Exploring Mood: Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian, Live at Birdland

By Daniel Garrett

Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian, Live at Birdland
Engineered by James A. Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher
ECM, 2011

Sometimes I listen to the tradition of African-American music known as jazz, a tradition that is now international, and I cannot be sure if I can trust my own ears: am I hearing what is there?  Is the pattern that I discern in the music, or in my mind?  In the performance of Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian of Live at Birdland’s “Lover Man,” a song I am familiar with, I hear the entrance of a horn, it is an alto saxophone, but it sounds light, nearly like a flute, and then I hear the tinkling notes of a piano, notes that darken and expand, before all the playing becomes chattily instrumental; and that is only the song’s introduction.  In what is the body of the piece, the piano and double-bass offer what might be a fleeting semblance of the song’s original melody, and the saxophone’s now robust playing is less easy to mistake—its singing more recognizable.  That is what I hear: is that what is there?

Take a song, take it apart, and put it back together—that is not an odd formula in jazz, a tradition of melody and swing, of interpretation and improvisation.  Saxophonist Lee Konitz, pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Paul Motian take six well-known pieces, “Lover Man,” by songwriters Jimmy Davis, Roger Ramirez, and Jimmy Sherman, with George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland,” Miles Davis’s “Solar,” Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” Nacio Herb Brown’s “You Stepped Out of a Dream,” and “Oleo” by Sonny Rollins, and play them live in a celebrated court of improvisational music, one named for Charlie Parker, Bird: the club Birdland.  This is music the men have listened to, learned from, lived with, and loved; and their performances on Live at Birdland were heralded by The New York Times as well as the attending audience.

The interpretations of the songs on Live at Birdland are long enough, at least ten minutes each, to create, explore, and resolve a mood.  On Live at Birdland, “Lover Man” sounds haunted, like the memory of love past, rather than love present; and, fine and leisurely, it creates an aura of a sumptuous solitude.  More restrained than other versions I have heard, this instrumental interpretation of “Lullaby of Birdland,” a song that often seems to be performed as a wake-up call or a last dance rather than a lullaby, in the hands of Brad Mehldau and his friends has a shimmering, springy piano, bustling percussion, possibly hustling percussion, murmuring saxophone, wailing saxophone, and cordial, courting piano—but none of it is chaotic or especially loud.  The instruments in “Solar” seem somewhat separate, like planets inhabiting the same galaxy, until the bass asserts itself, like sunlight arriving from a great distance; and I do not suppose that anyone sounds like Miles Davis, the song’s composer, though here there is a muted saxophone in tribute to the muted trumpet of Miles: when one hears Miles, one hears his breath, his tone, his silence, his thought, one hears his confidence and doubt, his wary determination.  It is not an accident that some people become legends—and there is more to their success than sheer ambition.  “I Fall in Love Too Easily” is full of yearning, a depth of feeling that cannot help but be romantic as it seems rooted in faith.  A blast of the horn announces “You Stepped Out of A Dream,” in which the surprise and delight in the song become a happy, trotting dalliance, and then, for a few minutes, austere and quiet, before the melody is found again with intensity.  “Oleo,” is lively, full of ideas and motion; and, as with “Solar,” it is impossible not to think of its creator, Sonny Rollins.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett, who likes jazz, independent rock, and world music, originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.”  He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth.  Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail or D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com