Saturday, June 21, 2008

Lee Konitz and the perfect poetry of bop

Lee_konitz Jazz is to popular music what poetry is to popular writing, which is to say, unpopular. Neither the consumers of the one or the other have ever constituted more than a sliver of the public. Part of the reason is that both make great demands on the audience. U.S. Poet laureate Joseph Brodsky argued that poetry is the most perfect literary form because it says what it says in the most efficient way possible. Consider one of my favorite poems, by A.E. Houseman:

Stars,I have seen them fall,
But when they drop and die
No star is lost at all
From all the star-sown sky.
The toil of all that be
Helps not the primal fault;
It rains into the sea,
And still the sea is salt.

The reader has to see through the poem to recognize that it is about inertia, something that is perfectly beautiful precisely because it is terrible: it makes human life possible, in all its beauty and wonder, and dooms us at the same time. That truth and two unforgettable images, is a lot to squeeze into 44 words.

Brilliant jazz works simultaneously in two directions. It takes a basic melody and plays all around it, expanding the melody along any number of chordal and modal dimensions. Every drop of passion and conception is teased out. But it also works by leaving things out. What is not played is as important as what is played, and hints abound. It's easy to get carried away, and a lot of modern jazz is incomprehensible to me. But perhaps it is just too demanding.

I have been listening to Lee Konitz, an alto sax player of consummate genius. Konitz's music is not background music. You have to listen to it attentively. But if you do, the rewards are awesome. I recommend Alone Together, with pianist Brad Mehldau and bass player Charlie Haden. Slightly more demanding is his Duets, a series of encounters with jazz guitarist Jim Hall, tenor player Joe Henderson, trombonist Marshall Brown, and others. Every Konitz number is a perfect poem, efficiently mapping out previously unexplored corridors of the human soul.

For a quick taste, try this clip at Daily Motion. Konitz joins his long time collaborator, Warne Marsh.

The above post is an old one from SDP. Here is something new: a sample from Alone Together, the great Thelonious Monk standard.

Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden/Alone Together/Round Midnight/1997

Enjoy, and if you do enjoy, buy the CD.

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