During my college years I was still very new to listening to modern jazz, and like a lot of others at that time, thought that it began and ended with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. I was especially dazzled by the melodic, lyrical play of alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, and even though I eventually came to appreciate Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and others who might have been a little more cutting-edge, I’ve never lost my preference for Desmond’s style.
That being the case, it’s probably not surprising that I eventually discovered the music of one of his contemporaries, Lee Konitz. It wouldn’t be fair to Konitz to call him another Paul Desmond, but his play at that time was most definitely reminiscent of Desmond (although sometimes a little riskier) and if there had been an ‘I’m Not Bird’ club, the two would have probably been charter members.
Like many jazz musicians Konitz had started in the big-band days, but not until the post-war years when he appeared as a young soloist in the Claude Thornhill band. Over the next few years he began working with smaller groups, including one led by Miles Davis, but it was pianist Lennie Tristano who ended up as one of his biggest influences.
Tristano was one of the leading proponents of avant-garde jazz, and Konitz spent a lot of time studying with him in addition to performing and recording with various of his groups. He was often matched up with tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh, and the jazz produced by Tristano’s groups during this time period was some of the most innovative ever.
Although he continued to work occasionally with Tristano and the guys, Konitz eventually went his own way. He toured Europe for a while and at one point even joined up with the big band of Stan Kenton, but most of his time was spent leading small groups of his own. As the decades passed he continued to work steadily, and along the way teamed up with many of the greats in jazz. He also spent some time scoring movies and even tried classical music before finally slowing down a little in recent years.
His entire career has been about growing musically and the result is that his recordings offer a number of different styles and sounds, but my favorite is when he plays fast, sweet and high. It’s even better when it’s a jazz standard, such as “All The Things You Are,” but one filled with amazing improvisations. Nice job, Mr. Konitz.