Lee Konitz/Brad Mehldau/Charlie Haden/Paul Motian – Live at Birdland – ECM 2162, 71:16 ****:
(Lee Konitz – alto saxophone; Brad Mehldau – piano; Charlie Haden – double bass; Paul Motian – drums)
This is what you happens when four jazz artists who have frequently followed adventurous paths get together without rehearsal or a set list and improvise their way through a collection of mostly low-key standards. Live at Birdland showcases two evening performances in December, 2009 at the storied New York City venue, in celebration of Birdland’s 60th anniversary (the club’s opening night was December 15th, 1949). On stage for the 2009 gig was alto saxophonist Lee Konitz (one of the musicians who played that first night), who regularly takes chances and stretches himself. Sharing the bandstand with Konitz was Paul Motian, a masterfully subtle drummer and a superb improviser; bassist Charlie Haden, one of free jazz’s founding fathers who has never settled for any one stylistic position; and at half the age of the other three musicians, Brad Mehldau, the relatively young jazz pianist who has become one of the most thoughtful and absorbing keyboardists around.
The tracks present familiar terrain where musicians and audience find recognizable ground but where the music still offers open-ended invention and challenges, with material by Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Jule Styne, George Shearing and others. The concert commences with “Lover Man” and Konitz lets listeners know he is not interested in being pigeonholed as a cool jazz creator, or in any other genre aspect he has utilized over the decades. His sax has a slight, echoed tone which can seem uninviting to conventional ears, but complements Konitz’s approach to melody. He shifts imaginatively in and out of the harmony, generating different tonalities. This and other tunes also furnish a nourishing measure of Haden’s lyrical bass and Motian’s naturally rhythmic ease: he’s much more than just a time-keeper, but never overstates. Haden and Motian are always empathetic and brilliant together, a partnership which has been successful ever since the two worked with Keith Jarrett in the 1970s.
Mehldau makes his presence felt throughout, but especially during Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland,” a fitting piece. Mehldau introduces the famous opening lines and the rest of the quartet enters. Mehldau’s solo, where he discerningly but assuredly works through variations of Shearing’s themes and chords, is refined and lightly cerebral and is accentuated by the artistry of Motian’s cymbals and Haden’s cultivated bass. Here, Haden again embarks on an intimately inclined bass solo, a quiet and communicative improvisation.
Konitz initiates Davis’ “Solar,” with a tone which has a softly nasal quality and seems a bit reedy. This is also a piece Mehldau knows well (his trio has used the same tune in their set lists) and executes a run of striking two-hand harmonies, a series of pointed unison lines, and a moving counterpoint with angular bumps. Motian—who again displays his stimulated application of cymbals—and Haden then duet together until Motian escalates the pulse with a fuller use of his drum kit.
Styne’s “I Fall in Love Too Easily” starts out subdued and soothed, but over the course of ten minutes, Konitz manipulates the essential design, not so much by rearranging the melody but by delivering an asymmetrical tone and a skewed intonation which extends a discreet difference to the straightforward standard.
While the majority of the 71-minute set has a low-tempo simmer, the quartet hoists the pace somewhat on the two closing numbers, the customarily romantic “You Stepped Out of a Dream” and Rollins’ “Oleo.” These two pieces include a four-person, animated conversation which sparkles with mutual vitality. The first inserts a sharp nudge to the album’s late-night ambiance, as does an off-center rendition of Rollins’ oft-played tune, which develops with a progressive determination which provides a sense of disciplined deconstruction.
Producer Manfred Eicher supplies his typically thoughtful recording style, with a considerate focus on the faintest nuances—an audible cough sometimes even sidles in during the quietest moments. Live at Birdland does not have any ruffled edges but Konitz, Mehldau, Haden and Motian prove there is plenty of freedom and creativity on approachable material with an understated appeal.
1. Lover Man
2. Lullaby of Birdland
4. I Fall In Love Too Easily
5. You Stepped Out of a Dream
– Doug Simpson
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