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The music on this album marks an important turning point in the career of Lee Konitz. It represents one of the earliest gigs he ever played with his own regular quartet. It is also the first recording he made after leaving the Stan Kenton Orchestra (right at the end of 1953). The time he spent with Kenton, from August, 1952 to December, 1953, had a profound and lasting effect on Lee who, prior to Kenton, had been a somewhat thin-toned and introverted alto soloist. The fifteen months he spent with Stan placed him in the centre of an out-and-out, powerful jazz unit which contained men such as Conte Candoli, Richie Kamuca, Frank Rosolino, Maynard Ferguson, Sal Salvador, Stan Levy, Zoot Sims and Buddy Childers, playing arrangements by writers Bill Holman, Bill Russo and Gerry Mulligan. This was not the environment for a delicate jazz temperament and Lee soon took on a deeply committed outlook which certainly stood him in very good stead when he decided to leave Stan and branch out on his own.
Born in Chicago on October 13th, 1927 Konitz's parents were not really musical. His two older brothers sang a little but it was the radio, and particularly broadcasts by Benny Goodman, which got young Lee interested in music. In fact clarinet was his first instrument and he studied it between the ages of 11 and 15, then he met pianist Lennie Tristano. Until that meeting he had few friends involved with jazz in any way. Konitz told writer Ira Gitler that he met Lennie when Tristano was working at a club called the Winking Pup on Chicago's Southwest Side, playing rhumbas with Mexican musicians. "I was already a hipster" said Lee. "I was wearing yellow socks and brown-suede shoes with my tuxedo. We played clarinets into big megaphones." Konitz switched from clarinet (doubling tenor) to alto in 1945 in order to take a job with clarinettist Jerry Wald's band for a few weeks. Then he started working around Chicago with pianist Lloyd Lifton and taking lessons from Tristano. In the light of the musical revolution going on around him at the time, with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie pioneering bebop, it is perhaps surprising that Lee did not fall under the blanket spell of Bird. But he did not, and emerged as perhaps the only alternative alto voice amongst the younger musicians of the period. In 1947 he joined the classy band of Claude Thornhill, which at that time had Danny Polo on clarinet and Gil Evans as chief arranger. It was while with Thornhill that Lee made his first records, soloing on the Evans arrangements of Anthropology and Yardbird Suite. The job with Thornhill took him to New York where he heard some of the most exciting music in the world at that time, Dizzy Gillespie's Big Band, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and so on, but he succeeded in retaining his individual voice. In fact it was this originality which probably caused Miles Davis to offer him a job with the nine-piece band which was immortalised on record at the beginning of 1949 by the now classic Capitol recordings. With the same label he also made some records with Tristano and some of Lennie's other students, Warne Marsh, Billy Bauer etc.
But the record dates such as the Capitol sessions were unusual. Konitz was scraping a living by teaching, during much of the 1948 to 1952 period. He and Warne Marsh shared an apartment, turning down lucrative studio work so that nothing should interfere with their own studies with Tristano. It was during this period that Bruce Turner, then working in a ship's band crossing and re-crossing the Atlantic, became one of Lee's students but has since reported on the difficulties of tracking Konitz down due to the frequent changes of address! Then in the summer of 1952 came the offer from Kenton, an offer which Konitz, with a wife and young daughter to support, simply could not refuse. "It was a difficult band to play with," he told Ira Gilter later ("Jazz Masters of the Forties", MacMillan). "It's a brass band, essentially a trumpet-trombone brass band. The saxophone's function on the band is just to soften the sound in some way. I did enjoy a lot of it. I got some strength from the experience, because you just had to lay it down or they'd lay you out." With Kenton he was heavily featured on tunes such as Loverman, Bill Russo's Improvisation and, his favourite, Bill Homan's In lighter vein. Fortune smiled at Lee in November, 1953 for Kenton gave him a few days leave of absence in order to travel home to attend his daughter's birthday celebrations. During this short break the Kenton band, without Lee, was involved in a horrific crash when the band bus hit another vehicle on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, putting several of the band musicians and their wives, who were traveling with them, in the hospital.
During December, 1953 Konitz left Kenton and put together his own quartet with Boston's "Storyville" club in the Copley Square Hotel high on the new agenda. This is the band heard here with Britain's Ronnie Ball on piano (another Tristano student and, like Bruce Turner, a one-time member of 'Geraldo's Navy'), Percy Heath on bass, free-lancing for this was before the outright acceptance of the MJQ as a regular unit, and New York-born drummer Alan Levitt, who had also worked with Tristano, as well as Stan Getz and pianist Barbara Carroll. A local radio station, WHDH, recorded the quartet at the club and now, for the first time, the seven performances from that Tuesday evening are presented on one record in the order they were performed.
If pressed I would admit that this is some of my own very favourite Lee Konitz. It is as if he is bursting with new life like a butterfly freshly emerged from a cocoon. His extended solos are vital, alive and hard-hitting. The alto lines are long and melodic with unexpected twists and reiterated rhythmic figures. This is Lee Konitz at the age of 26, a wealth of experience behind him and a new world opening up to him as a soloist and band leader. Like all Tristano-trained players Lee uses material which is based largely on tried and true chord progressions for the faster tempos and well-established tunes for the ballads. Here it is worth noting (if it is not obvious from the music itself) that Hi Beck (a salute to daughter Rebecca) uses the chords of Pennies from Heaven, the convoluted Subconscious Lee hides the harmonies of What is the thing called love, Sound Lee is Too marvelous for words if you remove the Konitz line and Ablution is, fairly obviously, All the things you are. As far as ballads are concerned Foolin' myself was, and is, associated with Billie Holiday, If I had you, by Ted Shapiro, has been around since the late Thirties and the glorious These foolish things, which invariably brings out the most sensitive side of Konitz's work, comes from the 1936 London revue "Spread It Around." On all seven performances Konitz is in brilliant form, well supported by the late Ronnie Ball (he died in 1984) who comes down hard on the chords, the long notes of the immaculate Percy Heath and the accurate time keeping and good taste of Alan Levitt. All this adds up to freely improvised jazz of the highest order which has withstood the ravages of more than three decades to emerge fresher than ever.
1. Introduction By John McLelland
2. Hi Beck
3. If I Had You
4. Subconciuos Lee 5:35
5. Sound Lee 6:38
6. Foolin' Myself 6:06
7. Introduction By John McLelland 0:48
8. Ablution 4:37
9. These Foolish Things 4:14
10. End Announcement By John McLee 0:37
LEE KONITZ (Alto Saxophone)
RONNIE BALL (Piano)
PERCY HEATH (Bass)
ALAN LEVITT (Drums)
Recorded At Storville Club In The Copley Square Hotel, Boston, 5th January 1954
Original Recordings By George Wein