Friday, October 24, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records Part 43b: Lee Konitz

Finishing up the March Lee Konitz session, Konitz was back in the Prestige studios five days later, this time with only Billy Bauer.

Specialized listeners may have different experiences, but for the jazz generalist and all-purpose fan, listening to a jazz ensemble primarily means listening to the soloist. There'll be exceptions -- you'll here a punctuating note from the second horn, an arpeggio from the piano, a sudden distinctive riff from the bass or a succession of paradiddles from the drums. And as you listen to a piece over and over, as I've been doing on my Prestige Odyssey, you'll start to hear more and more of these. But essentially, you're listening to the soloist, and there's a reason for that. He's the soloist, and the rest of the ensemble is there to provide support for him, not to compete with him.

A duo is a whole different story, especially when the duo is two Lennie Tristano acolytes, each a master of his instrument, each coming from one of the most advanced musical schools of the day. Then you listen to both. You listen to how they play around each other, with each other, moving apart and coming together like two strands in a double helix, making up a new and unique DNA molecule.

"Duet for Saxophone and Guitar" is a Konitz composition, and Konitz was one of the best composers in his idiom. "Indian Summer" is by Victor Herbert.

It's not unusual that the bebop masters went so often to the Great American Songbook. Composers from Kern and Gershwin on were influenced by jazz, and really became part of that distinctive American patchwork of music that all goes back to the blues and ragtime. It's a little more surprising that they were able to craft jazz masterpieces out of the work of operetta composers whose roots are solidly European, like Sigmund Romberg ("Lover Come Back"). Or, in this case, Victor Herbert. "Indian Summer" was composed in 1919, and was a staple of village orchestras and the like. In 1939 Glenn Miller picked it up, but it really entered the jazz canon in 1940, when Sidney Bechet made it swing harder than anyone could have imagined. Duke Ellington's recorded it, Dave Brubeck's recorded it (and Paul Desmond recorded it on his own, in one of the definitive versions). And it works. And here, Konitz and Bauer. Delicious.

On the subject of what we hear when we listen to music, no one ever captured it better than Marcel Proust:

At first he had appreciated only the material quality of the sounds which those instruments secreted. And it had been a source of keen pleasure when, below the delicate line of the violin-part, slender but robust, compact and commanding, he had suddenly become aware of the mass of the piano-part beginning to emerge in a sort of liquid rippling of sound, multiform but indivisible, smooth yet restless, like the deep blue tumult of the sea, silvered and charmed into a minor key by the moonlight. (I,294)
Then they were silent; beneath the restless tremolos of the violin part which protected it with their throbbing sostenuto two octaves above it–and as in a mountainous country, behind the seeming immobility of a vertigious waterfall, one descries, two hundred feet below, the tiny form of a woman walking in the valley–the little phrase had just appeared, distant, graceful, protected by the long, gradual unfurling of it transparent, incessant and sonorous curtain. (I,374-375)
When, after that first evening at the Verdurins’, he had had the little phrase played over to him again, and had had sought to disentangle from his confused impressions how it was that, like a perfume or a caress, it swept over and enveloped him, he had observed that it was to the closeness of the intervals between the five notes which composed it and to the constant repetition of two of them that was due that impression of a frigid and withdrawn sweetness; but in reality he know that he was basing this conclusion not upon the phrase itself, but merely upon certain equivalents, substituted (for his mind’s convenience) for the mysterious entity of which he had become aware, before ever he knew the Verdurins, at that earlier party when for the first time he had heard the sonata played. He knew that the very memory of the piano falsified still further the perspective in which he saw the elements of music, that the field open to the musician is not a miserable stave of seven notes, but an immeasurable keyboard (still almost entirely unknown) on which, here and there only, separated by the thick darkness of its unexplored tracts, some few among the millions of keys of tenderness, of passion, of courage, of serenity, which compose it, each one differing from all the rest as one universe differs from another, have been discovered by a few great artists who do us the service, when they awaken in us the emotion corresponding to the theme they have discovered, of showing us what richness, what variety lies hidden, unknown to us, in that vase, unfathomed and forbidding night of our soul which we take to be an impenetrable void. Vinteuil had been one of those musicians. (I,496-497)
How beautiful the dialogue which Swann now heard between piano and violin, at the beginning of the last passage! The suppression of human speech, so far from letting fancy reign there uncontrolled (as one might have thought), had eliminated it altogether; never was spoken language so inexorably determined, never had it known questions so pertinent, such irrefutable replies. At first the piano complained alone, like a bird deserted by its mate; the violin heard and answered it, as from a neighbouring tree. It was as at the beginning of th world, as if there were as yet only the two of them on the earth, or rather in this world closed to all the rest, so fashioned by the logic of its creator that in it there should never by any but themselves: the world of this sonata. (I,499-500)
 This is just the tip of the iceberg of what Proust says about listening to music, as inspired by the "little phrase" of the fictional Vinteuil - perhaps its real-life counterpart was Camille Saint-Saens' Sonata #1, perhaps Cesar Franck's Sonata in A Major, or some combination of the two. No one wrote about the experience of listening to music -- or, indeed, anything -- like Proust.

The two Konitz-Bauer cuts were released on both New Jazz and Prestige 78s, each with cuts from the March 8 session on the other side. Interestingly, the two standards -- "Indian Summer" and Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays" -- are paired with two challenging originals -- "Duet" and "Odjenar." They also came out on the Konitz 1o-inch mentioned in the last blog entry, and on an EP combined with two Stan Getz tunes.

Just for a change, and to highlight the assertion that jazz, like Vinteuil and his little phrase, has entered the serious repertory of classical music, here's a version of "Duet For Saxophone and Guitar" by a contemporary duo, Anastasiya Dumma and Jessi Lee. They're very good, and they make us understand what a good piece of music "Duet" is. But they don't play like Konitz and Bauer. The originals are avaliable from Spotify.

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