If I had known of Ethan Iverson’s conversation with Lee Konitz about Lester Young, I would have included a link to it in the previous exhibit. On his blog, Do The Math, Iverson, the pianist and polymath of The Bad Plus, posts what amounts to a Prez master class with Konitz. The alto saxophonist has been intimately familiar for more than sixty years with Young’s early work, so familiar–it turns out–that as he and Iverson listened to the recordings, he could sing along with most of Prez’s classic solos from the Count Basie years.
Here is part of their discussion after they had listened to Lester’s solo on “Twelfth Street Rag.”
Lee sang this longish, fastish solo impeccably. He looked quite sad at the end.
LK: How can you talk about these jewels? Each one seems better than the next. Ethan, why are you exploring Lester Young now?
EI: I’m trying to fill in some holes in my playing. But also, the more I listen to Lester Young, the more I hear how amazing he is.
LK: Same thing here. I love him more all the time.
EI: This tune is corny, in a way, but they make it so hip.
LK: When you can play like this, the material becomes almost less important – it’s just a springboard for pure improvisation and pure music.
Iverson includes in his blog piece transcriptions of Young solos and MP3 players that allow the reader to hear them. Unfortunately, the only way I could hear and see them at the same time was to open two copies of the blog and position them side by side on the screen. It is worth the effort. Even if you are not a skilled sight reader, it is fascinating to follow along on the manuscript as Prez unrolls his creations. To go to Do The Math and Iverson’s comprehensive 10-part Lester Young symposium with Lee Konitz, click here.
Here is a final thought about Lester Young–for today, at least. It comes from the late tenor saxophonist Bill Perkins and has to do with Prez’s subtle trailblazing harmonic approach. It suggests a lineage that may surprise conventional thinkers. When I spoke with him in 1996 as I prepared notes for his superb CD Perk Plays Prez, Perkins said:
Harmonically, Prez was getting outside, in his way. In “Taxi War Dance,” for instance, he gets into a whole different mode, scale-wise. He was the first man I knew to use, rather than third scales and triads, fourths and fifths and big jumps. I can’t think of another player who did that. Everybody does it now, but he was unique with that. Bix Beiderbecke used some very interesting jumps in his melodies–big jumps–and his sound was beautiful. I think that might have had an influence. Prez loved Bix.
Nice stuff–thanks for the link. The transcriptions are particularly welcome, though (as Iverson notes) not exact–I don’t think conventional notation could accurately convey what Lester is doing.
Learning to sing Bird and Prez solos, note for note, was part of Tristano’s pedagogical method, as Konitz and Iverson say. One way you could spot a Lennie student was by a particular falsetto that the men had to use in order to sing along with tenor and especially alto sax without transposing down an octave. And when Warne Marsh played in Supersax, he already knew the solos they used as heads.