LIVE: Empire Jazz Orchestra & Lee Konitz @ SCCC, 4/12/11

Lee Konitz
The Empire Jazz Orchestra and Lee Konitz

Usually, the Empire Jazz Orchestra simply blows the roof off the place.

And this spring’s Jazz Masters concert displayed plenty of big band muscle. But this time around, there was a lot more to it than just that.

In fact, with veteran sax master Lee Konitz on board as special guest soloist, EJO director Dr. William Meckley took the opportunity to break down the big band into a variety of equally exciting and powerful subsets throughout the course of the evening.

In front of a jam-packed crowd at the Schenectady County Community College’s Carl B. Taylor Auditorium, the big band blew through the opening “Chili Peppers” with a spicey Latin flavor. But then they pared back to a 10-piece outfit for Mary Lou Williams’ irresistibly jaunty “Messa Stomp,” a 1929 gem that sounded as vibrant as it was vintage.

Lee Konitz
Lee Konitz

Vocalist Colleen Pratt stepped up to the microphone for a handful of mid-set selections, including the standard “Makin’ Whoopie” and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “It Might as Well Be Spring.” She also tackled the exotic Nat King Cole hit, “Nature Boy,” but saxman Jim Corigliano’s slightly schizophenric arrangement ramped up the tempo to double-time for the mid-song instrumental break, all but obliterating the mood and mystery of the Eden Abhez nugget. “If you don’t like this tune, you should probably just go home,” Meckley advised by way of an introduction. “I’m sure Justin Beiber is on TV.”

The key offering in the first half of the show, however, was the haunting Gil Evans arrangement of Kurt Weill’s “My Ship,” which cast flugelhornist Steve Lambert in the Miles Davis role, and he acquitted himself nicely on the ballad.

Konitz kicked off the second half of the evening in quartet mode with EJO’s pianist Dave Gleason, drummer Bob Halek and bassist Otto Gardner. Paring down the number of musicians, the music took a turn toward the outside, and Konitz was free to wail unencombered, and he took advantage of the freedom as he tackled Davis’ “Solar” and the old warhorse “Body and Soul.”

Building the band up to a nonet that included Nippertown sax heroes Keith Pray and Brian Patneaude, Konitz led the way through “Move” and “Boplicity,” a pair of selections from Miles Davis’ groundbreaking 1956 album, “Birth of the Cool” with arrangements by Gil Evans. And yes, Konitz had played on the original recording. Now 83 years old, his alto sax sound and style are as uniquely individual as ever, and yet he worked smoothly with the nine-piece combo, as he did with the full-blown big band on his closing “Thingin’.” No matter the format or style, Konitz was in control, making smart choices and in short, simply dazzling.

Photographs by Rudy Lu
See more of Rudy Lu’s photographs of the concert at

My other review at The Times Union
Excerpt from Tim Coakley’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Konitz began the second set of the concert with the EJO’s rhythm section of Dave Gleason, piano; Otto Gardner, bass; and Bob Halek, drums. His second tune was the classic ‘Body and Soul,’ and the seeming abstraction of his solo was the result of his unique way of separating the notes of the song, stretching and shortening the familiar melody to present it in a completely new formation. Gleason turned in a beautiful, crystal-light piano solo that was the true highlight of the piece.”

Chili Peppers
Messa Stomp
Makin’ Whoopie (w/ vocalist Colleen Pratt)
It Might as Well Be Spring (w/ Colleen Pratt)
Nature Boy (w/ Colleen Pratt)
My Ship
Frame for the Blues

Solar (quartet)
Body and Soul (quartet)
Move (nonet)
Boplicity (nonet)
Dream Steppin’
Take the A Train (no Konitz)

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