Perfect Sound Forever

Steve Lacy

Steve in the window
© Laurence Svirchev and courtesy of Senator's

by Dave Kaufman (November 1997)

The soprano saxophone, a straight-horned instrument with limited range, had become something of a novelty instrument by the mid 1950s. The horn played a central role in the genesis of jazz, largely due to the brilliant New Orleans saxophonist Sidney Bechet. However, the soprano was seldom used throughout the swing and bebop eras, a span of almost 25 years. A young Steve Lacy, with a clear and bold tone, emerged as the first "modern" jazz musician to embrace the soprano. It is widely believed that Lacy influenced the great tenor John Coltrane to take up the instrument in the early 1960s. Since then the soprano has grown tremendously in popularity. In fact, some may argue that it has become just a little too popular. Arguably, Lacy is the most important voice on his instrument in the modern era and undeniably is one of the greatest jazz instrumentalists of any era.

Lacy began his career as a teen-aged participant in the Dixieland revival of the early 1950s, most notably playing with the 'progressive groups' of Dick Sutton. In the mid '50's, he made something of a radical transition, working with the great pianist Cecil Taylor, one of the pioneers of free jazz. He was a participant in the Taylor's first album, a landmark recording Jazz Advance (1956) that laid the groundwork for even further departures from harmonic and rhthmic conventions. Around that time, Lacy became a devoted disciple of the great Thelonious Monk, even playing with the great master for a number of months and participating in the Monk Big Band and Quartet in Concert recording (1963). After leaving Taylor's group in 1957, Monk's compositions were to provide the core of his repertoire for the next several years and continue to be highlighted in his recordings and performances to this date. He is acknowledged to be perhaps the foremost interpreter of Monk's rather difficult angular compositions. Beginning with his second album, Reflections, Lacy has recorded several all Monk collections, most notably in partnerships with trombonist Roswell Rudd and pianist Mal Waldron.

In the mid '60's, Lacy moved to Europe and has lived (almost exclusively) in Paris since 1969. He is among the most prolific recording artists of the last 25 years (with well over 150 albums under his own name) and has maintained a remarkable level of consistency. His works vary from solo soprano recordings to large scale projects involving dance, theater, and poetry. The Steve Lacy Sextet, formed sometime in the mid '70s (and only recently disbanded), was his best known group. Since it's inception, the group has included superb alto saxophonist Steve Potts and vocalist/cellist Irene Aebi (who also happens to be Lacy's wife). They have made numerous recordings including The Way, Momentum, and the superb 1992 concert set Live at Sweet Basil. Many listeners will find Aebi's voice to be an acquired taste (some will never acquire), though she shares a remarkable musical telepathy with Lacy. Lacy has won numerous critics polls, honors, and awards. In 1992, he was the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" which includes a monetary award in excess of $300,000. Anthony Braxton and Ornette Coleman are among the other jazz beneficiaries of this award.

To the first time listener, Lacy's music and playing can be rather daunting. His soprano work contains none of the sugary sweetness or light airiness commonly associated with popular purveyors of the instrument. However, he is a player of remarkable strength and lyrical beauty. He is also the composer of numerous memorable melodies. Lacy's music runs the gamut from fairly straight ahead (best exemplified in his early recordings as well as some of recent ones such as Bye-Ya) to rigorously abstract (e.g., collaborations with Evan Parker and Lol Coxhill).

Steve Lacy visits North America about once a year, often playing New York City and only a few dates in other cities. He made a rare Bay Area appearance at Koncepts Cultural Gallery in Oakland on Saturday November 15. Lacy with long-time collaborators Jean Jacques Avenel on bass and John Betsch on drums are on a lengthy US tour (plus 3 or 4 Canadian stops) in which they will play some 40 to 50 dates in less than 2 months. For those interested, the dates are listed at Vincent Laine's Senators' site. The concert was held in the James Moore Theatre in the Oakland Museum (Koncepts Gallery use several venues). The theater seats in the neighborhood of 300 people and was largely full despite minimal publicity for this event. I was a few minutes late in arriving, but somehow managed to snag a front row center seat just as Lacy was being introduced.

Lacy appeared on stage resplendent (not!) in a finely aged lavender corduroy suit. As the trio took the stage, the crowd gave them a rousing ovation that seemed to catch Lacy by surprise. The trio played two sets of original material sandwiched between two Thelonius Monk tunes, opening with 'Shuffle Boil' and closing with 'Bye-Ya.' The songs were largely drawn from two very recent Lacy recordings Revenue (a phenomenal quartet recording with Steve Potts on alto) and Bye-Ya (a very good trio date), though some of these songs have been around for many years. The second song, 'The Bath,' is one of his better known compositions (conceived as a tribute to Dexter Gordon). It's a midtempo number with an immediately recognizable melody and affords Lacy the opportunity to indulge in some of his prettiest playing. The highlight of the first set was 'the "Rent,' an uptempo number from Revenue that was played with great intensity and featured a superb solo by Lacy and some fine drum work by Betsch. (On the Revenue CD, this song provides a vehicle for some exceptional alto work by Steve Potts) Lacy is a great master on soprano who meticulously structures pieces out of relatively simple phrases, that are sometimes repeated in different registers creating a conversational or story-telling effect. Avenel is a rather unheralded virtuoso bass player who plays with great agility and finesse. He was given ample room to solo and to good effect, even inspiring Lacy to do a little dancing a la Monk. Actually, he just shuffled his feet for a few beats, but it was amusing nonetheless. Betsch was mostly content to play a supporting role through the first set, though he did take one brief and deliberately underwhelming and humorous drum solo. He was much more of a muscular presence in the second set.

The second set opened with Cliches which featured Avenel on kalimba (a Central African thumb piano). This is a gorgeous lyrical piece that has a sort of exotic African flavor to it. Lacy played off Avenel's playing to great effect. The remainder of the set consisted of tributes to departed artists, which is one of the central themes running through the Bye-Ya album. This included 'The Hoot' dedicated to John Gilmore, 'Esteem' which was inspired by Johnny Hodges, and 'Absence,' a homage to poet Franco Beltrametti (a close friend of Lacy's). On this last number, Lacy recited a poem written by Tom Raworth and originally read at Beltrametti's funeral. On the trio's last recording, the words to this poem are sung by Irene Aebi. The group performed a wonderful rendition of Monk's 'Bye-Ya,' a tune that is alternately joyous and melancholy. It was a fitting ending to a great performance.