At age 89, Lee Konitz still wields an astonishing command over the alto saxophone. His patented, streamlined approach of jazz improvisation continues to burst with vigor, underscored with simmering wisdom.
With more than a half of century experience as a leader under his belt, it’s surprising that Konitz is only now making his Impulse! Records debut with the delightful Frescalalto, which finds the 2009 NEA Jazz Master in the superb company of pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Kenny Washington.
The quartet indeed contains a fascinating intersecting history. Forty years ago, Kenny Washington made his recorded debut playing Konitz on the 1977 LP, Lee Konitz Nonet. Over the decades, Washington would frequently team with Peter Washington and become one of the distinguished jazz rhythm sections in New York City. Both Washingtons (no relations) have played numerous times either as individual accompaniments or as a unit with the estimable and fellow Impulse! Records artist Barron, whose his first appearance on a Konitz disc was 1992’s Jazz Nocturne, which coincidentally also featured Kenny Washington.
When asks what attracts him to these particular musicians, Konitz praises their respective sense of feeling. “Kenny Barron has a nice, bright feeling for time and melody; and he has a nice of expressing it without rubbing it in. By that, I mean he doesn’t exaggerate his strengths by playing too many notes,” Konitz says. “Kenny Washington has a great feeling for the rhythmic pulse. He also produces a great sound on the drums. Peter has a fine way of expressing himself on the bass; he plays a difficult instrument. But when he plays, you can hear all the notes.”
The quartet’s collective expertise and accord enlivens Frescalalto as Konitz revisits nine tunes, mostly of which are timeless jazz standards. It’s to his credit that he can instill new personal meanings, and uncover new facets into these songs without sounding rote. The disc begins with a spirited reading of Victor Young’s “Stella By Starlight,” which Konitz initiates unaccompanied, allowing listeners to luxuriate inside his citrus alto tone and conversational slant on the melody. Soon after, Barron tickles an ebullient melodic improvisation before passing the baton to Peter Washington, who thumps out a soft yet swinging melodic solo, brimming with vigor. Kenny Washington takes the final unaccompanied solo by showcasing his ingenuity with brushes. The musicians eventually coalese as the rhythm section propels Konitz’s sinewy melodicism with Barron quickly catching up. The results become the disc’s high-caliber musicianship for the rest of the program.
Following that, Konitz revisits one of his own compositions, “Thingin’” whose chord changes are based on Jerome Kern’s “All The Things You Are.” The tune bursts with a splendid gait, powered by the rhythm section as Konitz briefly articulates the knotty melody before giving the spotlight to Barron, who affords the song with a jovial solo. The rapport between Barron and Konitz resonates even stronger on Jimmy Van Huesen’s “Darn That Dream,” which becomes a flickering vehicle for Barron to reveal his sensitivity with balladry as Konitz scats the longing melody before playing it beautifully on the saxophone.
The quartet returns on the bluesy reading of Jack Lawrence’s “Play, Fiddle Play” which buoys to a swinging, mid-tempo rhythm. During his lucid improvisation, Konitz exhibits his sly wit by quoting Sholom Secunda’s popular Yiddish song, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen.” Konitz continues digging deep into his catalog of classics by offering yet another sterling version of Johnny Green’s “Out of nowhere.” After Konitz, Barron and Peter Washington deliver three rousing solos, the saxophonist scats again, this time quoting the melody from Fats Navarro’s “Nostalgia.”
With “Gundula,” Konitz exhumes one of his more recent originals. The song first appeared on his 1999 disc, Sound of Surprise. The ballad with its pensive lyricism and romantic chords certainly should earn its bona fides to becoming a jazz standard in its own right. The amorous splendor carries over with the sparkling take on Bronislau Kaper’s “Invitation” on which Konitz’s alto sax evokes flickering holiday lights as he animates the melody. Instead of blazing through Ray Noble’s signature composition “Cherokee” like most jazz musicians customary do, Konitz a first takes a leisurely mid-tempo tactic, seemingly relaxing in the song’s comely melody before the rhythm section cranks up the tempo as Barron’s issues a jaunty improvisation. The laidback tempo returns with Konitz offering another sanguine essay on the melody.
As a victory lap – and bonus track – Konitz concludes with a charming rendition of Johnny Green’s “Body and Soul,” which features Konitz scatting the melody before playing the saxophone alongside Barron’s superb piano accompaniment.
“I’ve been pretty much doing these [songs] all through the years,” Konitz says about Frescalalto. “They are great tunes that offer constant challenges regarding approaching them in unique ways each time as possible. That’s the goal. Sometimes it’s not achieved. But other times, I start out playing these melodies then start going in completely different directions. That’s such a kick.”