Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Spotlight wanders at Lee Konitz celebration

By kindofblue

My main problem with the JVC Jazz Festival’s 80th-birthday concert for Lee Konitz, June 25 at Zankel Hall (or “Lee Konitz’s Beautiful 80th Birthday Party,” as it was billed — presumably to distinguish it from “Eartha Kitt’s Fabulous 80th Birthday Party,” being held next door at Carnegie), can be expressed succinctly: Not enough Lee Konitz.

Konitz has a sound on alto saxophone like nobody else’s — they used to call it “cool,” but it sure sounds warm to me, and endlessly captivating if a little bit sardonic or quizzical at times. He also has an approach that would be considered daring in a musician half his age: every time he improvises, he really does try to play something he’s never played before. And even though the strain of thinking too hard sometimes manifests itself in solos too abstract to be enjoyable, far more often than not he comes up with truly remarkable musical statements.

[Photo: Konitz at JVC Newport, 2004. © Michael Kurgansky]

So as long as the emphasis was on his playing — as it was in the first of the concert’s four segments, when he performed with just Steve Swallow on bass, Paul Motian on drums, and either Ted Brown or Joe Lovano on tenor sax (his interplay with Lovano was remarkable) — all was right with the world. Things were pretty sublime in the second segment, too, when Konitz was accompanied by a string quartet: in particular, he played the shit out of a jazzed-up version of Debussy, the strings complementing his golden sound sweetly.

Things broke down for me in the second half, when the evening suddenly became more about Ohad Talmor than about Lee Konitz. Mr. Talmor, an adequate saxophonist and clarinetist and an exceptionally creative composer and arranger, has been working with Konitz for years, and he was all over this concert.

After intermission, two ensembles — first a nonet, then an airtight big band imported from Portugal for the occasion — were brought in to play Talmor’s arrangements. (He wrote the arrangements for the string quartet as well.) And though Konitz remained the featured soloist, he kept getting lost in the mix. He is a musician who thrives on simplicity; too often at Zankel, things kept getting too complicated for his (or at least my) comfort.

It’s clear that Lee Konitz admires Ohad Talmor’s work. And to be sure, some of his writing is very clever (and the big band played flawlessly). But for my taste, it was mostly too busy, and often seemed to be getting in Lee’s way.

Lee Konitz is not a musician who courts the spotlight; at his so-called birthday party (his actual 80th birthday isn’t until
October), it would have been nice if more effort had been put into keeping the spotlight on the guest of honor.

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