by Daniel LehnerLee Konitz and Dan Tepfer were playing on the stage at a healthily attended late set at the Jazz Standard, but it could have just as easily been someone’s living room. The alto sax giant – who has dozens of albums as a bandleader and has recorded with luminaries like Miles Davis and Lennie Tristano to name a few – and the young, French-born New York-based pianist pursued their set with a relaxed, almost master class type feel. Eschewing the confines of a set list, Konitz and Tepfer were following the jam session tradition of “calling tunes” (sometimes with one musician just starting to play unannounced), even asking the audience for suggestions at one point (at least 20 were suggested). What followed were unique, conversational, poignant and occasionally dizzying dialogues on standards, which have been the keystone of Konitz’s modus operandi for decades.
Konitz and Tepfer, other than being in the jazz idiom, are actually magnificently different players, which is what made their dialogue all that more exciting. Tepfer was of the young, virtuosic and Dionysian aspect, a player that utilized huge collections of rhythmic and harmonic techniques to both divert and extract dazzling new colors from songbook standards. Konitz is just as inventive but in the Apollonian sense. The flowing, beautifully constructed melodies he procured were simple but masterful; like a Zen Buddhist teacher, he told stories that were easy to comprehend but could have only come from a lifetime of exploration into the hearts of popular songs. In a sense, Tepfer demanded the audience to ask, “what is he doing?” whereas the question for Konitz would have been “how is he doing that?”
The two elements ended up working together marvelously, emphasizing freedom for both the individual players and their interchange. On “317 E. 32nd St.”, Konitz’s head on the changes to “Out of Nowhere”, they freed themselves from the typical “duo trading” format, each improviser soloing at sporadic points in the song. Unlike some past criticisms that Konitz is too cerebral a player, he yearned out high altissimo passion in his chorus on the ballad “Darn That Dream” with Tepfer pulsating huge blocks chords under his wistful soloing. Though most content with letting the time-feel float freely, on Miles Davis’s “Solar” Tepfer churned out bouncy bass figures with rhythmically involved chords while Konitz played supremely unified solo choruses despite the tune’s quick-changing harmony. However, much of the set was cast in an ethereal, dreamlike quality; “All the Things You Are”, which changed key at least once, ended with Tepfer’s contemplative interpretation of the previous events, uttering a bleak and fast-modulating outro based on the melody.
For all its occasional drama, though, the duo was clearly having fun with the set’s looseness. The uncertainty of where a piece was going to start, continue or end could have made the show awkward, but because of each player’s individual prowess, made it potent and exciting. Konitz after all these years had still found joy in playing American Songbook standards, vocally declaring his love for most (but not all) tunes suggested by the audience and also clearly admired Tepfer’s inventive modernistic playing in tandem. “I’m not the best, I’m just the oldest”, he quipped to an employee announcing him. Which, as the story goes, makes him the wisest.