Enfants Terribles Rethink Standards at New York’s Blue Note
“OK, we’re gonna play some ‘terrible’ music,” joked iconic altoist Lee Konitz on Aug. 16, before he and the other senior statesmen of jazz who call themselves “Enfants Terribles” dug into a program of standards at the Blue Note. They were celebrating the release of their self-titled first album (Half Note), recorded a little over a year ago during their first appearance at the New York jazz landmark.
Standards don’t come any more standard than these—“I’ll Remember April,” “Body And Soul” and “Stella By Starlight”—yet the performances were bracingly fresh. The underlying songs were sometimes nearly unrecognizable. At 84, Konitz is as productive as ever and enjoying a late career renaissance, ranking an impressive third in the alto saxophone category of the 2012 DownBeat Critics Poll.
A bebop pioneer and member of Miles Davis' Birth Of The Cool nonet, he has, improbably, remained a restless innovator, following his creed to say something new or not say anything. As he told NPR in 2010: “That’s kind of my goal: to not repeat what I did that felt nice the night before.” The other “enfants,” guitarist Bill Frisell (this year’s Critics Poll winner in the guitar category), Gary Peacock on bass and Joey Baron on drums, displayed a similar interest in taking the road less traveled.
The choice of repertoire is crucial to this spirit of experimentation. Baron recalled some initial tensions between Konitz and a label executive before last year’s live recording. “He asked Lee if he wanted to shake up the repertoire a bit,” Baron said. “Well, you don’t say that to Lee. I told him he should apologize—those are Lee’s songs. He’s spent his life investigating them.” Those were the songs that constituted the album and this year’s Blue Note engagement.
As the exec ultimately realized, it was a moot point. Konitz and the “Enfants” don’t play songs, per se; they play meditations on songs—postmodern, sometimes whimsical and completely impromptu. The idea of arrangement or rehearsal was antithetical to the proceedings.
With this all-star lineup given free rein, one could get the impression that this is a leaderless supergroup, but Konitz’s book, rigorous aesthetic and daring spirit guide the proceedings. As Baron put it, simply, “The group is Lee’s thing.” It just so happens that “Lee’s thing” is perfectly in sync with Peacock’s and Baron’s, and especially with Frisell’s minimalist and impressionist approach.
Beginning the set with Davis’ “Solar,” the Enfants’ M.O. quickly became apparent. After a few phrases from Konitz, in his patented dry tone and lyrical style, the others entered gingerly, one by one, tethered to each other only by slender rhythmic and harmonic threads. They circled warily at first, until the groove started to come together. Then, like a basketball team advancing down the court, the quartet began passing fragments of melody and rhythm back and forth, Frisell and Baron smiling and nodding at each other, Peacock listening hard and playing in furious spurts, and Konitz, eyes closed, fully invested in the moment.
Don’t ask who is soloing at any given moment—the answer is often “all of them.” Can this work? Yes, when the musicians are this experienced, clever and deeply rooted to the groove.
On this night, Frisell was notably laid back, happy to play more of a supporting role, but his idea of support is anything but traditional. Were they a more conventional guitar trio accompanying a soloist of Konitz’s stature, Frisell’s role would have involved lots of comping, with bass and drums largely providing rhythmic support. Frisell, however, played few chords, instead favoring single lines that suggested chords. In fact, for most of the evening, all four spun out monophonic lines, going down parallel paths at times, then joyously uniting by the final chorus.
Remarkable moments were frequent. Peacock dazzled with a high-speed, melodic roller coaster of a solo on “Stella.” Baron played with unbridled joy throughout the evening. At one point he gamely took Konitz up on his offer to “start one” by playing, unmistakably, the opening lines of “Just Friends” on his snare and toms. Frisell, one of the most original guitarists in jazz, sometimes plays an oversimplification of a phrase as a kind of ironic commentary on the song—or on jazz itself, perhaps. In the next phrase, he was just as likely to dazzle with a complex voicing.
There were odd moments when inspiration seemed to flag momentarily, as in a slightly ragged “Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea.” “Body And Soul,” however, found them on more solid ground, as Baron relaxed into a brush groove while Konitz proved he can mine riches from this ever-fascinating song. His love of a good melody shone through in his intensely lyrical conclusion.
We should all be so daring at 84. As Baron put it, “Lee likes to take chances. That’s where he lives.”