By the time Miles Davis died 15 years ago, two decades had passed since one LP by him could bring a nascent movement to term, as Kind of Blue did for modal improvisation in 1959 and Bitches Brew did for fusion in ’69. But even now, Davis so guides our thinking that reviews of new releases are forever name-checking him. So here are two midsize ensembles that boast a human link to Birth of the Cool. Gunther Schuller, who played French horn on a few of those 1949–50 nonet landmarks, contributes a suite comprising his meditations on “Moon Dreams,” “Move,” and “Boplicity” to tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano’s Streams of Expression. On New Nonet, the link is Lee Konitz, at 78 the only featured soloist from those Davis sides left alive. On both, the conceptual debt to Birth of the Cool is key. It’s a debt these new releases share with countless other albums whose lineage isn’t soobvious, including Mingus’s The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and David Murray’s Ming.
Midsizing allowed Davis’s collaborators, including John Lewis and Gil Evans, to restore composition and orchestration to prominence without inhibiting improvisers and rhythm sections from exercising their bebop freedoms. Birth of the Cool didn’t even have a title before a 1956 reissue of the original 78’s bid to cash in on the vogue for the sounds then emanating from the West Coast—by which point, Davis had turned the heat back up and then some with Coltrane and Philly Joe Jones. Among its lingering consequences was a widespread belief that bebop and Monk and Sonny Rollins’s thematic impromptus had taken improvisation as far as it could go and that the only step left was consolidating the gains of the previous decade and a half into larger compositional frameworks. Not so, of course—Miles and Coltrane’s modes were still in the wings, along with Ornette Coleman and free. But it’s been the situation ever since Coltrane’s death in ’67. That’s why albums like Streams of Expression and New Nonet are always welcome.
The boppish-to-free solos on a suite of Lovano’s own—whose movements (all originals) bracket Schuller’s and give Streams of Expression its name—are rendered all the more exciting by a wealth of surrounding orchestral detail. The prizes are tenorist George Garzone’s ripsnorting multiphonics on “The Fire Prophets” (dedicated to Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and Pharoah Sanders), Lovano’s alto clarinet yawping on “Enchantment” (featuring just him and the rhythm section, and dedicated to Mingus and Eric Dolphy), a series of blistering two-horn jousts on “Second Nature” (for Ornette and Keith Jarrett, among others), and a breezy round robin involving all eight horns plus pianist John Hicks on “Cool” (a valentine to Davis and Evans, and a nice lead-in to Schuller). The track listings and Lovano’s notes are in conflict over whether two stray numbers are part of the suite or not. It hardly matters, because this is a suite in name only, its individual themes unrelated except maybe as a loose capsule history of jazz since bop. In setting up and pacing solos with colorful touches like the orchestrated collective improvisation on the opening “Sketches,” Lovano’s writing accomplishes what it sets out to do plus a little more.
Even so, I skipped ahead to Schuller’s Birth of the Cool Suite on first listen. Other than necessary rescoring (this sax-heavy 12-piece ensemble includes flute, but neither tuba nor French horn), Schuller refrains from improving on perfection. His variations are modest and interstitial, taking the form of preludes and postscripts linking three numbers that originally stood alone. The tempo on “Moon Dreams” seemed draggy to me before I realized the problem was Lewis Nash’s rigid timekeeping —probably not the drummer’s fault, but rather an instance of Schuller’s desire to remain faithful gone awry (in 1949, even concert bands like Davis’s reflexively went on providing a beat couples could dance close to). Anyway, the adventure in “Moon Dreams” is Evans’s dissonant coda, and following a sighing, Getzian tenor chorus by Lovano, Schuller and the ensemble interpret it with loving alacrity. Schuller’s treatment of “Move” emphasizes the climbing countermelody Lewis devised to add gravity and depth to Best’s propulsive bop riff, and Tim Hagans’s airborne trumpet creates a Milesian mood without resorting to outright imitation on “Boplicity.” It feels like an especially fine performance of Beethoven or Stravinsky—this music has stood the test of time and so will this interpretation. The album’s only false touch is two screeching solos by Lovano on Autochrome, a horn he describes as “two soprano-saxophone bodies with a revolutionary mechanism that allows the keys of both to be played either separately or together over the range of the entire instrument.” Somewhere, Rahsaan Roland Kirk is chortling at the thought of someone inventing a machine to do what he could do better with just his fingers and lungs.
When has Lee Konitz ever been less than amazing? It’s as if he’s been worrying his way deeper and deeper into the changes of some vaguely familiar standard for close to 60 years now, and following his progress has been as compelling as going the distance on one of Coltrane’s epic solos, with the advantage of time-outs. Konitz has a pair of new releases on the same label, each featuring arrangements by fellow saxophonist Ohad Talmor—the other is Inventions, which confronts the two saxes with a string quartet (Talmor occasionally switching to clarinet or bass clarinet) and adheres to the same principle as New Nonet, Talmor expanding on melodic fragments written by Konitz in addition to supplying large-scale compositions of his own. Atypically, Konitz quotes Borodin, “The More I See You,” and (if I’m not mistaken) one of Charlie Parker’s favorite nursery rhymes on New None t‘s “Outward,” the opening movement of his and Talmor’s ChromaticLee Suite. But these references are so anagrammatic and sprint by so quickly, they’re easy to miss. A central tenet among Lennie Tristano’s disciples, Konitz included, has always been that repertoire doesn’t matter—a handful of inexhaustible standards will do you for life. Along with the added color provided by cello, guitar, and bass clarinet, Talmor’s imaginative writing—the difference between this “new” nonet and the soloists’ vehicle Konitz convened in the late ’70s—shows repertoire can matter a great deal.
As a player, Talmor digs Konitz the most; his tenor could be mistaken for an alto when he spirals up to a high register. But aside from a slight resemblance to George Russell in its harmonic stacking and barreling momentum, his ensemble writing is strikingly original. New Nonet was recorded over five nights at the Jazz Standard last summer, and given the complexity of the charts, rough spots are inevitable. But when everything comes together—as with the brass storm clouds that precede Konitz’s duet with Matt Wilson’s thundering drums on “Ominous”—it’s as if Talmor and the band are reading Konitz’s thoughts.
On Invention’s “Chunks” and “Qu’est-Ce Que C’est”—the latter based on Monk (or maybe Bartók)—Talmor, in lieu of asking the strings to make pretty, uses them percussively, and Konitz responds to their itchy staccato with such crying abandon you wonder if he’s been listening to Ornette (or maybe Ornette listened to him early on?). A forgotten spawn of Birth of the Cool was Third Stream, a ’60s movement spearheaded by Schuller and John Lewis that tried to fuse jazz improvisation and classical composition. A problem it encountered was the inability of classically trained players to phrase idiomatically. Inventions‘s delightful surprise ending, a buoyant rendition of “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” with the strings functioning as a rhythm section less cornball than Armstrong’s as Konitz and Talmor engage each other contrapuntally, demonstrates how some things have changed for the better. Praise to Konitz for two of the most ambitious projects of his career at an age when he could get by with a victory lap.