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There is a school of thought that believes jazz improvisation is on the wane, and that most jazz musicians today follow the tried and proven routes of written scores with only a modicum of spontaneous variation. That is something of which Lee Konitz could never be accused.
Konitz, who is one the big foreign names at next week’s Tel Aviv Jazz Festival (February 3-5) at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, has been exploring the less frequently tested sonic endeavors for over six decades. Now 82, the saxophonist is not showing any signs of slowing down or making do with anything less than going for broke every time he gets on a stage or goes into a recording studio, both activities which he still does frequently.
Konitz has a practical explanation for his constant searching for hitherto untried sounds, inflections and colors. “I’m on the road a lot playing with local musicians, so it is easier to take standards and improvise on them,” he says. “If everyone had to learn my music we’d need a lot more rehearsal time.” Considering Konitz’s proven track record in the less structured areas of the jazz discipline, that comes across as erring on the side of modesty.
Back in the 1940s, when alto saxophonist Charlie Parker was knocking ‘em dead with his groundbreaking bebop magic, other altoists were forsaking the smaller horn in droves, preferring to win their bread on other members of the saxophone family – generally the larger tenor – than to vie with the peerless Parker in the alto category. Konitz was one of the few who stuck to their alto guns, and carved his own distinctive niche. “I was fortunate to come across [cool and avant-garde jazz pioneer pianist] Lennie Tristano before I heard Parker,” explains Konitz. “When I first heard Bird [Parker] I was already formulating a style. Had I not started with Tristano before hearing Bird, I would have gone the way of all the others, the imitators.”
Konitz has never stopped going his own way. The night before we spoke Konitz kept the improvisational fires aglow at a gig in New York. “It’s easier to maintain improvisation over a lifetime,” he declares simply. “Everyone played like Parker except me. So many people were playing like Bird that, by the time he was 34, he had to find a different direction. Instead he found a way to pass on to a different world.” Parker died in 1955 at the age of 34.
The Tel Aviv Jazz Festival lineup also includes a longtime Konitz collaborator, pianist Don Friedman, who will open the three-dayer on Wednesday (8:30 p.m.) with his trio of fellow septuagenarians, including bassist Chuck Israels, who was here with his own band just a couple of months ago, and drummer Joe Hunt. The artistic spread widens appreciably later on the first evening as energetic New York outfit Gutbucket will put out its unique mix of jazz with heavy progressive rock and metal seasoning.
Friedman and his trio will also be in action on Thursday when the group anchors baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan’s 11 p.m. show in the cinematheque’s Auditorium 1, while the smaller Auditorium 2 will host Israeli avant-garde saxophonist Yoni Kretzmer’s quartet playing material based on Kretzmer’s debut release New Dilemma.
Konitz’s slot is at 9 p.m. on Friday and he will be backed by a semi-local foursome of Yuval Cohen on soprano sax, New York-based pianist Amir Klein, acoustic bass player Gilad Abro and drummer Ziv Ravitz. Konitz and Ravitz have collaborated several times in the past, including on a recording for the German-based Enja label with the Minsara trio.
One of the most entertaining shows in the 21-year history of the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival was the 2008 performance of Chicago-based percussionist Kahil El-Zabar’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. This year’s festivalgoers can expect more energized music with a smile when El-Zabar returns to the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, this time with his Ritual Trio of celebrated baritone saxophonist, clarinetist and flutist Hammiet Bluett, and bassist Junius Paul.
The festival roster also features some of our top jazz artists,
including pianist Omri Mor, saxophonist Erez Bar Noy, trumpeter-pianist
Adi Rennert with a rock-pop-ethnic style jazz program featuring Barry
Saharof, Rona Kenan, Persian flutist Amir Shahasar and veteran bassist
Eli Magen, and an intriguing Israeli-Italian confluence between
guitarist Uri Braha and pianist Tony Pancella.
For more information: www.cinema.co.il