From cool to mellow. It could be the title of Lee Konitz’s autobiography.
The veteran alto saxophonist, once viewed as a prime practitioner of a chilly, introspective, emotionally detached style of jazz, has matured in his senior years into an artist whose music is now filled with warmth and feeling.
Making a rare Los Angeles appearance Wednesday in the opening set of a four-night run at the Jazz Bakery, Konitz, 68, shared the stage with alto saxophonist Gary Foster, pianist Alan Broadbent, bassist Putter Smith and drummer Joe LaBarbera in a tribute to his former partner, the late tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh.
Konitz and the ensemble performed--as he and Marsh often did--a program of tunes based on familiar chord changes. He has been improvising variations upon the harmonies of works such as “All the Things You Are,” “What Is This Thing Called Love?” and “Cherokee” for decades. But his current excursions, executed with a seductively appealing tone and listener-friendly phrasing, continually uncovered new delights in the vintage material.
On his own original line, “Subconscious Lee,” for example, Konitz played a solo, accompanied only by LaBarbera’s drums, that was a small marvel of creative spontaneity--brilliantly constructed, permeated with melodic color and rhythmic energy. His lovely, ballad rendering of “Body and Soul” occasionally called up memories of Johnny Hodges, suggesting that Konitz’s historical position in jazz, always separate from the be-bop of Charlie Parker, is actually linked to the playing of Hodges, Lester Young and Benny Carter.
Foster, who would probably be the first to acknowledge Konitz’s impact on his playing, approached his choruses with a somewhat edgier but no less attractive style. On several pieces, he and Konitz spun out simultaneous duet/solos recalling the classic Konitz-Marsh encounters of the ‘50s. And the team of Broadbent, Smith and LaBarbera laid down a smooth, uncomplicated, improvisationally supportive pattern of rhythm.
But the star of the evening clearly was Konitz, a too little- recognized jazz giant whose work glows with a rich and vibrant autumnal radiance.
* Lee Konitz with Gary Foster, Alan Broadbent, Putter Smith and Joe LaBarbera at the Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City, (310) 271-9039. 8:30 p.m. Through Saturday. $20 admission.