The road from Chicago has been a long one for alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, and he doesn’t get back often enough. He left town with a big band in the 1940s, and by the time the decade was out he’d recorded early more-or-less free-jazz sides with Lennie Tristano and played in Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool nonet. He’s led his own bands for aeons, worked with mainstream rhythm players all over Europe, and crossed paths with stubborn Euro-improvisers like Derek Bailey and Misha Mengelberg; in recent years he’s divided his time between New York and Germany. Long tagged a cool player, he has a reputation for austerity, but his cottony timbre permits a wide expressive range within narrow parameters. And he can step outside those parameters entirely–I once heard him sit in with Paul Motian’s trio, where he did uncanny impersonations of its tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell. At 75 (which almost seems like middle age for jazz musicians these days) Konitz is an eternal modern, minting intricate and allusive solos that shun shouts and showy gestures. He likes comfortable medium tempos where he can take his time, but he’s as committed to hard-core improvising as anybody anywhere. He has a rare ability to devise both elegant and goose bump-inducing variations on the standard chord progressions he’s rummaged through forever. When last at the Showcase, in 2000, he brought his own rhythm duo; this time he’ll be greeted by two members of the home team, the superior and tuneful bassist Larry Gray and drummer Paul Wertico. The latter may be a less than ideal foil, as his swing time can sound a trifle stiff, but Konitz has ways of dealing with boisterous or recalcitrant accompanists. After all he’s as used to playing with found rhythm partners as he is to flashing his passport. Thursday, January 30, 8 and 10 PM; Friday and Saturday, January 31 and February 1, 9 and 11 PM; and Sunday, February 2, 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.