Motion – comment on classic Lee Konitz recording with Elvin Jones from ’60s


As is usually the case, musicians, at least of my era, are by and large familiar with this recording, since it is one of the best representations of one of the masters of jazz. Lee Konitz’s contribution to the bebop language is extraordinary on several levels. First of all, along with his mentor Lennie Tristano and peer Warne Marsh, they were able to forge a unique approach that was markedly different from the prevailing style of the day emanating from Charlie Parker, Dizzy and Bud Powell. And they did this at the same time in the late 1940s as the standard bebop language was being forged. The interesting fact is that Lennie loved Bird and Bud and in fact felt to the day he died that there was little else of worth in jazz besides them, LesterYoung and a few others. I know this since I studied with Lennie in the mid 1960s and his feelings were always stated very clearly to his students. Also there is the famous “Intuition” track from 1949 with these musicians playing what appeared to be completely “free”- certainly free of chord changes for sure. So in spite of the mostly negative criticism that the music didn’t “swing” and was too “white” the challenge to Bird’s concept was in place from the very beginning of bebop. Lee took part in the “Birth of the Cool” sessions under Miles during this period, but for the rest of his career and even now (presently 75 years old) he has basically pursued the same path. That is playing standards or heads based on standard progressions, often with pickup musicians. When you hear Lee live, it is classic jazz and always clever and stimulating as well as amazing that he can get so much out of the same material over and over.

I have to believe that what makes “Motion” so special is the presence of Elvin Jones. The incredible thing is that this was recorded in 1961 when Elvin was at the beginning of his sojourn in the John Coltrane group, which went on to make history. Any listener familiar with the Coltrane recordings, both live and studio from that period know that Elvin played really strong and often quite loud with Trane. I saw the group many times in clubs in New York and often you could only hear the drums!! Yet on this recording with Lee he is dynamically subdued and incredibly subtle. Besides the incredibly swinging ride beat on the cymbal you can really discern what Elvin does with his left hand and bass drum. Also his trademark triplet feel usually heard being played across the snare and toms is not too evident on this recording. He plays in what I call a more up and down style which is another reason that the bass drum and snare are so outstandingly clear. For a long time the rumor was that Elvin recorded far from the microphone on this date but Lee told me personally that wasn’t true. It is a real testament to Elvin’s musicianship to be so intense, yet so soft on this recording at exactly the same time he was bashing out with Coltrane, probably the same night as this recording!!

Lee’s way of phrasing over the bar line and behind the beat is very evident on this recording. In fact on the first track, “I Remember You”, you really have to listen to Sonny Dallas’ very clear bass lines to hold on to the form. Elvin and Lee are so subtle with their phrasing that it can really be tough to find the periods and commas of the normal eight bar cycles we are used to. On “Foolin Myself”, Lee plays perfect bass lines behind Sonny’s solos, a clear indication of the depth of knowledge he has on chord changes. And of course there is his deep, yet airy alto tone with some glimpses of Paul Desmond at times. The articulation is almost uniformly legato and one never hears standard clichés from Lee, but at times some great quotes from other tunes.

Some of Elvin’s highlights include a solo on “So Nice to Come Home To’ over Dallas’ walking bass line. Also there are some brief forays of metric modulation on the brushes during “Out of Nowhere”. Finally, the heads when they are stated at all are for the most part fragmentary and more alluded to than stated. This is a blowing date, clear and simple as Lee states in the original liner notes. No tricks, gimmicks, arrangements or anything to deter from the heart of the matter at hand—spontaneous improvisation over classic chord progressions. Overall, this is one of the most artistic and deep recordings of standard material that I know and a testament to the greatness of two jazz giants, Lee Konitz and Elvin Jones.