Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden & Paul Motian – Live at Birdland – ECM 2162 B00115507-02, 71:19 [Distr. by Universal] ****:
(Lee Konitz, alto sax; Brad Mehldau, piano; Charlie Haden, double-bass; Paul Motian, drums)
It is difficult to categorize (and not really necessary for a renaissance jazz musician) Lee Konitz. He has recorded for six decades. His range of influences are boundless as he studied with Lennie Tristano, played on the Birth of the Cool sessions with Miles Davis, interacted extensively with Warne Marsh; and is comfortable with free improvisation, cool bop, and orchestral themes. Along the way, also, was a stop with the Kenton band. Konitz has done it all. Along with tenor and soprano sax, he has mostly concentrated on playing alto.
Recorded in December 2009, at the iconic Birdland Jazz Club in in New York City, Konitz had the opportunity to share the stage with a beyond dream quartet of the introspective Brad Mehldau, bassist Charlie Haden, (who has covered the full range of jazz genres over many decades), and Paul Motian, a drummer for any season or project. Composed of completely standards, the result could have been a going through the motions exercise in drawing in a large playing crowd to glide through readily known compositions. But Konitz and company have taken the opportunity to have a musical conversation in reinterpreting standard fare. There is a thoughtful sparring between the quartet, with each adding their skills to a cohesive whole that shows a quartet with no need to grandstand, but locking into a mood that provides over an hour of intense listening enjoyment for a discerning audience.
Recorded by four engineers led by James Farber, and mixed at Avatar Studios by Farber and ECM owner Manfred Eicher, the sound mix is exemplary for live sessions, both warm and well-miked.
Konitz, being the only horn is naturally the leader, but Mehldau, who has re-emerged from his prodigious period of the late ’90s to early 2000s, where he was seemingly everywhere with his trio taking on the mantle of a future Bill Evans, to now resuming a more active resume, is an excellent foil for Konitz.
Charlie Haden, bassist supreme, provides a full fat woody bottom end, while Motian’s cymbal mastery and brush work (first made famous with Bill Evans) is central to the quartet’s forays.
Lee’s cool dry-toned alto stylings, like Paul Desmond, but with more bite and astringency, darts in and out on “Lover Man.” With only six tracks the group has room to stretch out on every track. George Shearing’s jazz standard supreme, “Lullaby of Birdland” is led by Motian, and has a bit more up-tempo “oomph” than typically found in a quartet setting. Konitz opens up in a boppish vein and Mehldau adds some blues flourish lines, and it takes intent listening to re-imagine the Shearing version.
Konitz opens Miles Davis’ "Solar" with some free blowing spurred on by Motian. Brad Mehldau goes out onto some excursions of his own, outside the usual chord changes of the Davis standard. You can imagine this track being taken in new directions nightly by this group depending on their mood. “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” the Styne/Cahn chestnut, gets a lovely reading and Konitz’ plaintive tone adds to the overall mellow vibe, as does Brad’s sparkling accompaniment. Haden adds his magic with each finger pluck having a resonance that few other bassists can match on a ballad reading.
“You Stepped Out of a Dream” features Brad and Charlie locked in as Haden provides a heart beat that Mehldau can feed off. Haden gets an extended solo which demands your full attention followed by Motian and Konitz, each trading phrases. Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo” ends the CD with Rollins recognizable opening melody that the group takes off in a post-bop romp. Konitz clearly takes honors on this fifteen minute plus track such as Sonny would do in a similar small setting.
ECM has taken their time in releasing this 2009 recording. For fans of any of the quartet’s members, the delay can be forgiven, as each musician in this dream quartet gets a chance to shine in superb acoustics. Outside of probably New York or Chicago, one would not get an opportunity to see a group of this caliber work their collective group magic.
TrackList: Lover Man, Lullaby of Birdland, Solar, I Fall in Love Too Easily, You Stepped Out of a Dream, Oleo
— Jeff Krow