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Album review: Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian's “Live at Birdland”

June 7, 2011 |  1:56 pm

Konitz240 Recorded in December 2009, this live album is a chance to get an earful of one of those special club combinations that bubble to the surface on the jazz scene from time to time. Haden, Konitz and Mehldau have come together before with a couple contemplative live recordings from the Jazz Bakery in the late ’90s, and though Motian’s gentle pulse on drums shifts the dynamic somewhat, this recording could be considered an extension of that trio’s thirst for reexamining the classics.

Full of songs stretching past 10 minutes, this is a document of patient exploration, affectionately burrowing into standards in search of something new. With a cottony, searching tone, the 83-year-old Konitz often leads the way with his signature grace, even taking the metaphor to a literal extent in muting his saxophone with fabric on a twisting cover of Miles Davis’ “Solar.” Mehldau primarily opts for a similar sort of elegance on piano, though his solo during “You Stepped Out of a Dream” adds a spiny jolt to the album’s nocturnal atmosphere, as does his turn in a sprawling take on Sonny Rollins’ “Cleo,” which unfurls with an off-center drive that feels like the tilt of the Earth is slowly shifting.

Though this is a mostly hushed, spare album — a faint cough or tinkled glass sometimes creeps between the notes — it’s a pleasure to hear four masters in such intimate conversation. There aren’t many sharp corners or jarring turns, but if caught during the right kind of sentimental mood it’s an immersive destination.

Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian
“Live at Birdland”
Three stars (Out of four)


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— Chris Barton