Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Lee Konitz and Hiromi

It’s hard to image Lee Konitz and Hiromi performing together. Konitz is pushing eighty. Hiromi is twenty-five. More to the point, Konitz is (usually) a laid-back balladeer, Hiromi is a frenzied virtuoso. The two both happened to be in town this weekend, and I CAUGHT BOTH SHOWS.

I developed an appreciation of Konitz rather late. But there's a reason. As a teen I had a difficult time finding meaningful gifts for my parents. I knew my mother liked the feathery style of Paul Desmond, and I'd read that Konitz was a cooler and rather more intellectual version of the same. That year (1967?) Konitz won the Downbeat “record of the year” award, for a duet album, and I bought it for my mom. It was harsh and edgy and she hated it. In fact, she accused me of buying it for her, so I could HAVE IT FOR MYSELF! Gee, how was I supposed to know!! In fact, except for the opening duet with a trombone player, “Strutting with Some Barbeque,” I hated the album myself. Thus do adults heap injustice on their helpless offspring. But that’s another story...

I reconnected with Konitz only a few years ago via a brilliant album called Angel Song, which flows with beauty and intelligence and no drums. Later I found a few things in the used bins—a duet album with Michel Petrucciano, a cheezy album of Brazilian beach music, a brilliant early-fifties set of arrangements in what I think of as the “Lenny Tristano style,” called Subconscious-Lee.

So we went down to the Artist’s Quarter in Saint Paul on a recent Sunday night. Twenty bucks a seat, which is not bad to be sitting twenty feet from the “legend” who, later this month, is being honored at Carnegie Hall. A very good local rhythm section. Lee himself came across as something of a self-depreciatory goofball, which is nice to know. He asked for requests and rejected most of them as being either “too cool” or “not cool enough.” Ended up playing “Stella by Starlight” and “Cherokee.”

I was racking my brains to come up with something that would be medium cool. “Darn That Dream”? “Green Dolphin Street”? “I Can’t Get Started”? In the end I shouted out nothing. But now I know that “You Go to My Head” would have been perfect.

So Lee played. And the sidemen played. And the set was too short. And the time between sets was too long. So we left, with several nuggets of that brilliant elaboration of tunefulness which is jazz at its best. Thoughtful and romantic, tough on occasion, but above all else, KNOWING. Jazz is knowing, both musically and emotionally. At its best, it wanders in the zones of love lost and found, with no interface of words or “hooks” or anger or pretension.

There is something amazing about listening to a man who, by the age of twenty-two, had played with Lennie Tristano, Claude Thornhill, Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, and Gil Evans. How many times has Konitz played “Stella by Starlight” over the decades?

Konitz’s style is “cool” as opposed to the febrile style of Charlie Parker, and Parker himself once expressed admiration that Konitz did not play like him. Be that as it may, in 1962 Konitz recorded one of the classic albums of all time, Motion, on which we find him with only bass and drums, spinning variations on a selection of standards with tireless breath and imagination. It’s like an Ornette Coleman album with more harmonic richness and depth. That is the key—understanding and working with the harmonies.

At the Artist Quarter Konitz displayed flashes of the same remarkable musicianship. (I overheard the man sitting at the bar behind me saying that he had attended every night of the three-night weekend stand.)

Jazzed up by the brilliant jazz, I decided to head down to the Dakota the following evening to hear Hiromi, the wunderkind pianist from Japan. It’s a different scene, swankier, but very nice all the same. Hiromi is classically trained, wears sparkles on her eyelids (though you can’t see them from any distance) and travels with a band featuring an electric guitar and bass. I had downloaded a few tracks from her most recent album, Sonic Boom, and I was impressed by the intelligence of the arrangements. The show itself was no less professionally coordinated—so much so that there was almost no clapping following the solos. There wasn’t time, and things were moving on. Hiromi obviously likes odd jagged rhythms. Yet her music seems to lack a lyric core of what we once called “expression.” (But perhaps all she’s trying to express is frenzied brilliance.) No one could deny that her set was full of life, and it was also plenty long—the great sin of jazz performers is short first sets. For myself, I like her album better.

be that as it may, Hiromi remains a very BIG jazz phenomenon, rather than a youth-crossover wannabe. The Japanese ambassador flew up from Chicago to see the show, for example. An elderly woman sitting in a booth in front of me was explaining to her white-haired friends why she was supporting Obama. And the black gentleman sitting at the bar next to me tried to fill me in on his favorite Hip Hop performers. (Fiasco somebody, and Slaw Daug, if I remember correctly.)

I can report that the martinis are both stronger and tastier at the Dakota than the Artist’s Quarter. They also cost twice as much. Being out is fun. Jazz is sublime. History just keeps rolls along. And honest, Mom, I did it for you.

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