One of the most individual of all altoists (and one of the few in the 1950s who did not sound like a cousin of Charlie Parker), the cool-toned Lee Konitz always had a strong musical curiosity, leading him to consistently take chances and stretch himself, usually quite successfully.
He was a member of Miles Davis' classic '50s nonet, and his early work alongside pianist Lennie Tristano is often cited as an influence on the "free jazz" movement of the '60s. He built upon Tristano's approach on his own albums like 1950's Subconscious-Lee, 1957's Tranquility, and 1967's The Lee Konitz Duets, all of which showcased his sculptural approach to harmony. A longtime associate of the Creative Music Studio since the '70s, Konitz recorded distinctive albums throughout his career, exploring both standards and forward-thinking original material.
Born in 1927 in Chicago, Konitz studied clarinet early on, eventually switching to alto. Following early work with Jerry Wald, he gained some attention for his solos with Claude Thornhill & His Orchestra (1947). He began studying with Lennie Tristano, who had a big influence on his conception and approach to improvising. Konitz was with Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool nonet during their one gig and their Capitol recordings (1948-1950), and he recorded with Lennie Tristano's innovative sextet (1949), including the first two free improvisations ever documented. Konitz blended very well with Warne Marsh's tenor (their unisons on "Wow" are miraculous) and would have several reunions with both Tristano and Marsh through the years, but he was also interested in finding his own way; by the early '50s he started breaking away from the Tristano school. Konitz toured Scandinavia (1951), where his cool sound was influential, and he fit in surprisingly well with Stan Kenton & His Orchestra (1952-1954), being featured on many charts by Bill Holman and Bill Russo.
Konitz was primarily a leader from that point on. He almost retired from music in the early '60s but re-emerged a few years later. His recordings ranged from cool bop to thoughtful free improvisations, and his Milestone set of Duets (1967) is a classic. In the '70s and '80s, Konitz increased his recorded output, issuing consistently stimulating sessions for such labels as SteepleChase, Philogy, Soul Note, and others.
In 1992, he won the prestigious Jazzpar Prize. He kept a busy release schedule throughout the '90s and dabbled in the world of classical music with 2000's French Impressionist Music from the Turn of the Twentieth Century. The Mark Masters Ensemble joined him for 2004's One Day with Lee, and in 2007 he recorded Portology with the Ohad Talmor Big Band. He has recorded on soprano and tenor, but mostly stuck with his distinctive alto.
In 2011, he released his own trio album, Knowinglee, and appeared on the live ECM date Live at Birdland (recorded in 2009) with pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Paul Motian. Three years later, he joined Dan Tepfer, Michael Janisch, and Jeff Williams for First Meeting: Live in London, Vol. 1. The quartet date, Frescalalto, arrived in 2017 and featured the saxophonist alongside pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Kenny Washington. In 2019, Konitz paired with longtime associate saxophonist/arranger Ohad Talmor for the album Old Songs New, a nonet recording focusing on beloved yet infrequently recorded standards. Lee Konitz died on April 15, 2020 due to complications from the COVID-19 virus; he was 92 years old. ~ Scott Yanow, Rovi