Jazz innovator Lee Konitz dies at age 92

Lee Konitz, the NEA Jazz Master considered by many to be the most influential saxophone soloist after Charlie Parker, has died at the age of 92.

According to his son Josh Konitz, the cause of death was pneumonia related to COVID-19.

Konitz was a student of the “Tristano School” of playing, developing a sound and style that was influenced by his mentor and colleague Lennie Tristano while remaining completely unique and signature to Konitz alone. The imprint of Konitz’s playing can be heard on that of Paul Desmond, Art Pepper and countless others.

Other than for brief periods, Konitz never led his own steady working group, preferring to play with a wide variety of players, including Tristano, with whom he had the best-known association, as well as Gerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis, playing on the Birth of the Cool sessions. Because of this, Lee Konitz has one of the most extensive discographies in jazz.

He was known for his improvisational inventiveness, playing long lines with great rhythmic interest and providing several important layers of soloing, including the development of completely new themes while still keeping subtle references to the original melodies.

While he did some writing, he almost seemed to prefer playing well-worn standards. In the liner notes of a 1957 recording for Atlantic Records, Konitz wrote: “I feel that in improvisation, the tune should serve as a vehicle for musical variations … For this reason, I’ve never been concerned with finding new tunes to play. I often feel that I could play and record the same tunes over and over and still come up with fresh variations.”

Much of the writing Konitz did was with contrafacts, with tunes such as Subconscious-Lee (based on What Is This Thing Called Love), No Splice (based on You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To) and Palo Alto (based on Strike Up the Band). His song and album titles reveal a fun-loving side, with titles such as Sound-Lee, Knowinglee, Lovelee, Unleemited, Ice Cream Konitz and Pop Goes the Leesel.

Into his later years he was still active as a player, growing and adapting his sound to his contemporaries as well as younger musicians, including Grace Kelly, Dan Tepfer, Matt Wilson and Brian Dickinson. His recording continued into 2018, when he collaborated on an album with pianist Dan Tepfer and released a record of his own called Prisma.

Musicians and jazz historians paid tribute to the saxophonist following the news of his passing.

“I’m honoured and fortunate to have had Lee Konitz as a dear friend and musical collaborator since we first met,” Chick Corea wrote on his Facebook page. “He sat in with my bands many times, always injecting a richness and freedom in music that he maintained for a lifetime … Like so many other music lovers, (I) am going to miss Lee’s humorous and down-to-earth presence.”

“Yes, it’s a cliché to say Lee Konitz never got his due — but it still needs to be said,” jazz critic and author Ted Gioia wrote on Twitter. “He was more than just (an) outstanding improviser; he was also the greatest living exponent of a vital, coherent philosophy of jazz going back to Tristano. He stood for much more than his own work.”

A few years ago, Canadian saxophonist Mike Murley wrote a song called Love-Lee in honour of Konitz’s 90th birthday. That tune appeared on Murley’s latest release, Taking Flight, with Renee Rosnes.

“I was first introduced to Lee’s music back in the ’70s by my teacher, Don Palmer. The lessons Don passed on to me from his studies with Lee changed my whole perception of music,” Murley told JAZZ.FM91. “Although I did not know him well, I was lucky enough to meet Lee on several occasions and heard him play live many times. His unwavering commitment to lyricism, intuitive listening, and complete refusal to play any self-indulgent BS are what I remember and admire so much about him. We were lucky to have him on this planet for more than nine decades. His spirit and music definitely live on.”

Konitz leaves his sons, Josh and Paul; three daughters, Rebecca, Stephanie and Karen; nieces, nephews, grandchildren, great-grandchildren; and countless fans and students of his work.

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