CBSO Centre, Birmingham UK
The alto saxophonist Paul Desmond is reported to have said he aimed for the sound of a dry martini. But there has been another alto player dispensing a similar drink over the past 60 years, and his speciality has been dryer still.
It is clear that in 2009 this barman’s hand shakes a bit. The olive might not be quite as plump and round as it once was, and it might be dropped into the glass a little more roughly. That glass itself might have the odd thumb print that hasn’t been wiped clean. But that juniper liquor, some spilled on the bar counter as it is served, still has a unique flavour that, despite its tartness, still intoxicates those who have acquired this particular taste.
I confess I am one of them.
And so Lee Konitz gives us his schtick. Having requested no pictures because the noise will distract from the music (the gig is unamplified) he jokes: “no applause, no applause…” He mimes an 82-year-old’s forgetfulness on noticing he has left a cloth in the bell of his saxophone, then uses that same cloth to muffle and darken the sound later in the concert. He examines the keys of his instrument (looking like the man who turns to frown at the paving stone he has just tripped over) having failed to get an altissimo note. And, having given him a chance for a solo display, he jokes with the young pianist who is his partner in this sole UK gig: “Have you finished, now?” He had started the evening by searching and finding a tune on his alto, then stopping and acknowledging that they couldn’t play that because the pianist didn’t know that song. The tune is Johnny One Note. This is just the kind of comic dig the old curmudgeon loves. And I am sure Tepfer knows him well enough not to take offence.
But he also gives us his art. Despite having written some strong originals down the years and made some forays into free jazz too, it is the great American songbook that increasingly has become his man musical arena. But the fascinating thing he does is bring those other elements into these familiar tunes.
So, last night, we heard Without A Song, Somewhere Over The Rainbow, The Christmas Song (presumably he had caught sight of the decorated tree in the corner of the hall), A Nightingale Sang In Berkley Square, What Is This Thing Called Love?, Skylark, Alone Together, All The Things You Are, Cherokee and Body & Soul. And those are just the ones whose titles I could recall.
Sometimes we had little bits of them, sometimes we seemed to leave them and then return, sometimes I could have sworn I heard a phrase from Subconcious-Lee or some other knotty bebop-grown-cool original. I suppose the visual art equivalent of this would be the collage maker – so, we get the tunes torn up and the scraps fitted together in new and overlapping ways to present something that is at once both familiar and new. And strange. And fascinating.
Tepfer, though young enough to be Konitz’s (even great-) grandson, is an ideal partner, fully up to speed in all the standards and in whatever key Konitz calls, able to add some off-the-wall and unexpected diversions of his own, and able to give a virtuoso display of one of Bach’s Goldberg Variations followed by his own improv on it (“I’ll just go an have a lie-down,” Konitz joked.)
It can’t be lost on Konitz that some might come to see him for nostalgic reasons and because they might feel it’s their last chance. I hope they went away, as I did, happy in the knowledge that, although age may have withered some of the physical technique, his insights into the music and his hard-won wisdom grow deeper. Certainly the spirit is just as strong and even more flavorsome.
Categories: Live review