Saturday's sold-out Smithsonian Jazz Heritage Series concert under the leadership of alto saxophonist Lee Konitz not only retraced three decades of nonet history but commented on jazz eras and forms exterior to that history but not unassimilable to the format at hand. For want of a better definition a nonet is neither a combo nor an orchestra nor even a little band out of a big band but an almalgam of all three in concept, design, and effect.
Not to disparage the exceptional musicianship and creativity of the legendary leader and his aggregation of fine older and younger players, a principal impact of the nonet is in the writing. Drawing from works of Gerry Mulligan and Giol Evans for the Miles Davis Nonet, the group also performed compositions of Lil Hardin Armstrong, Lennie Tristano, Tadd Dameron, Chick Corea, Konitz himself and others.
Prominent on several ballads, especially "What's New?," was Konitz's characteristically dry and only slightly breathy saxophonic voice, fuller now than in the past, the essence of wit and sophistication, at the same time sensual and intimate. Unison and counterpoint gave tacked ensemble passages and orchestral density while duets of contrasting colors (trumpet and piccolo trumpet, alto and baritone saxes), often with one or two rhythm instruments dropping out, conjured up small units of varying sizes.
Highlights were trumbone virtuoso Jimmy Knepper defying the innate intractability of his horn, trumpeter Tom Harrel's emotion wringing flights of imagination at high speed in the upper range, the chaotic collectivism behind the plunger-muted screams of John Eckert's trumpet on Knepper's "Dearth of a Nation" (wrily "dedicated to the new president"), the wall-to-wall pianists of Ben Aronov on Corea's "Time's Lie," and Billy Hart's drumming throughout, a boiling sea in the storm, merely felt in the calm. Also on board and in good form were bass trombonist and tubaist Steve Burtis, baritone/soprano saxophonist Roger Rosenberg and bassist Frank Luther.