Konitz/Mehldau/Haden/Motian: Live at Birdland (ECM 2162)

Live at Birdland

Live at Birdland

Lee Konitz alto saxophone
Brad Mehldau piano
Charlie Haden double-bass
Paul Motian drums
Recorded live at Birdland, New York, December 2009
Engineers: James A. Farber, Paul Zinman, Nelson Wong, Sean Mair, SoundByte Productions Inc., NYC
Mixed at Avatar Studios by James A. Farber and Manfred Eicher
Assistant: Akihiro Nishimura
Produced by Manfred Eicher

On December 9 and 10, 2009, New York’s legendary Birdland jazz club hosted a quartet of three sages and one acolyte for a string of ad hoc performances. Altoist Lee Konitz, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Paul Motian, being of the older generation, brought lifetimes of experience to their respective instruments, but more importantly a willingness—if not a need—to share their wisdom with those of the up and coming. That said, pianist Brad Mehldau was already well established in the scene when he laid fingers to keys for this unusual gathering and proved himself a masterful chameleon within a jazz of patience that asks only the same in return from its listener.

With only six tunes to the album’s credit, there’s plenty of meat on the bone. Konitz’s signature sound swoons from the first in the ballad “Loverman,” his alto’s rounded tone sounding more like a soprano than its larger cousin. Haden and Motian make for a phenomenal rhythm section, sectioning rhythm as they do into base components. Motian’s brushes are the opposite end of Haden’s plunking color wheel. Meldau, for his part, goes wherever the winds may take him. At one point he inverts the standard solo, using the right hand to comp and the left for melody, and with a polish so radiant that the album might as well come with a pair of sunglasses. Haden’s reflection is likewise true to form, seeming to float beyond the stage by virtue of some slick postproduction.

George Shearing’s “Lullaby Of Birdland” comes as a subtle energy boost. Konit’z beauteous stream of consciousness over a cool back end scouts a prime location for Meldau, whose dense pockets give up handfuls of gold. His right hand has a mind of its own here, straying but always holding a tether line back to the fundament. Haden’s soliloquy is a remarkable stop of the journey. It’s a solo that keeps up the appearances of the tune while unraveling dreams of others in real time. This time the engineering is more forward, even as the musicians look back with angels of nostalgia on their shoulders.

Konitz introduces a spontaneous rendering of the Miles Davis classic “Solar.” The loose coalition that ensues works a collage-like magic very much like the album’s cover: mixing signatures that are familiar yet made novel by their overlap. Meldau’s complex and mind-altering denouements find balance in Haden’s contemplations, leaving Motian free to flail toward smooth finish.

“I Fall In Love Too Easily,” a ballad made famous by Frank Sinatra, turns down the lights but ups the tension. Konitz, soulful as ever, is the central candle of this altar in a vigil for a love that might have been, but wakes up bright and early for “You Stepped Out Of A Dream.” Here the band holds every detail in mind, as also in a glowing version of Sonny Rollins’s “Oleo.” Motian and Konitz set the stage in duet for the most endearing portion of the set list. Meldau thickens the stew, throwing his chords like spices and watching them mingle, as underneath Haden’s subdued funk culminates in a chiming brilliance.

It’s sobering to realize that, as of this review, half of the album’s roster is no longer with us. Haden and Motian may be gone, but their sounds will live on as long as there are ears to hear them.

(To hear samples of Live at Birdland, click here.)

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