Lee Konitz engaged the audience to sing the melody with him a cappella before the band joined in … Video

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Lee Konitz, a 2009 NEA Jazz Master and DownBeat Hall of Fame inductee for 2015, brought his empathetic band into the New York’s Blue Note on Oct. 9 to celebrate his 90th birthday (he was born in Chicago on Oct. 13, 1927).

Sharing an uncanny chemistry with the remarkably open-eared pianist Dan Tepfer and the uncommonly sensitive rhythm tandem of drummer George Schuller and bassist Jeremy Stratton, Konitz spun inventions and variations on familiar standards with his golden tone, one of the most distinctive sounds on alto sax to this day.

Last seen in town in a highly successful performance at the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in late August, the quartet opened with Konitz’s signature piece from 1949, “Subconscious-Lee,” his contrafact on Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” Coming out of the tightly-constructed head, Tepfer’s keyboard abstractions triggered a stream of consciousness flow of singing by the alto great, who scatted freely in his chair on stage while nonchalantly changing his reed.

Tepfer is not only a consummate accompanist; he’s also an ideal foil for Konitz. The pianist knows the sax great’s moves, anticipates them and often tweaks the proceedings with Cubist abstractions while holding onto the core of the piece they are deconstructing. Schuller adds to the experimental vibe by cutting up the beat and coloring percussively in unexpected and understated ways, while bassist Stratton remains a zen-like presence in the group—fundamental yet unobtrusive.

While theme and variation remains Konitz’s modus operandi, you will rarely catch him dropping in familiar quotes from show tunes or standards in the middle of his solos. He is truly an improviser who plays “in the moment.” And his young charges create the perfect scenario for him to fly freely in their collective search-and-discovery missions with their keen listening-reacting instincts.

A request shouted out from the audience for Lennie Tristano’s “317 East 32nd Street” (his contrafact on “Out Of Nowhere”) was met immediately by Konitz and his crew, and they successfully navigated the tricky line with aplomb. Next, Konitz looked at drummer Schuller and asked, “What do you want to play next?” Schuller quickly replied, “Darn?” And they launched into a relaxed “Darn That Dream” which had the alto sax great embracing the melody with tenderness.

In the middle of Tepfer’s expressive solo, the pianist began singing, which triggered Konitz to join in with some poignant vocalizing of his own. His relationship with some of these familiar melodies goes back 70 years or more. They’re in his DNA at this point. And his interpretation is always immediate and personal.

On “All The Things You Are,” Konitz engaged the audience to sing the melody with him a cappella before the band joined in. And his poignant readings of “‘Round Midnight” and “Stella By Starlight” were beautifully underscored by Schuller’s alluring brushwork and augmented by Tepfer’s dreamy voicings and countermelodies. The telepathic quartet closed out their set on an uptempo note with a romp through Jerome Kern’s “The Song Is You,” which took Konitz slightly out of his comfort zone. But his swing factor was intact and his intonation, as it had been all set, was spot-on. Like fellow nonagenarian Roy Haynes, Konitz continues to create miracles on the bandstand.

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