49. A master at his best

Easy to Love. From Lee Konitz and Red Mitchell, I Concentrate on You, 1974

Lee Konitz passed me by for years – I registered his presence on The Birth of the Cool sessions, and on a few recordings with Peter Ind, then moved on. I was listening to saxophonists who were, let’s not say less subtle but more demonstrative. Konitz was cool, sure, but not the latest thing and didn’t immediately grab the ear the way some brasher souls made sure to do. But his incessant touring and recording meant he was bound to come back into view, and this duo effected a lifetime conversion.

The repertoire helps. All the selections are Cole Porter tunes. Konitz knows everything, but did tend to restrict himself to a fairly limited set of favourite vehicles in his late career – striving to play them as if for the first time, as he always claimed. Here he caresses each tune before launching his extemporisations. The whole lot are thoroughly hummable, and after a few listens it’s hard to resist singing along with the solos as well. Those floating lines; that dry tone; the nimble bass accompaniment from Red Mitchell; the brevity of each track – everything comes together in a session that falls into that delightful set of duo recordings where two people come together who might never have done so, and create something that sounds as if it needed to happen. I even forgive Mitchell for his occasional vocal interjections which, in context, are just about tolerable.

Konitz made any number of other recordings and – like, say, Anthony Braxton but for different reasons – you’d need to devote more time than I’ll have in this life to the work to say just where one item fits in the vast discography. He maintained an astonishingly high standard for decade after decade, as this TV bit of his tour with Bill Evans in 1965 attests.

Other personal highlights include other duos, with Gil Evans, Martial Solal or Michel Pettruciani, the trios with Charlie Haden and Brad Meldhau, his short-lived Nonet, and his contributions to Kenny Wheeler’s Angel Song. And I have good memories of live shows: Angel Song again, playing with Gwilym Simcock at Pizza Express, with Dave Douglas at Cheltenham and even, almost his last hurrah, at Bristol’s own jazz festival (in 2018, though it somehow already feels a world away).

And there are older classics, too, of course. But if I want to play something at the end of the day that lifts my mood, without setting my mind racing in a way that will delay sleep, this little marvel is still a regular choice. Musical balm dispensed by a real master.

Why the No 49? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify

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