Join us as we take a look and listen to one of the most original and influential alto saxophonists in jazz history: American great Lee Konitz.
With a relentless commitment to “pure” improvisation, Lee Konitz was one of the most distinctive voices in jazz.
In the early part of his career the alto saxophonist was a disciple of the strict teaching method of Lennie Tristano and was associated with the so-called Cool jazz scene that emerged in the early 1950s.
But Konitz forged a sound and professional path that were all his own, recording and performing with an incredibly diverse range of collaborators over the course of a career that spanned more than seven decades.
Choosing ten items from Konitz’s discography certainly isn’t easy: he recorded well over 100 discs as leader or co-leader, and that’s before we even get started on his contributions to dozens more as a sideman, including classic albums by the likes of Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Kenny Wheeler.
Still, we hope you enjoy this closer look at a selection of what might be considered some of his most significant records: ten albums, in chronological order, which tell the story of Konitz’s wonderful life in music.
Konitz was born in Chicago in 1927 to Jewish immigrant parents: his mother was Russian, his father from Austria.
After hearing big band jazz and swing on the radio, he began learning the saxophone and clarinet as a child, playing his first professional gigs in the mid-1940s whilst still a teenager.
By the age of 20 he was a member of Claude Thornhill’s forward-thinking orchestra, for whom Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan both provided arrangements.
Konitz would soon take the alto chair in Miles Davis’ influential Birth of the Cool nonet, of which Evans and Mulligan were also members.
Lee Konitz had also been studying with Lennie Tristano, a blind pianist and something of a mysterious guru figure. Tristano encouraged his students to sing classic solos by Lester Young, Roy Eldridge and Charlie Christian, and to aspire to improvise “purely” without relying on preconceived “licks” or phrases.
Subconscious-Lee brings together takes from four sessions recorded in 1949 and 1950.
Tristano himself features on five tracks, along with other members of his community of students, including tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh, pianist Sal Mosca and guitarist Billy Bauer.
A number of the tunes are complex new melodies written over the chord changes of standard songs: the title track, by Konitz, is based upon Cole Porter’s jazz standard “What is this Thing Called Love?” while Marsh’s tricky “Marshmallow” takes Ray Noble’s “Cherokee” as its starting point.
This challenging and rather cerebral music must have sounded incredibly futuristic when it was first released.
Lee Konitz at Storyville
Lennie Tristano was famously protective of his disciples, preferring them to play with other students of his method and discouraging them from any sort of broad-minded or commercial approach to music.
Konitz was certainly not lacking in artistic integrity, but he was keen to play with lots of different musicians (in addition to having a family to support), and in the early ‘50s he toured and recorded extensively with Stan Kenton’s big band, a career move which other Tristano students were apparently disapproving of.
This spirit of openness and adventure would remain, and he would take gigs with many of the people who asked him to play with them over the years, working regularly with pick-up rhythm sections; he never hustled for work himself.
That said, this 1954 live quartet date finds him still very much in Tristano-influenced territory, with the pianist’s “Ablution” – a line over “All the Things You Are” on the setlist.
Englishman Ronnie Ball, another student of Tristano, is at the piano, while Al Levitt and Percy Heath make up the rhythm section on drums and bass respectively.
Konitz, his sound cool and dry, is on virtuosic form here. During this period his playing is extremely technically impressive, with long, elaborate phrases and sudden startling flights into the alto’s upper register.
Lee Konitz with Warne Marsh
Tristano’s other star pupil was the saxophonist Warne Marsh.
Marsh’s dark, snaking tenor sound complemented Konitz’s alto perfectly, and the pair would record together a number of times over the years.
This album is a classic piece of mid-’50s Cool jazz, the relaxed style that was marketed as an alternative to the more fiery bebop around this time.
The Tristano crowd, the Birth of the Cool nonet and Gerry Mulligan’s quartet with Chet Baker were all written about under this umbrella, although the extent to which they would have accepted the label themselves is debatable, and there was probably more crossover between the scenes than some history books might suggest.
In fact, many of the most interesting records from members of the Tristano school place them with players from other spheres. Here, Konitz and Marsh are provided with impeccable support from two of the founding fathers of bop, drummer Kenny Clarke and bassist Oscar Pettiford.
The two saxophones combine beautifully on “Topsy”, and some rhythmic trickery is applied to the closing melody of Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee”.
Parker’s revolutionary bebop alto style was incredibly influential in the 1940s and ‘50s, inspiring waves of imitators.
Konitz loved Bird but was one of the most notable alto players to emerge during that period with a voice that was completely his own. This quote is from Andy Hamilton’s excellent Conversations on the Improviser’s Art, a book of interviews with Konitz:
“I got to know Bird a little bit at that time, and he was really a very nice man. He was very considerate. My wife was having a child in New York and I was on the West Coast. He called me and said, “I think you need a friend at this time,” and we hung out. Otherwise I never really got to spend a lot of time with him, unfortunately. He always told me that he appreciated that I wasn’t playing like him, and I can believe that.”
Live at the Half Note
In 1959 Tristano had a regular gig at the Half Note in New York, but would take regular evenings off playing to teach.
His replacement on this occasion was Bill Evans, who approximately one month later would take the piano chair for the recording of Miles Davis’ seminal Kind of Blue.
Konitz is joined on the frontline by Marsh again. Both saxophonists sound completely inspired and Evans’ clever linear solos are the perfect fit (although he takes a fairly tentative, minimal approach to comping, leaving lots of space for the others to stretch out).
Evans rated Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh as two of his favourite horn players, and almost two decades later would book the pair to appear on his own 1977 album Crosscurrents.
There’s an intriguing combination in the rhythm section on Live at the Half Note: Jimmy Garrison (who was probably another substitute rather than a regular band member, and who would later contribute to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme) is on bass, with Paul Motian, who played in Evans’ greatest trio, on drums.
Lee Konitz Meets Jimmy Giuffre
Jimmy Giuffre was a saxophonist, clarinettist, composer and arranger who was associated with the Third Stream movement, a kind of synthesis of classical music and jazz.
He provides a set of excellent arrangements for this enjoyable outing, which features five saxophones and rhythm section. Konitz is joined in the sax section by Hal McKusick on second alto, Warne Marsh and Ted Brown (another former Tristano student, who continues to perform today) on tenors, and Giuffre on baritone.
A few months later Konitz and Giuffre would team up again for You and Lee, with the alto saxophone player this time backed by a six-piece brass section and rhythm.
1961’s Motion is perhaps the ultimate document of Konitz’s musical philosophy.
On a selection of five Songbook standards he declines to even state the melody at the start of each tune, instead diving straight into inspired off-the-cuff creation.
The personnel that makes up the stripped back trio is a little unexpected.
Bassist Sonny Dallas was another Tristano student, while Elvin Jones was just starting his stint in John Coltrane’s classic quartet, whose brand of fiery, spiritually-tinged modal jazz was almost the polar opposite of the Cool school aesthetic. Jones is thought of as a loud, powerful drummer, but he demonstrates his fabulous versatility by adjusting his dynamic range to fit with Konitz’s softer sound, whilst of course still swinging extremely hard.
“No tricks, gimmicks, arrangements or anything to deter from the heart of the matter at hand—spontaneous improvisation over classic chord progressions. Overall, this is one of the most artistic and deep recordings of standard material that I know and a testament to the greatness of two jazz giants, Lee Konitz and Elvin Jones.” Dave Liebman
The inclusion of “Foolin’ Myself”, on which Konitz’s alto takes on an accompanying role during Dallas’ bass solo, is something of an homage to the classic Billie Holiday version, which features Lester Young, one of Konitz’s biggest inspirations.
This fascinating conversation between Konitz and pianist and writer Ethan Iverson highlights his love for Young, and the extent to which he studied the President’s work.
Lee Konitz Duets
This fascinating 1967 record sees Konitz playing alto and tenor in duo settings with a fascinatingly diverse selection of partners.
He tackles the ballad “You Don’t Know What Love Is” with tenor great Joe Henderson and embraces free jazz in his meetings with guitarist Jim Hall and veteran Ellington violinist Ray Nance.
The opening “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue”, with valve trombonist Marshall Brown, has an early jazz flavour and finishes with the pair playing Louis Armstrong’s classic solo from the 1927 recording of the tune.
From the 1960s onwards Konitz’s sound starts to become more overtly expressive, less ice-cool than on his early recordings.
I Concentrate on You
This 1974 album on the Danish label Steeplechase is a tribute to the great American songsmith Cole Porter.
It places the saxophonist in a conversational duo setting with the virtuosic double bassist Red Mitchell, whose style is soloistic and highly melodic.
The pair combine ingeniously, interpreting 12 timeless Porter songs in 12 different keys. Mitchell switches to piano on “Night and Day”.
Lee Konitz Nonet
In the 1970s Konitz returned to a medium-sized ensemble format that was similar in size to the bands used on previous albums like Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool and his own Meets Jimmy Giuffre.
The nine-piece band that he led during this period played around New York and toured to Europe, where he felt audiences were particularly receptive to his music.
Sy Johnson arranged the charts for this 1977 session, which also features Ronnie Cuber on baritone saxophone and a young Kenny Washington on drums.
Konitz flies through John Coltrane’s notoriously difficult “Giant Steps” – certainly not a tune normally associated with Lee or the Tristano school – before the band launches into an orchestration of the Trane solo from the original recording.
As he got older, Konitz gradually adopted a simpler style, focusing on truly improvising from note to note, largely preferring slower tempos to enable him to achieve this, and sometimes opting to scat sing rather than solo on the saxophone.
He accepted invitations to play in all manner of musical situations but, essentially, he was at his most content when improvising over the core collection of Songbook standards that he had played since the 1940s.
The challenge was to say something new over a chord sequence that he had negotiated a thousand times before.
“I think it’s something similar to Monet painting the lily pond at all times of the day, catching the reflection of the light. I just feel with each situation I’m in, different rhythm sections or whatever, that “I’ll Remember April” becomes just something else.” [from Conversations on the Improviser’s Art]
Lee Konitz made dozens of albums playing these tunes alongside various rhythm sections, but 1996’s Alone Together, his first for Blue Note Records, is surely one of the most profound.
On a selection of six well-known standards he is joined by a young Brad Mehldau at the piano and Charlie Haden, another elder statesman and a veteran of Ornette Coleman’s pioneering free jazz quartet, on bass.
Brad Mehldau’s bright virtuosity makes for a fascinating contrast with the stripped-back, deeply melodic styles of Haden and the band leader.
Exactly a year later, at the same venue – the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles – the trio recorded Another Shade of Blue. In 2009 they were joined by Paul Motian, another old master of minimalism, for Live at Birdland.
As already stated, the saxophonist’s discography goes way beyond these ten albums.
Other recordings and projects that are very much worth investigating include a sideman appearance on Kenny Wheeler’s Angel Song, an album of French impressionist classical music with the Axis String Quartet, a 1974 solo saxophone album, Costumes are Mandatory with Ethan Iverson, and a fruitful late-period duo partnership with pianist Dan Tepfer.
Lee Konitz died of pneumonia brought on by COVID-19 in April 2020, with colleagues, fans and students alike paying heartfelt tribute to an artist whose urge to improvise never waned.
Sam Braysher is an alto saxophonist based in London. His debut album was a critically acclaimed duo recording with New York pianist Michael Kanan. A new trio album, with bassist Tom Farmer and drummer Jorge Rossy, is due for release soon.