Cover of Lee Konitz: NEW NONET (Directed by Ohad Talmor)

Liner notes for Lee Konitz: New Nonet (OmniTone 15214)

Moments after the music starts, the listeners are already whew-ing — you know, spontaneously shouting out "whew" or "yeah" or whatever listeners exclaim when they're overtaken by marvelous sounds they're hearing.  And it's little wonder why, considering that they're listening to Lee Konitz, a true living legend of jazz, and his New Nonet, a new incarnation of his rarely-recorded nine-piece musical incubator, sounding as fresh, exciting, and vibrantly creative as ever.

"It has to do with just doing it every day and doing it over and over again," says Lee, who's approaching his 80th birthday and his seventh decade in music.  "When the music indicated to me that I could do that — that I could find new angles and flourishes on the music in all keys and all tempos — then I realized I could play tunes like 'All the Things You Are' all the rest of my life."

Inquisitiveness, dedication, and his willingness to fit into and then expand on nearly any musical situation in which he finds himself are hallmarks that feed Lee's endless well of energy and creativity.

"That's what happens in most of the situations I've played in:  I get into a new musical situation where sometimes none of us is exactly sure what's going to happen, and then it all comes together, makes sense, and turns out to be a blast," admits Lee.  "I just did a concert honoring Pope John Paul II in Krakow where this children's choir was singing a beautiful Gregorian chant.  I stuffed something in the bell of my horn and played under their melodies.  All different musical settings are fascinating to me."

Taking something familiar (like  "All the Things You Are" or  "Body and Soul"  or "With a Song in My Heart"), putting it in a different setting, and finding something new appears to have been Lee's modus operandi from the get go.  His innovative drive, starting with his 1940's "cool school" explorations with Claude Thornhill, Lennie Tristano, Stan Kenton, and Miles Davis' groundbreaking Birth of the Cool band, led to his revolutionary 1967 duos recording with nine musicians representing styles from early jazz to post-bop.  It continued to flourish through collaborations with Dave Brubeck, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, Elvin Jones, and many others right up to the present, truly making the amazing Konitz an "ageless improviser," as aptly dubbed by writer Gary Giddins.

One of Lee's steadiest collaborations over the past few years has been with saxophonist, composer, and arranger Ohad Talmor, whom Lee recalls meeting for the first time over fifteen years ago while doing a student workshop in Geneva.  "Ohad was playing — and I look at people's feet when they're playing, especially students — and I thought that his foot wasn't coordinated with what he was doing, so I mentioned it, and we became lifelong friends," chuckles Lee.

Though Ohad recalls the actual first meeting a little differently, he does acknowledge that from a certain point on, Lee became a mentor of sorts to him.  "He very generously took me under his wing, without judging me," notes Ohad. 

The musical collaborations that have sprung from that relationship draw upon and expand the prodigious Ohad's experience both as a saxophonist and composer.  Born in Lyon, France, to Israeli parents, he grew up in Geneva, Switzerland, started studying piano at the Geneva conservatory at age five and went on to study saxophone and clarinet, composing, and arranging, eventually moving to the US and receiving his bachelor's degree in composing from the Manhattan School of Music.  Ohad performs with and writes for his own quintet Newsreel, The Other Quartet (co-led with trumpeter Russ Johnson), and the MOB Trio collective (with two CDs on OmniTone), serves as musical director for the Steve Swallow Sextet, and he has performed with Dave Douglas, Chris Potter, the Carla Bley Big Band, and Ray Anderson

Ohad also serves as musical director and arranger for the Lee Konitz New Nonet, one of the more recent larger-group collaborations that highlight the longtime relationship between Ohad and Lee.  (Another new project — the Lee Konitz-Ohad Talmor String Project featuring Lee and Ohad with the Spring String Quartet — can be heard on the OmniTone CD Inventions.)

These Konitz-Talmor collaborations are somewhat of a departure — and, admittedly, a challenge — for Lee, who generally feels most comfortable playing in a quartet (or smaller) setting.  That may explain why he has recorded with his own nine-piece configuration only a few times in his 60-plus-year career.

"Unlike the previous Nonets, this one features brand new compositions by Lee, highlighting his under-recognized status as a composer," emphasizes Ohad, adding that,  "There is an envergure, a breadth that is made wider when Lee's great capacity as an improviser is put in an orchestral surrounding . . . whether it's the string quartet or the Nonet or the Big Band.  When you give him a situation that feeds his musicality like we do here, the results are mindblowing."

Ohad should know just how sophisticated the settings are, because he created them using musical germs selected from nearly 100 melodies Lee faxed him over an extended period of time (including eight different blues lines featured in the ChromaticLee Suite).  And, like the audiences that listened intently as the music unfolded during the New Nonet's five-night stand at New York's Jazz Standard, these captivatingly audacious pieces are a mix of old and new.  Based on "classic" Konitz motifs — linear, unforced, full of fresh melodies and colors, and often anchored in the relaxed, free-swinging groove that has made Lee a legend — the resulting works are made fresh anew by the perceptive transformations of Ohad, a friend and colleague.

When asked about his inspiration for or why he gave a tune a particular title, Lee sometimes feels a little embarrassed that he can't recall.  "As an improviser, I jot things down, fix 'em up day by day, play them, and then go on to the next," explains Lee.  So, the fact that he can't remember is perhaps a tribute to the true in-the-moment improviser he is.  Even with all of the new tunes and fresh sounds on New Nonet, Lee modestly states, "Well, I'm just trying to come up with a moment's worth of notes."  Listening, as one "moment" gleefully spills into the next, see if you don't find yourself whew-ing, too.

—Frank Tafuri

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