Recent Listening: Konitz, Mehldau, Haden, Motian

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.

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  1. O'Sullivan, Red says

    In fact, that 1997 show you were at was also the last time – before this new record – that Konitz and Meldau played together at all… I know that Konitz was waiting the whole time for a re-match, and it only came with this new record…

  2. says

    Re-matches are not made in heaven. They are made at the record company’s corporate meetings. In fact recordings are planned at these same meetings. Manfred Eicher, the “prez” of ECM, takes no chances. He knows PR propaganda sells and creates interest in a group. This group needed no PR other than a few adds for the cd. Rifftides excellent review will double sales. Manfred counts on perceptive, colorful, lively and informative coverage like this. He knows he knows!

    These four players, Mehldau, Konitz, Motian, ( BTW, it’s pronounced, MOW__TEA’__INN, not MOW__SHUN) and Haden, were having the jam session of a lifetime. When the younger cats start out to practice and pay their “dues” they set up a jam sessions! What does that mean? It means they gather at a loft and somebody just starts playing a tune. Then one by one everyone joins in. That’s what this cd is all about, a jam session caught on tape and made in Heaven.

    Basho Records in the UK, created a similar gathering of talents for a recording titled, “THE IMPOSSIBLE GENTLEMEN”. It was planned by the head honcho, Christine Allen, an extremely knowledgeable lady about the UK jazz scene and the abundance of great talent available to her.

    The “impossible gentlemen” are, Steve Swallow, (70 ish), Adam Nussbaum, (50 ish), British new piano superstar, Gwylim Simcock, just turned 30, and guitarist, Mike Walker, 40ish. The PR Ms. Allen set up is the same as ECM’s, with a giant feature in the current issue of the leading UK trade, JAZZWISE; advanced raves etc. etc. are forthwith arriving fast and furious.

    The main reason for bringing up the Basho release and comparing it to ECM’s is that the UK/USA quartet uses all written charts with of course plenty of space for improvising, while the USA 4 uses no written music, just experience and faith.

    Simcock is like Mehldau, ambidextrous and virtuosic beyond belief. Swallow is like Haden, solid and a perfect cushion for everyone. Walker is a Konitz on guitar melodic and appealing and Nussbaum is like Motian , powerful and inventive always listening intensely to the others.

    I haven’t listened to either of these cds but I know the players’ styles and capacity for synergy, from other cds and so I feel I have an instinctive sense for how the quartets will sound.

    To be continued……………..

  3. Raul says

    “Plans—and non-plans—can change. ”

    What a beautiful phrase there. Sums up jazz, or better, the life-lesson jazz teaches us every day.