As artists mature, the circumstances that allow them to perform optimally become more and more explicit. Occasionally, it falls upon a collaborator to find these spaces that allow the other to shine. The challenge for the arranger/composer is to create a fit for the featured performer and to get the performer to fully invest in the setting provided.
Nonagenarian saxophonist Lee Konitz has been a featured soloist for many decades and has become a legend for his intriguing contributions to many well-known jazz dates with a wide variety of ensembles. Woodwind player, composer and arranger Ohad Talmor has been an important part of Konitz’s musical sphere for the past three decades, providing the elder statesman numerous opportunities to contribute his celebrated alto sound.
Konitz and Talmor have reunited a version of the Lee Konitz Nonet to release a new recording, Old Songs New, where the unique ensemble of winds, strings and percussion comes together to anchor Konitz’s flights of fancy.
Talmor originally met Konitz in 1990 in Geneva, Switzerland while the elder saxophonist was a featured soloist with a local large ensemble. Talmor was taken under Konitz’s wing when Talmor approached Konitz. Talmor began writing music for Konitz in 1993, including his Suite for Lee Konitz, which was premiered at the 1994 Geneva Jazz Festival. Talmor moved to New York in 1995 and he has maintained a relationship for the past twenty-five years with the saxophone legend, writing, arranging and recording.
The inception of their Nonet came in 2002 when a former student of Talmor, Denis Lee, brought an embryonic lineup to São Paulo, Brazil. The group would play Birdland in New York City the following year. Lee has maintained a close relationship with Konitz and Talmor and has been instrumental in generously facilitating the Nonet’s recordings. He even plays bass clarinet in the group.
The Nonet’s sound finds its origins in Konitz’s early work with Miles Davis on the Birth of the Cool sessions. For Old Songs New, Talmor knew that he wanted to pay homage to the radio orchestra sound of the 1950s that Konitz loves so well. Talmor also knew that he wanted to record pieces that Konitz had rarely or never played.
Deciding on repertoire for the Nonet was a mutual exercise. Talmor and Konitz both brought tune considerations to the project and they settled on some interesting choices, including a couple of pieces made famous by Frank Sinatra, a touchstone to Konitz’s lyrical approach to his horn.
The Nonet has become a perfect ensemble to highlight Konitz’s playing. This particular iteration was built to have a lower, darker sound that would balance against the brightness of the altoist. The Nonet features flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, viola, two cellos, bass and drums, a unique assemblage with constraints that were advantageous for a singular sound for this project.
The ensemble features long time Konitz collaborator drummer George Schuller, along with bassist Chris Tordini, in the rhythm section. Caroline Davis plays flute and alto flute while Christof Knoche plays clarinet. The aforementioned Lee plays bass clarinet. There is also a string section composed of Judith Insell on viola and Mariel Roberts and original Nonet member Dimos Goudaroulis on cello.
This instrumentation provides a perfect balance for Talmor’s custom arrangements, a main goal of which was to not overburden Konitz with score or written music but to let him play and react freely over the ensemble passages. Talmor’s efforts led to freely played melodies by the saxophonist, without a chart in sight, weaving in and out in a continuous counterpoint while the ensemble holds down the lush harmonic and dynamic rhythmic information.
The recording begins with Gordon Jenkins’s melancholy “Goodbye,” Talmor’s textural arrangement gives Konitz ample space for his quintessential melodic playing. Konitz originally recorded Tinturin and Lawrence’s swinging “Foolin’ Myself” in 1954 for Lee Konitz at Storyville, this version featuring some dynamic ensemble passages, including a New Orleans style collective improvisation, as Konitz insisted on everyone soloing. Mann and Hillard’s “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” is well known because of Sinatra’s interpretation, a favorite of Konitz, who kneads the wistful melody beautifully throughout the arrangement.
Originally written for his daughter, Konitz’s “Kary’s Trance” is brilliantly arranged to include the standard that inspired it, “Play Fiddle Play,” along with a time signature shift between 4/4 and 3/4. Green and Heyman’s “I Cover the Waterfront” opens with Talmor playing the verse on tenor saxophone before Konitz comes in to play his own satisfying melodic narrative on the tune (a second tune that Konitz admires Sinatra’s version of). Konitz’s affinity for Charlie Parker with Strings album is abundantly clear on the group’s glowing take on Warren and Gordon’s “This Is Always,” a tune Konitz has never recorded but has lived with for 80 years.
Gillespie and Coots’s “You Go to My Head” was one of the first pieces that Konitz recorded with Lennie Tristano. The piece has so much meaning for the saxophonist and it was apparent after the slow, soulful performance in the studio, as an awe-inspired silence settled over the members of the Nonet. After two days of recording, the rhythm section reconvened in the studio with Konitz to record in trio, duo and even some solo saxophone pieces. “Trio Blues” is a rare example of Konitz playing a completely improvised impromptu blues.
The Lee Konitz Nonet’s Old Songs New is a wonderful example of positioning a legendary soloist in the perfect musical situation, generating inspiringly dynamic musical results.
released November 22, 2019
Lee Konitz - alto saxophone
Ohad Talmor - tenor saxophone (5), arranger, conductor
Caroline Davis - flute & alto flute
Christof Knoche - clarinet
Denis Lee - bass clarinet
Judith Insell - viola
Mariel Roberts - cello
Dimos Goudaroulis - cello
Christopher Tordini - bass
George Schuller - drums