Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Live at Birdland (ECM).
When he’s working with people whose knowledge and ears he trusts, Konitz sometimes simply begins. The first track starts with seven seconds of silence. Then, Konitz, accompanied by Motian’s brushes, embarks on an alto saxophone abstraction. The listener who hasn’t looked at the listing on the CD box has no idea what tune this is going to be—and wonders if the rhythm section knows. After a few seconds, Mehldau’s piano and Haden’s bass appear, but it isn’t clear what will emerge from Konitz’s pensiveness. Thirty seconds in, vague recognition dawns. He’s not giving away the melody, but there’s something about those chord changes. At 59 seconds, he plays an approximation of the first phrase of the bridge of “Lover Man,” not an outright quote; a hint. Blatancy is not his way. This one-chorus solo is a new melody created by an 81-year-old who has played the song hundreds of times. It’s a safe bet that none of those solos had the shape of this one. This may even be the first time that he slipped in a bar of “The Last Time I Saw Paris.”
Not all of the standards by this ad hoc quartet begin as mysteriously as “Lover Man.” From the top of his introduction, Mehldau gives away “Lullaby of Birdland.” That’s good enough for Konitz. He builds another tower of dreams, then yields to Mehldau whose stunning solo might be the highlight of the album if his dazzle on “Solar” and “Oleo” didn’t match or surpass it. Haden’s deliberative solos are the antithesis of the school of high, fast, acrobatic bass playing. The ones on “Lullaby of Birdland” and “I Fall in Love Too Easily” are as heartening as country walks with a friendly sheep dog. Haden’s and Motian’s empathy began building forty years ago when they were together in Keith Jarrett’s group. Their rhythmic extrasensory perception is the foundation of these performances. Motian’s and Konitz’s interaction in the opening duo section of “Oleo” is a wonder.
I was at The Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles in 1997 when Haden, Konitz and Mehldau played a two-night gig. It was Konitz’s first encounter with the pianist, and he privately expressed concern about being thrown together with “another young virtuoso.” In the course of the performances, his edginess evaporated. The engagement produced a splendid recording, but this new one is in a different dimension. To compare the 1997 and 2009 versions of “You Stepped Out of a Dream” is to hear how the addition of Motian’s drums transforms the music.
In the happiest circumstances, a jam session can be the essence of the jazz experience. Here, four musicians came together with no plan, no arrangements, no tune list. They depended on their musicianship, taste, mutual knowledge of standard songs and senses of adventure and humor. The music they made has the freshness of spontaneity and the wisdom of experience. The ECM publicity about this album indicates that it was a one-time band. “There are no reunion gigs planned,” it says.
Plans—and non-plans—can change.