Lee Konitz died April 15, at the age of 92. His family reported it as COVID-19 related pneumonia, so the score right now is Coronavirus, what, about a dozen? and jazz, zero.
Konitz was one of the greats, but it seems to me he never really fit with that crowd—he was an oddball, and I mean that in the best way. He hit the scene young, fleet enough to be heard as a challenge to Charlie Parker but his tone, which was light, flat, bright and cool, reflected a different attitude. His fingers where flying, but his mind was looking for something else.
I came to Konitz fairly late. Like another altoist, Jackie McLean, I listened to him but it took me many years to hear what he was doing. And like McLean, I came to love what he was doing, even if I didn’t always like it. What that means is that I loved his artistic dissatisfaction with the status quo, with not wanting to repeat himself, to constantly strive to play an original phrase or line, to deliver an original thought. So not everything he played sounded good to me, satisfying, because not everything he played worked. When you’re taking chances all the time, some things aren’t going to work out.
That is something I would rather have than running changes, playing standards the same way, over and over again. In the moment, jazz is usually fine and a pleasure. But a record that is solid, standard playing is one I’m not going to return to. I am going to go back to things like his playing on one of Paul Motian’s On Broadway albums, or his third stream stuff, the magnificent Motion and the equally magnificent Lennie Tristano set from Mosaic Records (this bargain collection has his best early recordings).
Even his recent playing, with pianists like Brad Mehldau and Dan Tepfer, and other small groups, varies wildly from note to note. I hear his age in his playing, not that his mind wasn’t sharp but that his expressive, malleable tone at times crossed over into a problematic embouchure. But everything he played is worth going back to, because he had more questions than answers, and that’s real artistry.