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In Praise of Lee Konitz's Ageless Search: A Conversation About 'Frascalalto,' From 2017

Lee Konitz with Kenny Barron
John Abbott

In honor of alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, who died this week at 92, here is an article from 2017, when he was releasing a new album with an all-star rhythm team.


“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Marcel Proust couldn’t have been thinking about the chord changes to “Cherokee” when he first articulated this idea, writing in France a century ago. 

But his point feels perfectly suited to the example of alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, who at 89 is still extracting fresh insight from familiar places, as he proves on an effervescent new album, Frescalalto.

The album — out in digital formats on Impulse! — features Konitz with a sterling rhythm section spearheaded by his fellow NEA Jazz Master, pianist Kenny Barron. On bass and drums respectively are Peter Washington and Kenny Washington, best known for their service in the longstanding Bill Charlap Trio. And to say that Konitz sounds right at home with this band is both an understatement and a bit off the mark. He sounds more like someone getting comfortable behind the wheel of a luxury sedan, along a winding but familiar country road.

If you’ve caught a recent Konitz gig, or even a not-so-recent one, chances are you have heard one or more of the tunes found here. Frescalalto opens with “Stella By Starlight” and closes with “Cherokee” — two of the dozen or so jazz standards that Konitz keeps in active circulation. He also includes originals based on existing chord progressions, like “Thingin” (a reworking of Jerome Kern’s “All The Things You Are”) and “Kary’s Trance” (which has a less obvious precursor, “Play Fiddle, Play”).

“Kary’s Trance” is a Konitz tune of deep pedigree: it was the opening track on his 1956 Atlantic release Inside Hi-Fi, and has appeared on a handful of albums since. It surfaces here in an easygoing but undeniably swinging version, with Konitz phrasing behind the beat, and forming his lines without a trace of premeditation.

Elsewhere on Frescalalto, Konitz ventures more into the ream of vulnerability: he’s heartbreaking on an elegant original ballad, “Gundula,” and ventures some old-guy scat-singing on the back end of a medium-bright “Out of Nowhere.” (As in the more famous example of Chet Baker, Konitz scats just like he plays, which is to say: boppish but unmannered. It sounds like no one else.)


The album also capitalizes on some shared history among these players, beyond the Washingtons and their Charlap association. Kenny Washington made his recording debut on the 1977 album Lee Konitz Nonet, when he was just shy of 20. The drummer played on his next Konitz album, Jazz Nocturne, in 1992 — anchoring a quartet that also featured Barron. All of which helps explain why there isn't a sense of random assignment here, or the complacent hum of an all-star blowing session. 


Peter Washington, Lee Konitz, Kenny Washington, Kenny Barron
Credit John Abbott
Left to right: Peter Washington, Lee Konitz, Kenny Washington, Kenny Barron

Konitz has another album due out on Impulse! this fall, an as-yet-untitled duo session made with pianist Dan Tepfer. When I reached the saxophonist by phone on Monday afternoon, he spoke fondly of both that album and this one, noting with satisfaction that their temperaments were “absolutely different.”

I suggested that Frescalalto was an object lesson in his compulsion to find new ways of mining old material. “I’m pleased that that’s true,” he replied, “because I’ve been playing these tunes for about 70 years now.” He went on:


They seem to be a little different each time. Sometimes we try and it doesn't quite work, but most of the time, when I'm playing with people that I'm relaxed with, we come up with something of interest. I guess you could say I'm trying to take advantage of a good thing by not coming up with new material.

That’s one way of putting it. Another way, though it requires a level of pretension that would be alien to Konitz, is to return to Proustian matters. That oft-cited line, about forgoing new vistas in favor of new eyes, comes from La Prisonnière, the fifth volume of his Remembrance of Things Past. In the original context, it includes a reference to the Fountain of Eternal Youth, which again feels just right for the subject at hand. 

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.