Tuesday, May 31, 2005


Lee Konitz (w/Miles Davis), Hi-Beck.
Miles Davis, Down.

Here we find Davis at his most protean, tinkering with cool jazz in the studio, establishing the rules of hard bop on the stage.

Lee Konitz's "Hi-Beck" is pure distilled cool, beginning with an airy musing by Konitz on alto sax. When Davis finally enters (1:50 in), his 32-bar solo is rarefied, light and sparkling. The whole performance is a quiet essay in perfection, a Debussy etude retrofitted for the jet age.

Konitz, born in 1927, was one of the few saxophone players who came of age in the 1940s who did not slavishly attempt to imitate Charlie Parker. Rather, Konitz took his cues from Lester Young and Benny Carter, and his compositions were greatly influenced by his mentor, the blind pianist Lennie Tristano.

Konitz, who had been part of the Davis Nonet and contributed to the "Birth of the Cool" sessions, reunited with Davis for a four-side recording session, one of the few times Davis ever recorded as a sideman, and the only time he did so for the Prestige label.

Yet as brilliant as Davis is on "Hi-Beck", his eyes were looking elsewhere. Three months later, Davis would be on the stage at Birdland with a dizzy collection of young players desperate to establish themselves, and the music they created was loud, unrelenting and confident.

"Down", a Davis composition, is fierce from the start, driven by Art Blakey's aggressive drumming. Davis' opening solo is nothing like his restrained contribution to "Hi-Beck"--after a slow start, Davis grows in speed, complexity and intensity until he seems to be sparring with the band, trying to throw off Blakey's tempo. After Davis comes the 20-year old Sonny Rollins, the great bop trombonist J.J. Johnson, and pianist Kenny Drew, who cools it down a bit.

"Hi-Beck" was recorded in New York on March 8, 1951, with Sal Mosca (p), Billy Bauer (g), Arnold Fishkin (b) and Max Roach (d). Available on Palo Alto, a nice collection of Konitz's 1949-1953 recordings.

"Down" is from a June 2, 1951 Birdland concert best found on the just-issued Complete Birdland Recordings, from Definitive Records.

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