The Final Spring Break Dispatch: Lee Konitz, M-Base Ways, Great On Paper

Lee in Aarhus, Denmark, fall 2014 (Wikimedia Commons)
Last week I enjoyed what I currently expect to be my final university-sanctioned spring break, spending most of it in New York and seeing a couple great shows: Seamus Blake & Ethan Iverson duo at Mezzrow (my first time at the spot), Lee Konitz with Dave Douglas at Jazz Standard, and finally Steve Lehman's Octet at the Brooklyn Conservatory. 

At the suggestion of a certain pianist-blogger whose name appears on this blog rather often, I thought I'd just post a few of my notes from seeing Lee with Dave's band, which included Matt Mitchell on piano, Linda Oh on bass, and Ches Smith on drums. 

I caught the late ("late" meaning 10 p.m.) set on the first night and walked in as they were finishing their first tune, "All The Things You Are" (or was it a contrafact?), which Lee introduced afterwards. I don't know how much if at all Lee had rehearsed with the band, but throughout the second set the band's comping behind Lee felt tentative, a gradual testing of the waters. There was a fair amount of accommodating that had to be done: Lee is often wont to stop playing the horn mid-solo and switch to vocalized melodies—without the mic—which he did throughout the set, and he forsook the mic altogether for a short while before begrudgingly returning to it after Dave asked the sound engineer to turn it down. 

I've only seen Lee a couple times before: last summer at the Gallery with a quartet of regulars, and before that with strings at Winter Jazz Fest 2013 at the Zinc Bar. Each time he's carried the show with his melodies. I still remember the feeling I had hearing Lee's entrance on "Body and Soul" at the Gallery, which was nonverbally something like, "Yeah...This is what it's about." I don't remember having quite the same sense at this show—probably because Lee was also adjusting to the band, being more comfortable with his regular band for obvious reasons—although "My Funny Valentine" was easily the standout performance of the night. Matt Mitchell played a ravishingly patient intro (Hank Shteamer, who caught a later set in the run, described Matt's playing on the ballads as "laying out a handsome harmonic red carpet"), and as Lee played and sang over the tune, I don't think I'd ever heard a pianist comp more softly yet assuredly. 

Hearing Ches Smith play straight time for extended stretches was also particularly memorable—I'd only ever heard his playing in the context of Tim Berne's music and duo with Matt Mitchell, so to hear him delicately conversing with Lee via snare and bass drum was gratifying in its own way (on the trading, though, the more familiar dimension to his playing was unmistakable, if now more manageably imbibed in four and eight-bar chunks). 

The chance to hear an elder play this music is always a privilege, but there were also some memorable extramusical moments: after Lee introduced "317 E. 32nd Street" as a composition he first played in New York City 50 years ago, Dave mumbled something along the lines of "50 years ago? Don't you mean... (60)?," which Lee shrugged off with a kind of muted acknowledgment. Thus the classic dynamic during announcements: Lee as the freewheeling elder speaking his mind without hesitation, Dave as the restrained, perhaps reluctant comedic foil. E.g., at the end of one tune, Lee blew a powerful raspberry, which I took at first to be some dissatisfaction with his chops, maybe second-set fatigue (during "317 E. 32nd Street," I was amused watching Dave frantically adjust his tuning slide throughout the rather involved melody), but the raspberry as motif was soon developed as Lee started engaging somebody in the front row taking photos.

"What are the photos for?"

"I'm with the press."

"Oh, yeah?" 

Lee blew a raspberry at the photographer, then cracked a broad, ambiguously apologetic grin. 

"Where's your badge?" Dave asked, faux-serious, playing the foil.

The tensest moment of the set came after Lee's stunning "My Funny Valentine." He called "The Song Is You" and counted it off pretty slow, "1, 2, 3, 4...," to which the band came in medium swinging while Dave and Lee each played the melody at a rate a factor of two apart. After a couple bars, Lee turned around and gave a look to Linda, who just smiled sincerely and kept walking. Lee ultimately ended up playing the quicker tempo, which seemed to suit him just fine. 

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Lee Konitz was interviewed by Tim Hagans at Boston's Museum of Fine Art the first Sunday of spring break, which I missed being in the city, but checking him out playing with Dave's band was more than an ample substitute. A year ago, I transcribed an hour-long interview with Lee conducted by Dan Tepfer as part of a guest post I solicited from Dan for The Jazz Gallery's blog, Jazz Speaks

Speaking of the Gallery, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, we lost an important member of the family last week: Dale Fitzgerald, who co-founded the Gallery in '95 with Roy Hargrove (whose manager he served as for many years) and Lezlie Harrison. A number of Gallery alumni, including Christian McBride, Jason Moran, Jaleel Shaw, Miguel Zenón, and numerous others, wrote to Jazz Speaks with their fond memories of Dale, whom I got to know briefly when I started there in the summer of 2013. I spoke to Dale about the origins of the Gallery last May on the occasion of a special gala event. He will be missed.

Steve Coleman, whom I also spoke to for Jazz Speaks not too long ago, seems to be the elephant in the room of my musical education the good part of the past three years. If you haven't yet checked it out, I highly recommend Steve's M-Base Ways, a web portal to a wealth of musical resources, including instructional videos, a community forum, and lengthy interviews with him and Bunky Green. I've had a premium account, which grants access to a lot more material (and, more recently, conference calls to talk music with Steve and other M-Base Ways members) for about a year now, and at $15/mo., it's been well worth it (full disclosure: I'm not paid in any way to advertise this). 

A series of "blog posts" on the site, which are really just lengthy, casual interviews with Steve conducted by Miles Okazaki, were a big part of my subway commute listening over the break. The interviews are largely unedited and topics range widely, but the conversation is never uninteresting; notable topics included his and Graham Haynes hitchhiking research trip into the South and Delta blues during their 20s and getting "chiggers" (large body lice), musical applications of the golden mean in Trane, Bartok, and his own music (with examples demonstrated on the piano!), a discussion of his early explorations into computer-generated improvisation, and the influence of Egyptology on his music and other artists in the black American improvised music tradition. 

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Great On Paper is back, and we're hoping to share some of our music with the world "officially." We recorded in New York a few weeks ago as a result of some otherworldly serendipity that gave us a good tracking session deal we couldn't pass up on, but having paid for recording and mixing out of our pockets, we're uncertain as to when or whether we could take the final steps to release the album. 

We're looking at about $2000 for mastering, licensing fees, album design, printing CDs, all of that exciting stuff—which, in the grand scheme of things, isn't actually all that steep, but isn't looking promising for a bunch of recently graduated music school students. If you're interested in hearing more than just the preview, just shoot me an email and I'll happily send you the mixes for your consideration (no pressure to contribute, really! Even if you're just faintly curious). I'm sure most of you long ago exceeded your millennial-crowdfunding saturation-tolerance levels, but if you can think of anybody who might be interested in supporting this kind of thing, we'd be in your karmic debt if you spread the word.

One last thing: April is, apparently, Jazz Appreciation Month. I'll be doing a sort of fundraising blog-a-thon, if you like, the whole month for the GOP record: every weekday I'll be posting some new content, including some lengthy transcriptions (expect to see Billy Hart's favorite bootleg 'Trane, my favorite Joe Henderson solo of all time and one of the longest at 21 choruses, etc.), some nerdy jazz history (the seemingly forgotten West Coast bop tenor legacy, including Mr. Teddy Edwards), and more stuff of that mold. Stay tuned!

GOP and Earprint perform at the Lily Pad in Cambridge next Thursday, April 2, 2015. Sets at 9:15 (Earprint) and 10:30 p.m. (GOP), $10 covers both sets.