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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Album art courtesy of Sunnyside Records.

When Lee Konitz makes music, folks stop and listen. This may be due to his deep connection to the repertoire, his constant search for new sound, his adoration and celebration of the tradition. It may also be because he just turned 92 years old.

How does someone like Konitz stay engaged in the music after a career of over seven decades? Over the years, Konitz has become a mentor for younger musicians, creating a community around him that approaches performance with intimacy, intricacy, and adventure. These musicians include Dan Tepfer, Florian Weber, George Schuller, and for the last two decades, saxophonist/composer/conductor Ohad Talmor. We’ve spoke with Talmor a number of times, about his composition and arranging.

For this latest project, Old Songs New (Sunnyside), Talmor and Konitz agreed on a collection of well-loved yet seldom recorded standards. Talmor’s arrangements were designed as a kind of playground for Konitz: Talmor describes them as “this prismatic object where Lee could decide to play with the arrangements, stick to the melodies, play on top, get abstract, lay out, it doesn’t matter, the music is made to work any way he wants.” The full ensemble including Konitz will be at The Jazz Gallery this Sunday, October 20, to celebrate the release of the work.

The Jazz Gallery: When it comes to you, we can always talk about almost anything musical, from film scoring and big band arranging to Hindustani music and electronic improvisation. Off the bat, where are you now, and what are you doing?

Ohad Talmor: I’m in Brazil, in São Paolo. There’s a creative big band down here that I’ve been associated with since the early 2000s, and one of the saxophone players specializes in playing modern arrangements of choro, a form of Brazilian music. I’m doing a few gigs with them as a saxophonist and improviser—I’m not a specialist, but during my first trips to Brazil, I hooked up with this big band called Soundscape, who commissioned me to write some big band material, as well as some music in the choro tradition. Since then, I’ve learned to play some on saxophone, and have listened to the repertoire: At this point, it’s very much a part of my musical fabric. Brazil is a country with such a rich heritage, and choro is just one of the things I’m dealing with here.

For this trip, I’m playing with Samuel Pompeo, a great saxophonist who has a quintet he’s been working with for a few years. Choro is a very set form, so he kind of rearranged and opened the tunes up, modernized them, and is using this phenomenal rhythm section of Brazilian guys, so I get my assed kicked just playing with them. It’s just beautiful. I’m just playing, too, I have zero responsibility with writing or conducting, so I don’t have do do anything but learn the music and play it. I love that [laughs].

TJG: Then you’re jumping right back to New York for the gig at the Gallery?

OT: Yes. Before that, I have a trio thing with Miles Okazaki and Dan Weiss. We have two days in the studio on Thursday and Friday, and we’ll bring that project to The Jazz Gallery on December 4th, because we’ll be touring Europe in December. It’s a whole new repertoire. That’s first. Then, Sunday, we’re playing at the Gallery with Lee Konitz.

TJG: For context, give me a quick rundown of personal and working relationship with Lee.

OT: Lee has been my friend and mentor since we met in 1999. I had just returned from living in Florida to Geneva, Switzerland, and I was playing with a big band there in the section. He was a guest, and not a lot of people spoke English, so we immediately connected. We talked, and he took me under his wing. For a few years preceding my move to New York while I was in Switzerland, we started some projects together. First, I had him involved with the local scene by bringing him back in various capacities. Later on, I wrote my first large modern piece for mixed chamber orchestra and rhythm section, in 1994 for the Geneva Jazz Festival.

In 1995 I moved to New York to go to Manhattan School of Music, and immediately after that, we started collaborating on projects. First was a string quartet based on the music of French Impressionism, which lead to another string of records for Omnitone: A string quartet record, a nonet record, a big band record. We did a live tour in Europe with a septet, a bunch of original music which was recorded but never released, and I just found the tapes, so that will probably be released soon.

Throughout these adventures, Lee was my mentor, and throughout these adventures and this journey, he’s been the person who I’ve learned this music straight from the source, he’s one of the surviving, original creators of the vocabulary that is now embraced by the jazz heritage. I’m happy and grateful to have been connected to him throughout these projects for thirty years. Yesterday, he turned 92. I just saw him before going to Brazil, and it was like seeing family.

TJG: So this new project is constructed around “rarely played standards” that you and Lee selected. How did you choose the tunes?

OT: To contextualize a little bit, the nonet was reformed in 2002 for a couple of concerts in Brazil, and we recorded it a half dozen years later at The Jazz Standard. Throughout these experiences, I’ve learned that having written material in front of Lee Konitz really does a disservice to his art and his voice. When talking with my friend Denis Lee, bass clarinetist who also produced the record, we thought, let’s try to do something Lee’s never done, something that speaks to him on multiple levels. I knew the Lee loves the radio orchestra sound, like what Sinatra did when he surrounded himself with these radio bands, woodwinds and rhythm sections. These are records that are, and have always been, playing in Lee’s house in the background, he loves that stuff. So we decided to do something with that vibe.

Instead of redoing “All The Things You Are” and “How High The Moon,” tunes that are a regular part of his repertoire, we tried to explore things that he either never recorded or had an old but not well-documented relationship with, so that’s how it came about. I started talking to him, we exchanged ideas, and we finally settled on the tunes, very organically. I’d say, “How about this one,” and he’d start humming the melody.

TJG: Would you be willing to tell me a few of the tunes?

OT: Sure. “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” was recorded by Sinatra on a studio album of the same name. It’s a tune that I don’t think Lee’s ever recorded, so that came straight from that influence, that background. We thought about “This Is Always,” Charlie Parker has a great version with vocalist Earl Coleman. I proposed that to Lee, and he jumped on it, started singing the whole tune. He’s very familiar with the standard repertoire because he grew up with these things. “You Go To My Head” was on the first Tristano record he did, but he hasn’t been playing it very much. I knew he has a nice relationship with that tune, so it made sense. We talked about “I Cover The Waterfront,” and we had a conversation about the Billie Holiday version with Lester Young, one of Lee’s gods. It was a very conversational process to find this repertoire.

TJG: I was rereading a previous interview you did with this blog, and you said that “For me, within a piece’s first gesture lies the whole universe, lies the seeds of the whole tree, whatever metaphor you want to use.” Does this apply to the work you’ve done in putting these arrangements together, particularly for this instrumentation, especially since you want to make space for Lee?

OT: That was the challenge. The idea was simple: Write music that would serve as a counterpoint to Lee’s improvising, where he could come in and out of the music, while the music could exist in and of itself: You could pull Lee out, and the music could stand on its own. There are very few moments of just Lee and rhythm section. There’s always material being played. When I brought the music and he first heard it, he said “What do you want me to do?” I said “Anything you want, it works any way.” It’s this prismatic object where he could decide to play with the arrangements, stick to the melodies, play on top, get abstract, lay out, it doesn’t matter, the music is made to work any way he wants.

TJG: What was his reaction when you told him that?

OT: He loved it. We looked at each other amused, because we both know that this is something we had talked about many times in the past. He looked at me like “What took you so long?” [laughs].

TJG: In the rehearsing and recording process, does it sound like the prismatic object you had in mind?

OT: Absolutely. We had an embarrassment of riches because we did a few takes, and they’re all great. There was amazing music on every take. The problem was finding the best takes of each tune. Lee could listen to the music once and immediately perceive where to play and where not to play. The beautiful thing is that he was able to re-appropriate himself to the forms and arrangements: I think that’s an amazing achievement for him, and entirely based on the strength of his knowledge of the material. I respected the material, didn’t make things too abstract, just made a lot of varied colors, environments, soundscapes within the scope of Lee’s aesthetic.

TJG: You’ll be playing and you arranged the music, but you’ll also be conducting, right? Could you talk a little about the role of a conductor in this context?

OT: I only play a little bit, on the verse of “I Cover The Waterfront.” My job here really is to conduct, and one needs a conductor to balance the lines. It’s a very fragile orchestra, you know, rhythm section plus strings and woodwinds. It’s also a challenging orchestra, because the orchestration is very low. Two celli, a viola and clarinet, which are basically in the range of an alto, you have bass clarinet, and flute, which is the only instrument that’s naturally high in range. Conducting is important in balancing the orchestra.

I do want to mention the orchestration, because it’s quite unique, and it was chosen carefully. Constraints are a deliberate condition of freeing yourself: If you embrace a constraint, you find solutions. The solutions dealing with range and colors were instrumental in helping Lee navigate that comfortably. It sets an atmosphere where it’s not your usual trumpet, oboe, two violins. It’s distinctly original in that it has the connotation of a radio orchestra, but it offers challenges and creates solutions for Lee by virtue of the orchestration choices.

The Lee Konitz Nonet under the direction of Ohad Talmor celebrates the release of Old Sounds New (Sunnyside) at The Jazz Gallery on Sunday, October 20, 2019. The group features Mr. Konitz on alto sax,
Mr. Talmor on tenor sax/conductor, Caroline Davis on flutes, Christof Knoche on clarinet, Peter Hess on bass clarinet, Miranda Sielaff on viola, Chris Hoffman and Rubin Kodheli on cello, Chris Tordini on bass,
George Schuller on drums, and Jacob Sacks on piano. One set at 2 P.M. $10 general admission (FREE for members). Purchase tickets here.