Last year a leaderless meeting of the minds type pick up band convened at the Blue Note under the name ‘Enfants Terribles’. This last week, Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell, Gary Peacock and Joey Baron were back at the Blue Note, perhaps in anticipation of an upcoming album release. The album, recorded during last year’s stint is due out in late September but was available for sale at the shows, so this will serve as a sort of sneak peek of that as well.
The band first came together with basically no prior discussion or practice, they simply showed up at the soundcheck for their first gig and started to play. Playing only standards, they could simply start things up and see where they go. As a result the band feels like a pick up band at a jam session, loose in feel, loose in organization and with no set list. But, this is the pick-up band of the century at the jam session of the masters and rather than sounding ill-prepared they sounded loose, natural and confident as only comes with age. (Between Konitz and Peacock alone there’s already more than a century of experience at the highest levels in the band.) Again playing only standards, Lee announced that at the second set they would “play all the same songs, but with different solos”, they ambled through the classics with a grace and sense of swing only rarely witnessed.
Recent Konitz affairs have had a similar feel to them and it’s an artistic direction that I approve of heartily. Listening to any Konitz album, the immediate comparison is always his 1961 album ‘Motion’ with Sonny Dallas on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. What makes that album so difficult for me to listen to is, I suppose, probably what makes it so exciting for so many others; there is a palpable, almost uncomfortable, tension in the band. Dallas was a student of Lennie Tristano (as was Konitz), whose training emphasized melodic fluency over rhythmic feel. In typical Tristano fashion, Dallas stays totally on top of the beat, like a metronome, without deviation or swing. But then there’s an often bewildered sounding Elvin Jones desperately trying to swing, trying to lay back off the beat, even just a bit. Combined with some of the unorthodoxies of Lee Konitz’s playing, this all makes for an undeniably unique album. But it always feels sort of incomplete to me, like the album has just one too many individuals who didn’t come together under one aesthetic banner. More recent albums, including last year’s spectacular quartet with Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, seem to have gelled much better to me.
Pick up band or no, this is a band in which everyone is on the same page, a band that works through an almost uncannily skillful sense of give and take. Rather than have any clear delineations of any nature, the musicians simply just looked out for each other and tried to avoid stepping on any one else’s toes. A spectacular outgrowth of this semi-unplanned style is the almost Ornette Coleman like tendency for multiple people to be improvising at once. Everyone is always ‘soloing’. Master drummer Joey Baron took a handful of solos, or, at least started a handful of solos. By the end of each he had almost always been joined by other members of the band. On one occasion it was the band as a whole coming in behind him, but on two others the drum solo turned into a drum and sax duet. Lee would sit out for maybe a chorus before deciding to join Joey. Together they would circle around each other and the song, never quite going far enough to lose track but never quite settling down. In the hands of this band, and possibly only this band, such a free form style is not only enjoyable on an intellectual level but swinging as well. The overall structure of the set was free form as well. Nobody really called what song was about to begin, they would just start playing and the other members would pick up. On one occasion Lee announced that Bill Frisell was going to start the next song, to which Bill responded ‘I am?’ And luckily then he did.
Bill Frisell on guitar is also the only conceivable choice for this band. His sly, idiosyncratic mannerisms were always the perfect counterpoint to his bandmates and his tone is harmonically rich, giving a fully fleshed out feel to everything he plays. His set up was relatively spare, his solo work or his work with Paul Motian often sees him employing a wide range of effects, but his manipulation of the instrument itself was simply stunning. Unique and band tailored playing seemed to be the name of the game. Joey Baron also tailored his tone to the band; he probably spent as much time playing with his hands as he did with brushes or sticks, matching the softer feel of some songs.
The set of all standards has some overlap with the track list of the upcoming album, their take on ‘Body and Soul’ is almost as stunning on album as it was live, although they did play a great rendition of ‘Oleo’ which apparently didn’t make the disc. As a capturing of the feel of the band, the album is excellent, highly recommended. I hope that the near future sees more of this band.