I recently translated Jørgen Leth's wonderful liner notes for a new jazz release, Balladeering, by Danish guitarist Jakob Bro. Read about that here on Jakob's site, listen to some of the music and watch excerpts from Sune Blicher's film of the recording sessions, Weightless. The English liner notes are here:
New York Invitation
Yellow cab from Battery Park up through Manhattan. September 14, 2008. Pulling up now. 441 West 53rd Street. I’ve a feeling about this. This is déjà-vu. I’m stepping into a past. I press the button outside Avatar Studios. I’m buzzed in, and I take the elevator up. Solid iron door, press the button. Now I’m inside. Invited in. A tingling, thrilling atmosphere.
“In New York I’ll be following the highly talented young Danish guitarist Jakob Bro during recording sessions for his new album in the legendary Avatar Studios together with the likes of Paul Motian, Bill Frisell, Lee Konitz, and Ben Street. An unprecedented line-up of some of the greatest, most trailblazing jazz musicians alive. We’re filming in the studio Monday and Tuesday. If Jørgen wants to stop by, he’s more than welcome. We could even do a scene with Jørgen listening to the music and meeting Jakob and the other musicians. My US number is 19175443714. I’m in New York from Friday night.”
These were the words of the young filmmaker Andreas Koefoed, forwarded by a mutual friend, that sent me on my way.
And now I’m here.
He knew I was in New York at the time. I was taking part in a film project Jennifer Elster had been working on for a couple of years, and as always there was so much else for me to do in New York before going on to Haiti. What is this? I thought. Back to jazz? Do I want this?
But wait, this is an offer you can’t refuse: Avatar Studios, of course I want to go and look. It was like a piece of archaeology: Was it real, or was it a dream? It was a whole lot New York, at any rate. Ring the buzzer. Come on in. Hear voices and the sound of guitars being tuned. Friendly people bidding welcome. I meet Jakob Bro, and I meet the Danish filmcrew, headed up by director Sune Blicher, who are recording everything that’s happening, even before the music has commenced. What kind of occasion is this? The young Danish composer Jakob Bro has succeeded in gathering together some legendary jazz musicians for a recording session in which they are to play his compositions. I don’t know what’s going on in Danish jazz, so I need to get my bearings from scratch. But it turns out not to be difficult. Just a matter of keeping my ears open. I realize this is major. The music is out on its own. And Jakob Bro is highly appreciated by some of the world’s best musicians. This is major.
Lee Konitz was one of my heroes back in my youth when I wrote about jazz. To have the opportunity of meeting him now was like an invitation from providence. In Copenhagen, Lars Movin had finished editing En dag forsvandt Duke Jordan i Harlem/One Day Duke Jordan Disappeared in Harlem, my book of jazz writings from the 50’s and 60’s. There are quite a few lines about Lee Konitz in that book. He arrived with this new sound and became the exponent of what we right away began calling Cool Jazz. I was crazy about him and with the thought of how, as I saw it, he introduced the air into the instrument in an easy, steady flow, and then shaped his flourishing figures in what seemed so effortless an exertion. It may all be a myth. But it was how we saw him. Inapproachable behind his glasses, yet eternally inspired and creatively at the forefront.
Back then he stood right there alongside bebop’s greatest and most inventive soloist, Charlie Parker. Both played alto sax, and there were plenty of grounds for exciting comparisons. Konitz was one of the white musicians Miles Davis had invited into his trailblazing octet for the Birth of the Cool sessions. One of the junctures at which a new language of jazz took shape. Another early inspiration for Konitz was the pianist Lennie Tristano. It was jazz history. Later, Konitz soared above it all. His lightness of tone and his lyrical playing gilded everything he touched.
But most impressive is his endurance. He’s always right in there, never afraid of new combinations, new challenges. It’s not just his tone, his way of playing that’s cool. It’s the way he is. He is a paragon of cool. Always present, always distant. Anyway, these were the kinds of associations that occurred to me when I learned I could meet Lee Konitz all these years after I lost touch with jazz. It was a supreme gift of chance.
Paul Motian I knew from the early Bill Evans Trio, whose café recordings of Waltz for Debby and a series of other tunes were so marvellous. This was the best of all trios. The deeply introvert Evans, the virtuoso bassist Scott LaFaro (who died all too prematurely), and then Motian at the drums. All of it fabulous, breathed poetry, immersion, lightness of touch. I remember Paul Motian from that time as a quite unrivalled, sensitive drummer.
I left it all behind years ago, at about the time when Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor were the renewers of jazz, and I know little about the newer names. I ended up with violent aversions toward the much too repetitive middle-ground jazz, usually tenor sax quartets in the style of Johnny Griffin, all of it a meaningless dirge. The last thing to interest me was Monk’s quartet, though I would have preferred them without Charlie Rouse.
Being so unaware of what’s going on in jazz today is not something I’m proud of. But I know what I like among the things I do know and still care for. I’m very choosy. I return all the time to Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Getz, Antonio Carlos Jobim (who became my good friend and did the music for one of my films, Det legende menneske/Moments of Play, in 1986), Joao Gilberto, Coltrane, Monk, Bud Powell (about whom I made my very first film, Stopforbud/Stop for Bud in 1963), Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Duke Ellington, Chet Baker. Those are probably my favourites, the ones who last through all time.
Now I know a little more. A lot more, I would say. It was a major thrill for me being in the Avatar Studios that day in September. To feel music so ethereal and so full of poetry is a fabulous experience. For music to possess such qualities is in itself exceptional. This was the feeling that was all over that day. I felt myself seduced and transported away by the slow dreaminess of the ballads from one cut to the next.
All of a sudden I’m standing before Lee Konitz, a slight, elderly gentleman. A gleam behind the glasses. I tell him right away how much I have admired him and how often I have written about him. In days gone by. He listens politely, but would rather talk about more legitimate things. He lives in Cologne, but owns a house in Poland, too. A house in Poland. Such excentricity. The information makes a strong impression on me. So many of my founding experiences in jazz are from Poland, way back in 1959-61 when I accompanied Danish musicians (Louis Hjulmand, Max Brüel, John Tchicai, Niels Brøndsted) to jazz jamborees, as they were called. I became good friends with the great Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda (who later did the music for a number of Roman Polanski’s films, and some of Henning Carlsen’s, too, among them Sult/Hunger). I arranged a residency for Komeda and the tenor saxophonist Jan Wroblewski (still active) for a few weeks at the Jazzcafé Montmartre in Copenhagen. Stan Getz was the first American jazz musician to play concerts in Warsaw. And now Lee Konitz has a house in Poland. Pure mythology! Jazz musicians are the most peculiar people sometimes. They seek out strangeness.
The musicians were getting ready. I took in the studio. In the centre, a very large room with the drum kit in the middle, then at the sides, three or four enclosed spaces with glass walls facing out toward the big room. This is just like a movie, I thought. And thought, too, that it was so obvious now, the famous acoustics had to come from all those wooden panels cladding the walls.
I talk with Lee Konitz again. About many years ago when he was in Haiti with the bassist Eddie Gomez (known from his long association with Bill Evans). They recorded an album with the Haitian jazz composer and pianist Gérard Merceron. Collectors may note this is a rarity barely figuring in the discography. I know of it only because my old friend Ebbe Traberg had a copy. He had everything. Knew everything.
The sight of Paul Motian fascinates me. I sense I still can be a total fan. Like with the bike rider Lance Armstrong. I know Armstrong, have looked into his eyes and taken in his replies to my questions so many times. Yet am still reticent as to approaching him directly. I’m not going to approach Paul Motian either, definitely not, I’m simply going to observe. He hides what is most probably his bald head beneath a woolen beanie. His presence is one of privacy. Very special. A very strong charisma. I am fully aware that he is a key figure in this exclusive set-up. He has played with Jakob Bro many times. Even before I have heard a note of Jakob Bro’s music, I know his class, I can register who it is he makes music with in New York.
And I needn’t wait any longer than the first ballad he’s prepared for them.
Paul Motian’s drumming with the whiskers and the sticks. I’ve never heard anything like this. Ebullient, yet simultaneously discreet. The tension thickens. Bill Frisell making the guitar sing, crisp and poignant. Konitz plays better than ever in my opinion. His tone and his arabesques touch me. I’m thinking that Jakob Bro can get so very much out of this. Bro and Konitz join up, a form of dialogue. Konitz, master of cool, putting his heart in. It’s the same thing with poetry. The sparser the language in a poem, the more sensuous it becomes.
I relish everything I experience in these rooms. I note that Lee Konitz insists on rearranging the light, not just in his own room, but in the room in the middle, too, Paul Motian’s room, for there’s a lamp reflecting in the cymbal and it’s in his eyes. It won’t do. Paul Motian laughs discreetly. Afterward we sit in the production room. Rows of chairs. We listen to the cut they just recorded, a fabulous ballad. Now they all have lights in their eyes, especially Jakob Bro. Lee Konitz is the only one with reservations. I sense that’s the role he wants to play: the perfectionist. He believes he can do it better. It’s hard to comprehend. He plays like an angel. A wise, inspired, elderly angel. But when it transpires everyone is crazy about the first take, he doesn’t push it, doesn’t want to “argue with everyone”. This is his way of marking his perfectionism, at the same time as he’s loath to give way.
When we get to Paul Motian’s miraculously subdued, economically meted little solo, Konitz turns around in his chair and sends Motian behind him a glance. No inkling of a smile. Just the head turned halfway and then the glance. For me this was a rare moment: one master’s acknowledgement of another. And this was how Paul Motian took it, too, I noticed. Without words. I must say that the moment touched me.
A year later, days sitting alone in my house in Jacmel, Haiti, on the top floor, the room with the blue tiles. I’m listening to the completed CD. I realize how unparalleled not just the project, but the work itself actually is. They play ballads – they balladeer. Not standard ballads, but original, flowing, impassioned pieces of music. It sounds like nothing I’ve heard. Which makes sense. That’s why they got together. It appeals so profoundly to me. So often I’ve felt irritation at the way jazz repeated its most hackneyed patterns. As though it worried about not pleasing everyone. Take, for example, the recipe for most recordings: first an uptempo number, then a ballad, then an uptempo – maybe even a jumpy – number, then maybe a ballad more. A dull recipe! It’s beyond me how jazz musicians, who ought to be noncomformists, ever got that neurotic thought that such variation of tempo was so necessary. I have so often wished they just would play a few more ballads. I mean, even Miles Davis constructed his records that way, but with him it didn’t matter, because everything was up in the stratosphere and in that certain mood, a climate that was created from album to album.
Just as infuriating is that old, unshakeable habit of standard quartet line-ups featuring tenor sax always running off the sax solo first, then the piano, then bass, then drums, as though some misconceived democratic notion dictated that everyone get his own – far too protracted – solo. This routine, too, worked absolutely fine for geniuses like Parker, Bud Powell, Gillespie, Max Roach. Note, though, that Max Roach never imposed long solos upon either his audience or his fellow musicians. Why should he, when his whole performance was almost a solo in itself.
And now Jakob Bro is here, throwing out the family heirlooms. His approach is crystal clear: He is pushing back the borders of the ballad. A context in which it’s legitimate to immerse oneself into a given state and to see what is going to happen. What I hear is that these musicians are exploring outlines, developing them, toying with them, reflecting upon their endless possibilities. Dreamy pieces in slow motion. Ethereal music. I’m reminded of Alexander Calder’s mobiles. And I think of the crackled resonances allowed to hang suspended, the intimate whispering of instruments to one another. The feeling sometimes that Frisell, Street and Bro are tenderly guiding Konitz through some strange landscape. And the feeling of time. Paul Motian almost stroking the surface of the drums, showing us what kind of an instrument a drum actually is when taken into consideration and caressed.
A point of departure is the crucial discovery of the innate lightness of the pianoless combination that Mulligan and Chet Baker introduced so early, and of course even earlier there was Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli. A wealth of associations occur to me when I listen to this music. The title of the first track, Weightless, provides a precise idea of where we’re going. Sometimes there is something about the musical progression like water rolling in an ocean, a feeling that a tone is established and pursued wherever it happens to go. And one can sense rings spreading out in the water. And time and again, Konitz across the decades, a voice issuing out of the dark currents of time – and in one piece ending so suddenly and so full of pain.
In the third track, Vraa, there occur what one may venture to call unison passages that can be construed as a kind of antithesis to those unison passages in Monk where piano follows horns note for note. Antithesis, because Monk’s unison passages were heavy and full of edge, whereas Jakob Bro’s are light as a feather, transparent, a crucial distinction. One has the feeling that the musicians are spelling their way through the material in a kind of forwardly directed, mumbled unison. Motian guides with smouldering intensity. Sometimes it is like a children’s song: a slow, slow naïvist narrative, no-one pushing.
The fourth cut, Starting Point. An effervescence from the fingerboard of the guitar, and suddenly amidst it all, clear, exclamatory tones from Frisell putting things into place and opening the door for Konitz to sneak in and commence his own narrative. Another association: This musicianship reminds me of Chinese caligraphy; we filmed a Chinese artist one time, all those light, rapid strokes, the truth test of it all residing in the fact that none of it could be corrected afterward. In the fifth track, Greenland, Motian, as though in some naïve painting, alludes to a more classical percussionism; it feels like push and shove up against a fluid movement. The theme fades slowly into silence, a quivering of drumskin and the crisp tonal dissolution of guitar. Another incomparable moment. Terrace Place, the sixth cut, sleepwalks; it comes to a standstill, it stops, the momentum is pulled tight, then Konitz’ sparklingly clear narrative, great brush strokes pointing on and illuminating it all. And inside this dynamically highly restricted field, the paradoxical gleam of light in the seventh track, Sort.
Always the exchange of lines in motion, halting, remaining stationary, a diversity of pulses entering in, jostling, opening up and exuding light. The light is there, it is visible on the outskirts, it forges a path through scrub and undergrowth.
Translated by Martin Aitken