Konitz, Haden, Motian,Mehldau, Birdland Live, Phantom TollboothRevered jazz quartet with a combined age of about 649 wander very freely through some jazz standards.

Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian--Live at Birdland
Label: ECM
Time: 6 tracks / 71 minutes.

This is a youth-meets-experience release, given that alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian are all octogenarians with a wealth of jazz experience. Konitz shared the recording of Birth of the Cool with Miles Davis and has since specialized in free and avant-garde jazz. Haden and Motian worked together as a rhythm section with Keith Jarrett and separately with Ornette Coleman and Bill Evans respectively.

At half their average age, Brad Mehldau provides the comparative ‘youth,’ and his dynamism gives this project some kick. It was back in the late ‘90s that he recorded with these three for two releases, and he quickly rose to fame by association with these masters and with Pat Metheny. On this release, Mehldau plays as an equal, often taking the lead in turn with Konitz.

These tracks were gleaned from two nights of unplanned playing at Birdland Studios last December. I wonder just how unplanned it was. When Mehldau begins a run at the start of “Lullaby of Birdland” it is easy to imagine that he had kept it to himself until that moment and to sense the others waiting to pick up on what they will be playing along with. Konitz leads the same way with ”Solar.” This disc certainly has the air of music created from scratch, but they did have well-known songs to launch from. Each of the six tracks could be called a standard, including work from Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and George Shearing.

“I Fall in Love Too Easily” and especially “Lover Man” are perhaps the most classic-sounding pieces, played at the pace you might expect from a bunch of 80-year-olds, Mehldau largely content with bouncing phrases back to Konitz. Motian’s brushes roll and swirl, crisping up just enough to define the beat. You could be in any smart and smoky late night jazz club over the last several decades, closed eyes and drink in hand.

Mehldau seems to have got much of his blazing away out of his recorded system on his own live release earlier this year. Here he comes into his own more on “Lullaby of Birdland,” where (as for a bit on "Oleo") he does his speciality of sounding like each of his hands has a brain of its own, such is the speed and complexity with which he plays.

It is worth noting that de-construction is often the norm here. These players are working with themes that they have heard for decades, but younger listeners may not be familiar with them. It might be more enjoyable with the main themes stated more clearly before breaking them down into their molecular state and letting the atoms fly around. When main tunes are hidden, solos can sound unduly meandering. Of course, if the meandering is what you buy your jazz for, there is no problem.

Yet it is a bit of a breakthrough album. Listen to it a dozen times and some tunes can irritate by their lack of direction; but then a breakthrough hits and suddenly “Oleo” or “Solar” becomes a dazzling, technically brilliant interpretation of a theme.

The bottom line is this: you can’t fault the musicianship; the songs are largely jazz standards; these interpretations are often loose and free, and the mood is far more chilled than smoking. Like those things and you should enjoy this.


Derek Walker