlie Parker. 

In the late 1940s, Konitz began his career with the Claude Thornhill band, during which time he came into contact with Miles Davis, with whom he would later work on the legendary Birth of the Cool sessions. 

Konitz is perhaps best known through his association with Lennie Tristano, under whose influence much of his sound evolved, and for his work with Stan Kenton and Warne Marsh. 

His recordings have ranged from cool bop to experimental improvisation and have appeared on such labels as Prestige, Atlantic, Verve, and Polydor. 

Crafted out of numerous interviews between the author and his subject, Lee Konitz - Excerpts from Conversations on the Improvisor's Art [Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2007] offers a unique look at the story of Lee Konitz's life and music, detailing Konitz's own insights into his musical education and his experiences with such figures as Miles Davis, Stan Kenton, Warne Marsh, Lennie Tristano, Charles Mingus, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans.

I’ve been around Jazz musicians for most of my adult life, both as a player and as a student of the music, and I’ve always been impressed by those who can verbally articulate the process associated with its main element - improvisation.

Of course, playing Jazz well is the main requirement of a musician, but explaining it well in a narrative format by the musicians themselves is a rare corollary. 

One of the best at doing both was the late alto saxophonist Lee Konitz [1927-2020]. 

This portion of the book’s ongoing interviews with Lee explains what it is like to be within the music as it is being made as compared to what it’s like being outside the music and listening to it. The former is the musician’s perspective while the latter is that of the fan’s.

© Copyright ® Andy Hamilton/University of Michigan Press, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

You've done a lot of duos with pianists. Is that a format you particularly


I do enjoy playing in a duet situation. But a bass and drums trio is the best situation for me, because I don't feel like I have to share the solo space so much, and I can stretch more. It's difficult hearing the chords while in motion, sometimes.

Again, I'll try to visualize the situation on stage, with piano, bass, and drums. I'm usually standing with my back to them, which I don't like. And, since I don't use a microphone and monitor most of the time, they can't hear me face to face. Now, I start to play — without a count-off, frequently — and, one by one, they join me . .. such a nice feeling to hear another sympathetic voice — nothing can compare to this process for me.

So, I hear the bass notes, then the piano plays a chord, and I say — in some part of me — "Wow, what was that?" Not enough time to really put a label on it, so I do the best I can to match that sound. Then the drums enter — great to hear! So now I am listening to myself in relation to three other sounds. "What's the pianist doing now? Interesting, but what can I do to correspond to that nice progression . . . No, that didn't really work — and what's that chord? Ah, that was nice! What is the bass doing now, with the drums? How nice — how can I fit that sound?" And it continues in a most fascinating way, sometimes not really adding up to a "complete, well-structured composition" — but the special feeling of doing it as an ensemble, in front of listeners, makes it an extraordinary undertaking, I think.

I don't know the answer to being able, within the standard song format, to function spontaneously with others. In the so-called free format you are more compelled to hear each other and react, and in some ways it's easier. 

But the same end-product of a good composition is at stake.

If you're playing alone, 100 percent attention is on your creating process, hopefully — when you're in a duo, it's only 50 percent, and 50 percent on the other person, especially if it's a chordal instrument that's so complicated. And my equation goes down to 33.3 percent for a trio, and 25 percent for a quartet. But to get more than a superficial feeling for what the other player is doing, a specific tune-in to the quality of the sounds that he's playing— how do you do it, I ask myself and you? It's almost impossible in motion, and you're supposed to not only hear it, but figure out what the hell it is, and play something that fits it — that's asking an awful lot! That's one of the reasons that I prefer to play without a chordal instrument, but when I do play with it, and the guy is really responding to me, it's an experience that I love. It takes some of the pressure off you, that you could feel in having to deliver a great solo. You're just there in the moment, enjoying it.

Last night [in Paris] the piano player was like a Jamey Aebersold record, he was just comping, keeping time — it had little to do with what  I was doing. 

So a couple of times I signaled for him to lay out. I just wanted to play with the bass player because he was listening to me.

So making music in a group is a compromise between focusing on your own line, and hearing what the others are doing.

It's as much a compromise as trying to have a conversation with another person. It's a test of your ability to communicate. In a situation like last night, where the sounds were so unpleasant sometimes, you just want to not even try any more. But it's a gig, and you're obliged to make the best of it. When the guitarist was playing chords, I never had any sensation of them — I couldn't hear them, I wasn't affected by them at all. But in most situations it's possible to speak and be understood to some extent. 

I guess the occasions when it doesn't feel like a compromise are when it's inspired.

Yes. That's what we all live for. And it happens more than you'd think. 

Do you ever get lost in the changes?

Frequently — especially without a chordal instrument, or if the bass player's really improvising, and not just playing tonics and fifths and whatever. At those times, when I'm cool, I just stop playing, and let him play, and some place he'll give me a clue and I'll come back in. Or else I'll play some and he'll come up to me. I remember playing with a very fine guitar player Ben Monder, and Matt Wilson. I don't know if we decided on tunes ahead of time, or just went into tunes spontaneously, but when we talked about it afterwards, we discovered that very frequently we were playing two different tunes together — and it felt great! Which underlines my feeling that two good strong lines form a counterpoint. It doesn't matter about the key or the chord progression or whatever, especially if the lines are being affected each by each.

Do you prefer playing with a guitarist to a pianist?

Well it depends who it is. But the guitar sound is a little softer, somehow, kind of easier to relate to. The piano would tend to get more complicated, and if the feeling isn't right, it gets in the way. I played a few years ago at a high school in Cologne with [pianist] Frank Wunsch. [The composer] George Crumb was being celebrated at the school, and we were asked to play a couple of pieces at the concert as a duo. Frank started being very busy, and I said, "Give me some space!" He got angry and put his hands on his lap, and after sixteen bars or so I said, "Not so much space!" And they heard me out in the audience and laughed.

Frank is a fine pianist, and we've had some inspired concerts together. He's famous for the waltzes he composes. I call him "the second Johann Strauss"!

There are marvelous pianists out there — Brad Mehldau, Enrico Pieranunzi, Franco D'Andrea, Martial Solal, Barry Harris — and many others that I've enjoyed playing with, especially in a duo format.

Martial Solal is totally unique in his accompaniment, always reacting. There's nothing more inspiring to me than to hear someone react to something I just did, and to tell me that he's interested. Maybe he doesn't love it, but he's interested. I will respond immediately. Whatever I had in mind, I will go in that direction immediately, because he's talking to me.

The independent kind of comping, I hate that! I can do that with Jamey Aebersold records.

This has a bearing on what you were saying about thinking ahead. If you're responding to another player, the amount of thinking ahead has to be limited.

I'm talking about my playing a phrase, and hearing a chord [from the pianist] in the middle of the phrase, or before the phrase even starts, telling me that this is the sound I have to function on. And I say, "Now wait a minute, let me play the phrase, and react to me now. We take turns. I'll be happy to try to react to your little cluster or whatever, but let me play one now. Or, if you don't like what I'm playing, or don't hear what I'm doing, just cool it for a minute." We say "stroll" when we ask the guy to lay out for a little bit. The same for me, ideally: "Nothing to say, don't play!"

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