JAZZ: The LP Catalogue #19: The Achievement of Lee Konitz


Harvey Pekar

Originally published in The Evergreen Review No. 43 in 1966 and featured in Issue 124 in September, 2010.

Note: The month of July not only saw the loss of Tuli Kupferberg, but also saw the loss of another significant part of the underground press, Harvey Pekar. Known best for his comics series American Splendor, few recognize Pekar's work as a writer outside of the comics medium, particularly for jazz. His ability to describe music, as evidenced below in this piece on Lee Konitz, suggests strongly Pekar's ability to descriptively write, edit, and collaborate, as a comics writer.

Lee Konitz is best known by today's standards as the alto saxophone on Miles Davis' epochal Birth of the Cool. The following Evergreen piece from 1966 suggests other Konitz recordings worth seeking out. The lead piece discussed, Blues for Bird, is available on disc two of the out-of-print Mercury Records Jazz Story box set. (Introduction by Ethan Persoff)


Fifteen years ago [1951] Lee Konitz was thought by many critics and musicians to be one of the most important alto saxophonists in jazz history, surpassed in stature only by Charlie Parker, Johnny Hodges, and Benny Carter. His subsequent evolution has been tortuous, his attempts to move along new stylistic paths sometimes lead him nowhere, and by the early sixties his position had become almost obscure.

However, his 1965 unaccompanied improvisation, Blues for Bird, should be considered one of the most impressive alto saxophone solos of recent years. Whether it represents the beginning of a new period in Konitz's career, or is only an isolated masterpiece, Blues for Bird should serve to remind Konitz has been neglected too ong and that another look at his achievements is in order.

Lee Konitz gained early experience around Chicago, his home town, in the forties. There he met the great pianist Lennie Tristano who made a profound impression on him. Tristano's use of the upper intervals of chords and substitute chords, his method of shifting accents, and his employment of triplets in such a way as to superimpose other meters over the basic 4/4 beat of the rhythm section influenced the saxophonist. (Tristano, incidentally, probably got some of his ideas about triplets from Art Tatum, whose rhythmic originality is still not widely appreciated.) And like Tristano, Konitz employed phrases that sometimes cut across bar-line barriers.


In 1947 Lee Konitz received attention outside the Chicago area as a member of Claude Thornhill's band, and some of his first recorded solos were on Thornhill's Yardbird Suite and Anthropology. The major characteristics of his style are apparent in those choruses, but at the same time his playing is stiff and hesitant; he sounds almost like a student musician doing personal exercises.

The next year Konitz joined the famous Miles Davis Nonet, a group which had a great influence on jazz of the fifties. An enthusiast recorded some of the Nonet's 1948 club performances and also took down some by a quintet including Davis, Konitz, and the rhythm section. The quintet performances are interesting, among other reasons, because Konitz plays pieces associated with the leaders of the bop movement, including two versions of Chasin' the Bird, Fifty-Second Street Theme, and Half Nelson, an excellent Davis composition based on Tadd Dameron's Lady Bird.

The very fast tempo of Fifty-Second Street Theme bothers Konitz; although he plays some stunning phrases they are not always well related and, overall, his solo lacks continuity. His other related spots on the quintet recordings are neatly structured and, despite the fact that he sometimes seems a little leery of taking chances, fresh when compared to the work of most other modern altoists, who of course derived from Charlie Parker.

Konitz's solos with the Nonet generally are more adventurous and, consequently, better. He improvises particularly well on John Lewis's beautifully arranged S'il Vous Plait. The piece is a blues with a bridge, but Konitz's work isn't bluesy; blues was another set of chord changes to him then, and unlike most other jazzmen, he made no special attempt to play earthily on them.

Konitz's work was still somewhat stiff in 1948 but he soon made strides rhythmically. His solos on Davis's commercially released Nonet records made for Capitol in 1949-50 have a flowing and less inhibited quality; he produces a small, but pure and sweet tone which attests to the influence of Lester Young.

None of the solos Konitz takes is long, but each is satisfying in its way. He has darting, quicksilver spots on Move, Budo, and Rocker. He is exquisite on Israel and Rouge, both good illustrations of his almost classicist's approach. Konitz's tastefulness and balanced construction (his contrasting of intricate runs with simpler, more lyrical phrases is notable) has much in common with the best of Benny Carter's improvisation.


During 1949 and 1950 Konitz made some outstanding recordings both with Lennie Tristano and with groups of his own, and on them his solos are more aggressive than those with Davis. Marshmallow, based on Cherokee, is one of Konitz's finest up-tempo performances. His tone is biting; his playing intense, almost violent; he uses the upper register to reach forceful climaxes. On Marshmallow, Konitz demonstrates the ability to eat up the chord changes with complex passages, while swinging effortlessly. And his moderate tempo wor (Wow, Fishin' Around, Sound Lee) is relaxed and melodically rich.

You Go to My Head is one of the best examples of Konitz's slow ballad work from the period. He employs substitute chords very well, makes a daring choice of notes, and produces a clear, penetrating sonority which many altoists (i.e., Paul Desmond, Bud Shank, and Art Pepper) have sought to emulate.

Intuition, a 1949 Tristano Capitol selection, anticipates Ornette Coleman's work in that it doesn't have any pre-set harmonic foundation. Konitz experiences no difficulty, playing with usual imagination and coherence.

From 1951 to 1956 Konitz continued to play very well. The six selections he recorded in 1951 with Davis and guitarist Billy Bauer rank among the best examples of so-called "cool" jazz. His lines on Yesterdays are spare and song-like. On the other standard ballad. Indian Summer, a duet with Bauer, he plays more aggressively, double-timing and shifting accents dazzingly. His work on the up-tempo Ezz-thetic, a George Russell tune based on Love for Sale, and Hibeck, a moderately fast piece, is strong and has excellent continuity; he never stalls on these tracks, making the changes with a constant flow of meaty ideas. During Duet for Saxophone and Guitar and Odjenar, more formal pieces, Konitz integrates his improvisation neatly with the arrangements, fragmenting and airing his lines intelligently with rests.

In 1952 and 1953 Konitz was featured soloist in the best band Stan Kenton ever had. The leader's pounding, screaming style wouldn't seem to mix with Konitz's more introverted approach; however, they adjusted nicely to each other, particularly on the Capitol LP, "New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm." Two selection, Improvisation and My Lady, feature outstanding Konitz work. On both he paces himself carefully, carefully relating his improvisation to the arrangement. Young Blood, a frenetic Gerry Mulligan composition, is marked by a savage Konitz solo during which he piles climax on climax, building furiously. And his delightful spot on Prologue is one of the gayest, most free swinging moments he has ever recorded.


After leaving Kenton, Konitz led his own groups, performing often around Boston and New York. Some of their 1954 work in Boston is captured on a Storyville album. Konitz's playing is relaxed and very good but generally conservative and, at times, a little precious. At moments he is reminiscent of Paul Desmond, a man who popularized and diluted Konitz's approach by synthesizing it with simpler ideas out of Lester Young. Even his These Foolish Things solo, which has some fine moments, lacks sustained momentum.

On records, Konitz performed erratically during the next two years. In 1955 he was reunited with his colleague Warne Marsh, a veteran of the 1940-50 Tristano combos, and an outstanding, underrated, tenor saxophonist, on an Atlantic LP. The altoists's playing is impressive but a trifle sluggish.

On another 1955 Atlantic LP, Konitz appears as a Tristano sideman on tracks done "live" at the Confucius, a New York club. His plodding work, devoid of harmonic and rhythmic substance, on You Go to My Head, These Foolish Things, and If I Had You is as bad as anything he's ever recorded.

Konitz's next appearance on the Atlantic LP "Lee Konitz Inside HiFi" represents an improvement. His alto work on Kary's Trance and Sweet and Lovely, if not particularly inventive, is at least spirited. (A novelty of the LP is that it features Konitz's first recorded tenor saxophone playing. It's crude but forceful. He employs an almost vibratoless, but surprisingly full tone, and his improvisation has a guilty quality in spots.)

1957 was one of the more interesting years in Konitz's career. He made his last LP for Atlantic and the first of a series for Verve, and there are considerable differences between them.

The Atlantic LP "The Real Lee Konitz" can be thought of as the end of a stage of his development. His playing had been evolving since he started recording; his solos, in general, had become more spare since 1951; his tone had thickened. But he did not, at any point, make a radical break with the past. On "The Real Lee Konitz" his attack is heavier still, but he plays with grace and restraint. None of his solos is less than good and some are outstanding. On Foolin' Myself he plays some rhythmically brilliant passages, shifting accents subtly. He employs unusually long lines on Melancholy Baby, constructing asymmetrically; on it and Straightaway he's extremely inventive. There is also another version of You Go to My Head on which Konitz's sense of organization deserves attention; he alternates simple and complex phrases cleverly, keeping the listener constantly involved.


By the time of "Very Cool," his first Verve LP, Konitz had evolved a philosophy of music that differed from his outlook of 1950. He said in the liner notes, "I'm not as concerned any more with setting the world on fire with original music," and he expressed a great deal of interest in playing with "feeling." Perhaps, then, he regarded his earlier work as cold and abstract.

Konitz's intentions in wanting to improvise more emotionally (actually, in his way, he always had) may have been laudable, but the solos he plays on "Very Cool" are disappointing. His work on Sunflower and Billie's Bounce is earthbound; his phrasing on them is jerky partly because of the way he used dotted eighth-sixteenth note figures. In fact, at some points, his playing has a pre-modern feel rhythmically. And on the ballad performances, Crazy She Calls Me and Stairway to the Stars, in an apparent attempt to avoid flashiness, he plays too simply and his work lacks substance. He uses the lower register presumably to give his improvisation huskiness, but the result is almost sodden.

On the next Verve LP, "Tranquility," he improvises more spiritedly, employing a harder tone. The majority of his solos, again, are excessively simple, though he has a neatly structured spot on Lennie Bird, a Tristano composition based on How High the Moon, and blows plaintively on Jonquil.

In 1958 Konitz performed on a fine album featuring scores by Bill Russo for alto saxophone on a fine album featuring the scores by Bill Russo for alto saxophone, string quartet, and rhythm section. Most of the selections are taken at slow tempos and the alto solos have a shy, pastoral quality, almost as if they'd been recorded during an earlier period in his career. (Russo thinks Konitz a more lyrical musician than Konitz considers himself.) Most impressive is his heartfelt, gently built improvisation Blues for Our Children.

Konitz returned to a more aggressive approach on his next record, "Lee Konitz Meets Jimmy Giuffre." Here his work is richer than on the "Tranquility" album, more supple and spirited than his "Very Cool" playing.

In a sense, the album with Giuffre, overtly emotional, and more akin to the work of the boppers and post-boppers, sets the stage for a highly successful album, "Motion," recorded in 1961. This a trio record for alto, bass, and drums, and the drummer is Elvin Jones. It's significant that at this point Konitz would use a man with such a heavy and complex drum style. In the past he had most often worked with drummers who'd functioned mainly as quiet timekeepers. There is much rapport between the altoist and the rhythm section here, and Konitz plays in a violent, almost irregular manner. His tone is relatively broad and space is more important to him than in his earlier work. He contrasts long rests with jagged multi-note passages; his solos seem composed of raw chunks of sound and silence.

"Motion," in 1961, was the last LP with Konitz as leader to be issued. But recently there has been the superb Blues for Bird mentioned above. It is difficult for a hornman to sustain continuity in an unaccompanied solo, particularly on such a dirge-like piece, but here Konitz does so successfully. He uses a common but effective method of construction, beginning by playing simply, and subtly, and subtly working into more complex phrases. His work has an earthy quality which enables him to suggest the emotion which Parker conveyed, without appropriating Parker's vocabulary. He puts the upper register to good use, at times almost crying out, and he varies the texture and quality of his sound stimulatingly. On Blues for Bird, Konitz achieves the kind of soulful effect he was unsuccessfully striving for on the "Very Cool" album without sacrificing the older virtues of his playing.

Along the way, Konitz has, of course, influenced a number of altoists, especially white "West Coast" players but, aside from Art Pepper, none has been a superior soloist. Most of them have refused to grapple with the complexities of his style, choosing to imitate his tone and simplify his ideas.

Konitz, of course, cannot be blamed for the timidity of his disciples. He has himself already produced an outstanding body of work, enough to insure his position among the great jazz alto saxophonists.



Konitz's records with Claude Thornhill are on the "The Thornhill Sound" (Harmony 7088). The Miles Davis Nonet is represented by "Birth of the Cool" (Capitol T762). Konitz's best recording was done around 1950 with Tristano and as a leader of his own groups. It is available on "SubConscious Lee" (Prestige 7250), "Ezz-thetics" (New Jazz 8295) and "Cool and Quiet" (Capitol T371).

Konitz is heard with Stan Kenton on "New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm" (Capitol T383). Konitz's 1954 Boston work, both "live" and in a studio, was issued on Storyville 901.

The Atlantic LP's mentioned are "Lee Konitz with Warne Marsh" (1217), "Lennie Tristano" (1224), "Lee Konitz Inside HiFi" (1258), and "The Real Lee Konitz" (1273).

The Verve albums are "Very Cool" (V8209), "Tranquility" (V8281), "An Image" (V8286), "Lee Konitz Meets Jimmy Giuffre" (V8335) and "Motion" (V8399).

Blues for Bird is on "Charlie Parker: 10th Memorial Concert" (Limelight 86017).