Lee Konitz
Conversations on the Improviser's Art

Andy Hamilton
(The University of Michigan Press; Ann Arbor, Michigan)


Lee Konitz
Lee Konitz, Braga Jazz Festival 2003                                  Enrico Stefanelli©2007


As a peripatetic improviser, Konitz has played with pick-up rhythm sections rather than as a band-leader, though he has his regular collaborators. But he gains vital inspiration and sustenance from those in the group around him. Here he discusses the process of negotiation and interaction in that situation, and in particular the rhythmic attunement with bass and drums in his favoured trio format.

I had a group in the 50s with Ronnie Ball, Peter Ind, and Dick Scott or Jeff Morton. We had some gigs and recordings, George Wein managed me.(1) I worked in his club in Boston, Storyville, a couple of times a year at least. Then he got me something in California and left me there - one gig! every week in the late 70s. And around 1986 I had a quartet with Harold Danko, and Rufus Reid on bass, and Al Harewood, a fine drummer. We played at Nice, and I thought that was going to open the door to bringing a group in every year. But George Wein, the man in charge, never hired me again after that! It was a fine band, but I guess it didn't impress him. But that was really fun, I really felt like a band-leader for a while.

I have thought of myself as a sideman, although I usually stood up front of the rhythm section, and my name was bigger than the others, usually.

I had a Nonet which worked

Thinking about bass-players, do you prefer a bassist like Charlie Haden, with "the sound of the earth" that keeps you anchored, or one like Scott LaFaro who is creating melodies all the time?

It depends. I never played with Scott. I love a variety of players, from Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen to much more free kinds of players. Charlie Haden is beautiful to play with. He was not in the best of health when we played with Brad Mehldau; his back was in bad shape. When I listen to him playing with Ornette Coleman and then playing with me it's like night and day. When I played with Charlie and Paul Bley, very rarely did he play in four. The music didn't call for that. But when Charlie would finally open up it was very nice to hear and feel, and play with.

Why is it like night and day?

Because Ornette was playing very fast tempos and a free kind of music – these young guys came on the scene and really made an effect, playing hard. A different music, different age. I was just thrilled when [Charlie] decided to go into four for a couple of choruses, but I don't insist on anything because he always has a nice feeling. On the records with Brad Mehldau, he's even playing in two for Brad, then Brad really burns it up and he comes into four, reluctantly almost.

I love the bass to be as melodic as possible, and I try to get the bassist not to feel obliged to play quarter-notes all the time. Gary Peacock is great at that - playing time, and just playing melodically. And so is Marc Johnson.

Because you feel that everyone should be hearing the beat anyway, so it doesn't have to be stated all the time.

To keep the music interesting, you can't just keep plodding away, trying to swing. You must have good melodies, and good counterpoint. I prefer going in and out of the swing.

Do you have a problem with bassists who play a lot in the upper register, competing with you?

I don't enjoy competitive music period! I just have a problem with bassists who are trying to tell me where the quarter note is. This is tempo I'm speaking of, and the intensity with which the tempo is expressed also. They start to play time like they're saying to me "This is where it is, you gotta play it here". And I say, "Now wait a minute, maybe it's where I'm at, you play it with me". Then it's competitive.

Is that a case of a bassist who doesn't really listen to what you're doing?

He might listen, but he's more concerned with my listening to him as the time-keeper, which he is in the traditional function of the rhythm section. There's a tendency for the bassist to think that his tempo is indisputable. I could do without that stipulation.

It's a matter of negotiation.

Exactly. How do you put that negotiation into music, is the eternal question.

Though I think it's pretty well agreed, in this context, that if the bassist starts the tune, that's where we've got to play it.

Is it an ego thing?

In a way it is, yes. The bassist's job, at its best, is to listen - to interpret what is going on around him, and play as musically and as strong as necessary for the given situation. There's a difference between a session with Jackie McLean and one with me, for instance - between a more intensive time-feeling and one that's more laid-back. That's a fine line they have to draw.

Because bassists are not generally solo instruments, maybe this is how they get their status.

Exactly. That's why I like the bass-function loosening up, and playing more melodically, and less quarter-notes. Then the tempo is more implied, and I exercise my concept more freely.

But you've also talked about the virtues of a traditional rhythm section [in chapter 3].

I love a rhythm section that's relaxed. Playing with Marc Johnson and Joey Baron is a delight.

But when you talked about Brad Mehldau and Peter Bernstein playing with two other young players, what I took you to mean by a traditional rhythm section was one that did state the beat.

Very definitely, but the solo line takes the lead in determining the rhythmic impetus.

Maybe you'd say that stating the quarter-note or not, as Scott La Faro did not feel obliged to, is immaterial provided the players are really listening to each other.

From the few times that I've played with Niels-Henning, I just had the feeling that he loved to play those quarter-notes, and played them as strong as hell, and so musically that they were never offensive to me. I think that's a large part of it - how the feeling of that assertiveness is. You've got to be assertive to be a rhythm section player, by definition, but Niels-Henning [Ørsted Pedersen] listened to the rest of the guys. I'm very sad that he passed away recently.

What other bassists do you like working with?

Steve Swallow I just know as an electric bass-player, though he did do some acoustic records. You have to enjoy the sound the man is making – he's a great electric bassist. I made a nice CD with him and Paul Motian.(2) I miss the sound and the feeling of the upright bass - there's something lacking, in terms of the groundwork of a bass-violin. But he does it as good as you can do it, I think, with that instrument. And there is an advantage, sonically, to the electric bass. I can hear the notes more immediately, and clearer, and I really appreciate that very much. Plus he plays solos in the upper register sometimes that sound like a guitar. Steve pretty much plays what he's familiar with, but he fits into the spirit of what's playing, and he plays very well.

He does play it with quite a light touch.

Yes, and it's beautifully done.

I loved Paul Chambers – a great sound and deep into the time, very loose. But I hired him to do a record date, and he didn't bother to show up – Henry Grimes, fortunately, was available.

Rufus Reid is a delight, Derek Oles is special too, also Dave Holland.

You played quite a lot with Peter Ind in the 50s.

He was a student of Tristano and so I felt an affinity. He is an accomplished recording engineer and he brought his recording equipment to the Half Note, to do the album with Warne and Bill Evans. He also brought it to Pittsburgh to record a session we did at a club there. And he recorded a quartet with himself, Al Levitt, Warne and myself at Ronnie Scott's for his label Wave, which was very nice. Peter was a fine player, though his time-feeling could be a little assertive. We had many musical times together.

I don't wonder that I never became a rhythm section player. I can't imagine being as assertive as some of these good drummers and bassists are. I don't have the weight in my horn that a drum and a bass and a piano have. They far outweigh me and I can feel trapped by them. So it becomes a period of adjustment.

It's your style as well. Someone like Michael Brecker can take on a rhythm section.

Yes, exactly. It takes that kind of power to do it. It takes a different sensitivity to do it with my way of playing, I think. Michael Brecker is a great saxophone-player. He is very well-prepared, but I heard him play an unaccompanied ballad, "Naima" at Carnegie Hall, and it was great, it got a standing ovation - I stood up too. I'd like to get that record - oh man, there's so much to listen to!

Who are your favourite drummers?

Paul Motian is fun to play with always. Great time, and very much a listener. Sometimes he would get a little hokey, and start to make a little noise. But I think that was just a need to show off for a minute. He's a character, but really a beautiful guy, very loving. He's in his 70s now and he looks like a young man – he is a young man!

You have that negotiation of tempo and intensity with the drummer as well as the bassist.

Yes of course. It's even more offensive when the drummer's not right, because he can make so much noise.

Matt Wilson didn't make one sound that went under the heading of noise, to me. Hitting the snare drum in the wrong place - or the bass drum - can sound so loud and unmusical sometimes.

This is not something that's talked about enough - the touch or the tone that a drummer has. Listeners don't think of the drums as a melody instrument.

Yes. The touch or tone can get unmelodic, but Matt Wilson is just melodic from the first beat on. Paul Motian usually is also, and Joey Baron. The great players are playing melodies in their solos – Elvin, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Shelly Manne...



I remember playing with Dave Holland and Ed Blackwell, at Karl Berger's Woodstock school, and I had the feeling that they were so on top of the beat, that they were pushing me past where I could really relax. So I could never settle in and be comfortable with them. I've played with Dave with a different drummer, but those particular two guys gave me that feeling. That's the way they like to play, and I had to get with them, there wasn't time for them to adjust to me.

When you say "on top of the beat", you mean pushing the beat.

Yes. That keeps it very lively, but not easy for me to play with.

So the group could speed up.

That's the tendency a rhythm section has when they're trying to swing. It's been described as a false syncopation, to get the beat way up on the top, to give that kind of friction. Ron Carter and Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock did that a lot with Wayne Shorter, and it's very effective.

But you like to play behind the beat?

Well, just by definition, for the most part I'm putting the notes together in as spontaneous way as possible, and it's very hard to do that in sync with that beat. When I play a longer phrase, and get down to the bottom, it'll slow down a little bit. That would be okay if I try to land back into the pocket. But sometimes I just hang on by the shirt-tails for a while. But my intention is to play around the middle of the beat.

So an inexperienced rhythm section might slow down.

That would be their way of going with me. And then they would debate it during the intermission, and say "Wait a minute, that's not the thing to do". I don't care about the tempo slowing down, if it's still vital in some way. But if the feeling is lost, if it's like a resignation, then that's a problem.

It's not likely to be good, though, if the tempo is slowing down.

It depends. It would generally lose some energy and spirit.

I always respected Ray Brown's kind of solid beat. I was scheduled to play with him at the festival in Vicenza, Italy, in 2001. But I just had a feeling he wouldn't be sympathetic to my playing - I'd never played with Oscar Peterson, for instance, because I felt that he didn't like me. But still I was looking forward to finally playing with Ray. Unfortunately it didn't work out.

He likes "hot" players.

Yes, I'm sure. When I got there, I was told that Ray had no idea that I was supposed to play with him. And at the breakfast table, he told me that years ago, at a festival, I'd said to him "I ain't gonna play dem blues, man". I could never have said anything like that even in jest. But he agreed to let me play two tunes at the end of his set, so I could fulfil my obligation, and get paid. We played "Body And Soul", and at the end of my two choruses Ray and the drums and piano laid out, for me to play a cadenza - they wouldn't even play with me. And then we played "Cherokee" and I said "Not too fast", and immediately it went faster than I could play. And they were smiling at each other, I was told. I've never been treated like that by anybody, ever!

I've heard a lot of people criticise him. I'm saying these things about our heroes in jazz – this is just my experience with them. But maybe others had different experiences.

You've done a lot of duos with pianists. Is that a format you particularly enjoy?

I do enjoy playing in a duet situation. But a bass and drums trio is the best situation for me, because I don't feel like I have to share the solo space so much, and I can stretch more. It's difficult hearing the chords while in motion, sometimes.

Again, I'll try to visualise the situation on stage, with piano, bass and drums. I'm usually standing with my back to them, which I don't like. And, since I don't use a microphone and monitor most of the time, they can't hear me face to face. Now, I start to play – without a count-off, frequently – and, one by one, they join me...such a nice feeling to hear another sympathetic voice – nothing can compare to this process for me.

So, I hear the bass notes, then the piano plays a chord, and I say – in some part of me – "wow, what was that?" Not enough time to really put a label on it so I do the best I can to match that sound. Then the drums enter – great to hear! So now I am listening to myself in relation to three other sounds. "What's the pianist doing now? Interesting, but what can I do to correspond to that nice progression... No, that didn't really work – and what's that chord? Ah, that was nice! What is the bass doing now, with the drums? How nice – how can I fit that sound?" And it continues in a most fascinating way, sometimes not really adding up to a "complete, well-structured composition" – but a special feeling of doing it as an ensemble, in front of listeners, makes it an extraordinary undertaking, I think.

I don't know the answer to being able, within the standard song format, to function spontaneously with others. In the so-called free format you are more compelled to hear each other and react, and in some ways it's easier. But the same end-product of a good composition is at stake.

If you’re playing alone, 100% attention is on your creating process, hopefully – when you're in a duo, it's only 50%, and 50% on the other person, especially if it's a chordal instrument that's so complicated. And my equation goes down to 33.3% for a trio, and 25% for a quartet. But to get more than a superficial feeling for what the other player is doing, a specific tune-in to the quality of the sounds that he's playing – how do you do it, I ask myself and you? It's almost impossible in motion, and you're supposed to not only hear it, but figure out what the hell it is, and play something that fits it – that's asking an awful lot! That's one of the reasons that I prefer to play without a chordal instrument, but when I do play with it, and the guy is really responding to me, it's an experience that I love. It takes some of the pressure off you, that you could feel in having to deliver a great solo. You're just there in the moment, enjoying.

Last night [in Paris] the piano-player was like a Jamey Aebersold record, he was just comping, keeping time – it had little to do with what I was doing. So a couple of times I signalled for him to lay out, I just wanted to play with the bass-player because he was listening to me.

So making music in a group is a compromise between focussing on your own line, and hearing what the others are doing.

It's as much a compromise as trying to have a conversation with another person. It's a test of your ability to communicate. In a situation like last night, where the sounds were so unpleasant sometimes, you just want to not even try any more. But it's a gig, and you're obliged to make the best of it. When the guitarist was playing chords, I never had any sensation of them – I couldn't hear them, I wasn't affected by them at all. But in most situations it's possible to speak and be understood to some extent.

I guess the occasions when it doesn't feel like a compromise are when it's inspired.

Yes. That's what we all live for. And it happens more than you'd think.


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