Lee Konitz: Still Something New, 60 Years Later Saxophonist Lee Konitz became famous as a leading figure of what was dubbed the "cool jazz" sound. Now, at 82, Konitz is as busy as ever.

Lee Konitz: Still Something New, 60 Years Later

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Saxophonist Lee Konitz became famous 60 years ago as a pioneer of what's been dubbed the cool jazz sound. Now, the legendary jazzman is enjoying a renaissance. At the age of 82, Konitz has been busy in the studio, cutting records, playing in nightclubs and touring festivals.

As Tom Vitale reports, the alto player is still making it up as he goes along.

TOM VITALE: in the living room of his West Side apartment, Lee Konitz picks up his alto, closes his eyes and blows

(Soundbite of song, "I Remember You")

VITALE: Konitz is playing around the melody of "I Remember You," taking apart the phrases.

(Soundbite of song, "I Remember You")

VITALE: He says he never played it this way before.

(Soundbite of song, "I Remember You")

Mr. LEE KONITZ (Musician): That's kind of my goal: to not repeat what I did that felt nice the night before or whatever, just to try to build a new row of meaningful tones.

VITALE: The rows of meaningful tones stretch back seven decades for Lee Konitz. Born in Chicago in 1927, Konitz says he gained a deep respect for improvised music from studying with the blind piano player Lennie Tristano.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Konitz began playing professionally as a teenager. When he was just 22 years old, he played alto on the 1949 and '50 studio sessions with Miles Davis that came to be known as the birth of the cool.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Konitz describes the birth of the cool as chamber music: scored charts with incidental solos. He plays with more freedom now but with the same melodic sound.

Mr. KONITZ: I love to hear beautiful melodies played or sung. That's the feeling I have for the horn. This is what I got coined with, the cool sound. Some people say, you know, when are you gonna swing? It's not a competition to me. I just like to sing my little song and hopefully get a reaction from the people I'm playing with and the people that are listening.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NATE CHINEN (Writer, New York Times): You know, maybe we all caught up with him finally.

VITALE: Nate Chinen writes about jazz for The New York Times.

Mr. CHINEN: He's been putting out records, and he's been working. And really, the level of his craft hasn't wavered since the '40s or '50s.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Konitz's early career was defined by his refusal to play alto like Charlie Parker, the dominant saxophonist on the scene when Konitz got there. Nate Chinen says Konitz's late career is defined by his stubborn refusal to play like another storied musician.

Mr. CHINEN: Now, as he's into his 80s, the greater specter for him is himself and how to avoid the danger of habitual gestures, you know, your own personal cliches. And I think that, in an interesting way, has been the spur and the motivating factor for him.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Lee Konitz doesn't rehearse his musicians. Last year, for example, he recorded an album of duets with 28-year-old pianist Dan Tepfer. Tepfer says he went into the studio expecting to record an album of standards.

Mr. DAN TEPFER (Musician): We're in the studio, and we just kind of wanted to warm up. And we said, hey, why don't we make up some pieces, no planning.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. TEPFER: After we recorded that, which took half an hour or something, we moved on and recorded a lot of other stuff, standards. And then, when I was listening back, it was just like, wow, this is really special. It has this real kind of mystery to it that I think people have to hear.

VITALE: Tepfer says Lee Konitz is the most open-minded musician he knows, of any age. Konitz says the key is listening.

Mr. KONITZ: Because really, the music is entirely dependent on each guy really paying attention to the other guy, looking into each other's ears, so to speak. So I'm still able to function pretty well with that, thankfully.

VITALE: Lee Konitz says at 82, the only real concession he's made to the aging process is that he has to keep his eyes closed when he plays to keep from getting distracted.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

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