Here's the setup: Three legends and an ex-wunderkind (now approaching middle age) walk into a bar. But it's no joke. Lee Konitz has been honing his alto sax sound — a smooth-but-sour moan — since the late '40s. Paul Motian's drumming, taken together over the last several decades, amounts to a master class in maintaining urgency even during moments of sonic repose. (For evidence, see his solo, on this set, during the Miles tune "Solar.") And since the '70s, Motian has frequently benefited from the lyrical bass playing of Charlie Haden.
Joining this trio of long-established giants at Birdland to create a new quartet is '90s-era piano upstart Brad Mehldau. Often, Mehldau can be heard trying to push the accelerator, as on his solo during "You Stepped Out of a Dream." But just as often he's finding a bluesy grace (albeit an abstracted one), as when he solos, following Konitz, on the opening take of "Lover Man." It's a blast to hear an artist as prone to ornate fussiness as Mehldau absorbing a lesson or two about the pared-down approach to intensity. But the stylistic movement isn't all in one direction. The closing 15-minute version of "Oleo" flirts at free playing in its middle section, with Motian matching the pianist's rhythmic density, layer for layer, until it's really two solos happening at once. Moments like these — and there are several during this set — argue for a sequel.