Review by Andy Boeckstaens
EFG London Jazz Festival
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
The double-bill of the Kenny Wheeler Quintet, followed by Lee Konitz and Dan Tepfer, was always going to be a highlight of this year’s festival. It turned out to be one of the gigs of the year.
Kenny Wheeler’s compositions have always been an important element of his work. Like many trumpet players over 50, his “chops” may not be what they were, but his power as a composer has strengthened. Most of the six pieces selected, including the opening A.N. Other and Ballad 20, were written during the last few years, and they were packed with typical twists and turns. Saxophonist Stan Sulzmann and pianist John Taylor have worked with Wheeler since the 1970s. Together with the simpatico Chris Laurence on bass, and the sensitively propulsive drummer Martin France, the group skilfully negotiated the complex, subtle music for a fascinating hour.
Beneath the leader’s benign demeanour lies an iron will. When he fluffs the occasional note, he seems to say to himself “Come on Ken, you can do better than that”, and sure enough, the next phrase is right on the money. An older tune – the uncharacteristically rocking Old Time – featured everyone on top form, and the closing A Pretty Lidl Waltz contained an exquisite high squeal from Wheeler: a distinctive trademark of one of the greatest figures that jazz has ever seen.
In contrast to Wheeler, the legendary alto saxophonist Lee Konitz has fashioned a career from predominantly standard material. As he slipped off his jacket after Stella By Starlight, he quipped “….Striptease in B”. That was unintentionally apt. For the duration of this concert alongside pianist Dan Tepfer, he did exactly what he has been doing for over 60 years: he stripped down familiar compositions – often to the point where the melody (and occasionally the harmony) disappeared – and then rigorously reconstructed them, on the spot, to produce something better. This might sound cerebral and clinical, but nothing could be further from the truth. Konitz’s tone was full of warmth, a lifetime of knowledge and experience distilled into every note. His genius lies in creating something intelligent, different and beautiful every time.
Suitably undressed (with another comment about playing “cool” in such a hot room), Konitz asked his collaborator to initiate the next tune, saying to the audience “I hope you can recognise it”, adding “I hope I can recognise it!” Tepfer gave the game away with a fragment of the melody early on, but then the pair ensured that every nuance of I’ll Remember April received a comprehensive seeing-to. With imagination oozing from every pore, Konitz and Tepfer took the horribly over-performed Body And Soul and came up with a real surprise: they traded vocal, as well as instrumental, lines. Their singing may have lacked expertise, but it was perfect, and almost unbearably moving. At the end, Konitz said “it took 78 years to [have the guts to] do that”.
With a style completely different from the melodic elegance of Alan Broadbent and the wry harmonic landscapes of Gil Evans (both of whom recorded with Konitz in duet format), Tepfer was a provocative and edgy catalyst who pushed the saxophonist’s more formalised “original” tunes Subconscious-Lee (based on What Is This Thing Called Love) and Thingin’ (All The Things You Are) into deeper territory. Between those two pieces, the pianist was rewarded with a few minutes to explore, unaccompanied, some of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. If anyone were to opine that jazz and classical make uncomfortable bedfellows, they should have listened to this. It was absorbing and utterly sublime.
The encore, Darn That Dream, was delivered with all the clarity and passion of everything that went before. By then, though, one felt that the job was done. An hour of wonderful jazz could not have been improved by carrying on for any longer. Lee Konitz demonstrated that – at 86, would you believe! – he is simply the best improviser of them all. And in Dan Tepfer he has the perfect musical partner.
Categories: Live review