A quartet of master musicians and a programme of jazz classics. Live At Birdland presents the finest moments from two inspired nights at New York's legendary club, as Konitz, Mehldau, Haden and Motian play "Loverman", "Lullaby Of Birdland", "Solar", "I Fall In Love Too Easily", "You Stepped Out Of A Dream" and "Oleo" with freedom, tenderness, and a love of melody that only jazz's greatest improvisers can propose.
On this live recording from New York's legendary club, an ensemble of history-making players dives into the music without a set list. Four exceptional jazz musicians -Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian - approach the standards from new perspectives and unusual angles. They play them with freedom, tenderness and a melodic and rhythmic understanding found only amongst jazz's greatest improvisers.
The recording was made at Birdland and mixed by Manfred Eicher and the quartet, with James Farber as engineer, at New York's Avatar Studios. Songs selected by this team from the performances of December 9 and 10, 2009, are: "Lover Man", "Lullaby Of Birdland", "Solar", "I Fall In Love Too Easily", "You Stepped Out Of A Dream" and "Oleo". Konitz has often said that he tries to play the material as if encountering it for the first time. With all four musicians listening intently, discoveries are continually made in the music.
"Lover Man", the ballad strongly associated with Billie Holiday (but also, for instance, with Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan at Newport) makes an arresting opening track, with the uniquely melancholy cry of Lee's alto sax to the fore. Mehldau's solo gives immediate notice of his architectural intelligence as a player, and in his subtle comping he continually builds bridges between the idiosyncratic playing styles of his associates. Haden's bass solo is characteristically soulful, Motian's deft brushes perfectly placed.
"Lullaby Of Birdland", composed in 1952, acquires additional poignancy through the recent death of its composer, George Shearing. (Lee Konitz, now 83, is said to be the only living jazz soloist to have played all of the diverse addresses of the Birdland club, starting in 1949.) The piece is driven here by the marvellous rhythmic interplay of Haden and Motian, their near-telepathic understanding honed long ago during their decade-plus association with Keith Jarrett in the 1960s and 70s.
"Solar" begins with an abstract clarion call from Konitz. "Mr. Konitz, with a piece of fabric stuffed into the bell of his horn to mute it, started playing Miles Davis's `Solar' and Mr. Motian joined in, followed by the others. A skeletal groove emerged...", wrote Ben Ratliff in the NY Times. Mehldau's solo is a marvel of invention, lifted up by the waves of Motian's wayward drums.
"I Fall In Love Too Easily" is a touching rendition of the Jule Styne ballad (a song first intoned by Frank Sinatra in 1945) with fine outlining of the melody by Mehldau, and Konitz almost Ornette-like in his phrasing. The singing quality of the performance is extended in Haden's heartfelt solo.
"You Stepped Out Of a Dream" was previously recorded by Konitz, Mehldau and Haden for a Blue Note trio album 1997: the powerful presence of Paul Motian on the present recording transforms it completely.
Sonny Rollins's "Oleo" is given one of the freest performances of the set, beginning with a beautifully elastic Konitz/Motian duet. Brad Mehldau has commented on the performance's cool chromaticism, allied to the rhythmic phrasing of bebop, until the tune is deconstructed in the final moments of collective soloing. When these musicians play the standards, they do indeed make them new.