Review: Lee Konitz/Dave Douglas

Andy Hamilton finds veteran saxophonist Lee Konitz in remarkable form, alongside the supportive trumpeter Dave Douglas and a fine band at Ronnie Scott's

Lee Konitz has worked with trumpeters relatively infrequently – his most compatible partners have been the little-known Don Ferrara, and Kenny Wheeler. Now he's touring with Dave Douglas, in one of the finest Konitz bands of recent years, with Linda Oh on bass, Jakob Bro on guitar and Jorge Rossy on drums. As one reviewer commented, Konitz at 87 still conveys a sense of mischievous spontaneity, keeping audience and band wondering what he will do next. It's true that in the 1990s he returned full-time to the standards repertoire, and no longer plays original compositions by former partners such as Frank Wunsch, Kenny Wheeler or Harold Danko. But his work remains as unpredictable and unclichéd as ever.

At Ronnie Scott's on 3 May the band began with Stella By Starlight, followed by Thingin', Konitz's line on All The Things You Are, which unusually was given a Latin coda. Dave Douglas then took requests from the audience, the first being Kary's Trance, which, as Konitz explained, the band happened to be practising that afternoon. It's based on the Tin Pan Alley song Play Fiddle Play, whose theme Linda Oh stated on bass, with Konitz's line appearing at the end.  Other standards were chosen spontaneously – Alone Together was followed by Body And Soul. On Lennie Tristano's 317 E32nd Street, the two horns brought off the complex line. As Lee said, it was based on Out Of Nowhere, and "if you don't know that tune, see you later!" Rossy played what I think was the most subdued drum solo I've ever heard. 

The second set featured Subconscious Lee Konitz – Konitz's line based on What Is This Thing Called Love? – Just Friends, What's New and How Deep Is The Ocean. A very perceptive review on LondonJazzNews commended the band for coming to Konitz with considered restraint. I would include the remarkable Linda Oh on bass in that judgement. Some might feel that Konitz has always responded better to drummers who push the soloist – think of Elvin Jones on Motion – and perhaps Rossy could do this a little more. But among younger players, restraint goes with respect amounting to awe – Konitz's regular pianist Dan Tepfer is an exception, respectful but still pressing. 

Douglas, in flat cap and shades – which he took off for the second set – played some lively trumpet that aimed to satisfy the demanding Konitz aesthetic. Konitz's own playing was remarkable. An older player inevitably takes longer to reach peak performance during a set, but the saxophonist's long, twisting lines are still there, clear from his frequent, drily attractive scatted vocals, as the afore-mentioned reviewer noted – something he's taken to doing in recent years, no longer bothered about appearing eccentric. If the fingers are sometimes a little stiffer than in his salad days one can hardly be surprised – but the treasures he unearths are still miraculous. 

The audience was mostly attentive – there was no comparison with the noisy Ronnie Scott's crowd of old, as when Konitz last played here with Kenny Wheeler. (At that gig, one loud audience member was told by Konitz "Shut up, you prick!") But in 2015, there were people seemingly incapable of giving the music their undivided attention.  Why not put the mobile away for an hour and try listening, I gently suggest?

When I spoke to Lee before the gig, he explained that his tour was continuing to Scandinavia, Iceland and – would you believe – Greenland, where he wondered if he'd be playing to an audience of Eskimos. I guess he will be – or rather, an audience of Inuit as the term now is, though they might not all be in traditional dress. He also said that he's playing more gigs than ever, partly thanks to the ever resourceful Dave Douglas. I was also reminded – though I shouldn't have needed to be – that Lee Konitz remains the sensitive artist who asks a lot from both bandmates and audience, as he engages in the rare art of spontaneous creation. Dave Douglas, ever respectful and creative, worked hard to provide a supportive context for this demanding artist – one who clearly still demands to be heard.

Photos: Tim Dickenson

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