Saxophonist Lee Konitz became famous as a leading figure of what was dubbed the "cool jazz" sound 60 years ago. Now, the legendary jazzman is enjoying a renaissance. At 82, Konitz has been busy — in the studio cutting records, playing in nightclubs and touring to festivals.
In between gigs, Konitz stands in the living room of his apartment, picks up his alto saxophone, closes his eyes and blows around the melody of "I Remember You," taking apart the phrases. He says he's never played it this way before.
"That's kind of my goal: to not repeat what I did that felt nice the night before or whatever," Konitz says. "Just to try to build a new row of meaningful tones."
The rows of meaningful tones stretch back seven decades. Born in Chicago in 1927, Konitz says he gained a deep respect for improvised music from studying with the blind piano player Lennie Tristano. Konitz began playing professionally as a teenager, and when he was just 22, he played alto on the 1949 and '50 studio sessions with Miles Davis that came to be known as The Birth of the Cool.
Konitz describes that music as "chamber music" — scored charts with incidental solos. He plays with more freedom now, but with the same melodic sound.
"I love to hear beautiful melodies played or sung, and that's the feeling I have for the horn," Konitz says. "This is what I got coined with — the "cool" sound. Some people say, 'When are you gonna swing?' It's not a competition to me. I just like to sing my little song, and hopefully get a reaction from the people I'm playing with and the people that are listening."
It's All About Listening
"Maybe we all caught up with him. Finally," says Nate Chinen, who writes about jazz for The New York Times. "He's been putting out records. He's been working. And really, the level of his craft hasn't wavered since the '40s or '50s."
Konitz's early career was defined by his refusal to play alto like Charlie Parker, the dominant saxophonist on the scene when Konitz got there. Chinen says Konitz's late career is defined by his refusal to play like another storied musician.
"Now, as he's into his 80s, the greater specter for him is himself and how to avoid the danger of habitual gestures. You know, your own personal cliches," Chinen says. "And I think that, in an interesting way, has been the spur and the motivating factor for him."
Konitz doesn't rehearse his musicians. Last year, for example, he recorded an album of duets with 28-year-old pianist Dan Tepfer. Tepfer says he went into the studio expecting to record an album of standards.
"We're in the studio, and we wanted to warm up. And we said, 'Hey, why don't we make up some pieces? No planning," Tepfer says. "After we recorded that, which took a half hour, we moved on and recorded a lot of other stuff — standards. And then, when I was listening back, it was like, 'Wow, this is really special.' It has this real kind of mystery to it that I think people have to hear."
So they released the warm-ups as the album Duos With Lee.
Tepfer says Konitz is the most open-minded musician he knows, of any age. Konitz says the key is listening.
" 'Cause really, the music is entirely dependent on each guy really paying attention to the other guy," Tepfer says. "Looking into each other's ears, so to speak. So I'm still able to function pretty well with that, thankfully."
Konitz says that at 82, the only real concession he's made to the aging process is that he has to keep his eyes closed when he plays to keep from getting distracted.