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The Chicago-born, nonagenarian American saxophonist and composer Leon “Lee” Konitz, known most notably for his pioneering playing on Miles Davis’ 1950 Birth of the Cool album, passed away on Thursday night from complications with the Covid-19 virus.

His longtime manager and friend, Andreas Scherrer, confirmed via email that Konitz had been battling the virus in a New York hospital for at least two weeks.

A student of the blind pianist and jazz-pioneer Lennie Tristano, Konitz cut his teeth in Claude Thornhill’s Orchestra in the late ‘40s, an impressionistic big band that paved the way for the Third Stream movement in Jazz, which was pushed along by Miles Davis and his longtime collaborator Gil Evans, who arranged the Birth of the Cool sessions, which would be Konitz’ breakout work.

Shortly thereafter, Konitz forged a longtime relationship with fellow Tristano peer Warne Marsh, whose winding tenor saxophone lines blended with Konitz’ biting, hyper-linear alto saxophone to form one of the most lasting sounds in the history of Jazz, exemplified by such classic recordings of original songs as “Subconcious Lee” (Konitz) and “Background Music” (Marsh). As was the case with their mentor-impresario Tristano, Konitz and Marsh both had an unnerving devotion to the jazz tradition’s relationship with show tunes and repertoire from the American Songbook. The majority of most of their original compositions exist as modern jazz melodies written over standard song progressions—”contrafacts” as they were known in the bebop era.

After a slew of recordings as the horn section in Tristano’s quintet during the 50s—several of which became classics still studied at jazz conservatories around the world today—Konitz and Marsh began playing their own dates and leading their own bands, sometimes together and also with other groups which included many of the most historic voices in the history of Jazz.

There was always an intricate freedom and singing-quality to Konitz’ improvisations—whether a few choruses over Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite”, or in a 15-minute exploration of Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To”—which spoke to his lifelong raison d’être of pure in-the-moment improvisational expression. 

It’s no surprise Konitz received the call for Davis’ now-famous 1949 sessions. His early work was always set in comparison to Konitz’ hero, fellow alto-saxophonist Charlie Parker. He was never compared disparagingly, or in Bird’s shadow, but rather he was one of the few who had developed his own unique voice on the alto following Parker.

His discography includes over 200 dates as a leader, with groups of all shapes and sizes, and while mostly sticking to his love and expansion of songbook repertoire, he was also featured on the landmark first recording of Free Improvisation: Lennie Tristano’s “Intuition” and “Digression” on the 1949 album Crosscurrents, which superseded Ornette Coleman’s free-jazz by nearly a decade.

In addition to recording sessions exclusively free in form, Konitz delved into more structured forms of expression as well: an award winning album of duets with Joe Henderson, Jim Hall, and the violinist Ray Nance; his own swinging Nonet; new works with classical string ensembles; and most importantly, dozens of collaborative projects with younger musicians and cross-generational bands (a pair of albums for Blue Note in the late 90s featured a trio with the then-26-year-old Brad Mehldau, and Ornette Coleman’s bassist Charlie Haden, and later in a quartet with Bill Evans’ drummer Paul Motian.)

Despite a brief decline in productivity following the release of his milestone album “Motion” with John Coltrane’s drummer Elvin Jones and the bassist Sonny Dallas—a set of lengthy excursions into 5 different show tunes, each clocking in over ten minutes which forever changed the shape of sax trio music—Konitz never stopped recording, re-thinking, and re-wilding his expressions.

At the turn of the millennium, Konitz formed many long-standing relationships with players at least half his age, the most successful being a duo with the thirty-something piano phenom Dan Tepfer, with whom Konitz recorded an album of mostly free improvisations that included three different themed dedications to 9/11 on their 2018 album “Decade”. The album also includes one of several recorded examples of Konitz vocalizing in a scat-like fashion over torch songs like “Body and Soul” (a tune which he recorded hundreds of times). Konitz had an unerring respect for his elders, and can also be seen singing along joyfully—note-for-note—to the early jazz visionary Lester Young’s saxophone solos from the Count Basie Big Band in a Spanish documentary from 2015 by Manuel Rubio.

One of the most unique collaborations during this period was as a sideman in Danish guitarist Jako Bro’s three different ambient-influenced albums which featured Konitz as a lead voice floating on top a bed of pastoral soundscape. The albums are reminiscent of an Aaron Copland chamber piece or the swirling Americana of Paul Motian’s trio with the saxophonist Joe Lovano and the guitarist Bill Frisell who played on one of the Bro sessions, and who was featured on another one of Konitz’ ageless bands: Les Enfants Terribles. 

His final recorded work was 2019’s Old Songs New, a reimagination of his nonet arranged by longtime colleague and student Ohad Talmor. Released on the Sunnyside Label, this final recording is a set of 8 songs that could serve as a microcosm of Konitz’ spirit and life. The album begins with “Goodbye”, a 50s big band tune; peaks with “Kary’s Trance”, a Tristano-school tune written for Konitz’ daughter; and finishes with the visceral realism of “Trio Blues”, a free-form improvisation loosely based on the ancient African 12-bar structure. 

While his discography may dazzle and probably surprise most of us—having recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Max Roach, Chet Baker, and numerous luminaries—it was his joyful, searching, free spirit that speaks loudest. words / Tom Csatari

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