The ECM label has always prided itself on the sonic detail of its recordings, but the Lee Konitz/Brad Mehldau/Paul Motian/Charlie Haden Live At Birdland CD may be its most impressive technical achievement yet. Birdland is a very small jazz club in Midtown Manhattan, famous for its dry acoustics and intimate setting, yet a tantalising, almost ethereal gloss lingers around every note of this album recorded over two nights in December 2009. If jazz recordings are all about capturing spontaneous, magical musical moments in the best possible acoustical environment, this may be one of the most successful live albums of all time.
Live At Birdland sees alto sax legend Konitz, astonishingly now in his eighth decade of playing (and apparently the only living jazzman to play in all diverse addresses of the Birdland club, starting in 1949), team up with young piano master Mehldau and the esteemed rhythm section of Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, probably most famous for their work with pianist Keith Jarrett. They appeared at Birdland with no rehearsal or prearranged setlist, delving into a treasure trove of standards such as ‘Lover Man’, ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ and ‘Solar’.
But these don’t sound like standards; the music is genuinely surprising and at times even unsettling – Konitz pays lip service to the famous melodies with a plaintive, melancholy and sometimes downright eerie tone, as if discovering the pieces for the first time. Mehldau frequently reverses regular jazz piano logic, at times hammering out intricate lines with his left hand while comping gently in a higher register with his right. Motian’s drum intro on the Sonny Rollins‘ standard ‘Oleo’ is gloriously artless, the sound of a musician wanting only to sound like himself. Haden’s solo on ‘Lover Man’ is beautifully phrased and typically understated, while Konitz comes close to Ornette Coleman territory on the luscious ‘I Fall In Love Too Easily’.
Check out the album here.