Aug 16, 2013

Revisiting, Finally, the Remarkable Work of Saxophonist Steve Lacy

Photo of Steve Lacy courtesy Wikimedia Commons
By Brian Morton

Steve Lacy sucked. Really. The man who apparently inspired John Coltrane to take up the soprano saxophone and who remained uxoriously loyal to the ‘straight horn’ throughout his own career, actually played notes on the in-breath. Anyone who has tried to do this in a more than incidental way will tell you – hell, I’ll tell you – how difficult it is. But Lacy had a rooted devotion to his instrument. When I spoke to him in 1987 he remembered that when he was setting out, the soprano was associated in most players’ minds with Sidney Bechet, and with Bechet follower Bob Wilber, and that was pretty much it. “You’d see an occasional one in pawnshops or thrift stores. That was it. No one was playing it. I found that kind of fascinating. And its voice, too. It’s like a singing voice, feminine but with a masculine quality. You get down the low end of a tenor saxophone and you don’t want to dwell there. It’s too . . . much. But with the soprano you can really explore that bottom register.” It’s easy to tell apart the critics who’ve really listened to Lacy and those who’ve just scanned his song titles by what they say about his sound. If you’re being told that he specialized in high-end squeaks, you’ve got the latter variety. Truth is, Lacy was a brilliant middle and lower register player. That was where he heard the music. He did frequently ‘go to the moon’, as he liked to put it, but admitted that it was hard and hurtful work. He experimented with hard and plastic reeds and metal mouthpieces but was more comfortable working with a soft reed. He once talked to me for an hour about where the reeds grew in this native France, always in the wild, never cultivated, not replaceable with bamboo. “There’s a spirit in the reed, which is maybe the spirit of the place where they grow, and you have to get that out.”

There are other misconceptions about Lacy. One is that he was – almost slavishly – a Thelonious Monk disciple. Lacy certainly devoted himself, at times almost exclusively, to Monk compositions. He might be credited to a large degree with creating our current understanding of Monk as a composer. But his first serious grounding in music was with another modern giant. The young Lacy had experimented with other reed instruments – it’s pleasing that his birth name Lackritz is German for liquorice and ‘liquorice stick’ is slang for the clarinet – and had dalliances with tenor and even baritone saxophone. But he couldn’t hear his music, and certainly not the dominant sound of bebop on those horns. The soprano seemed to him a natural voice and it was with Cecil Taylor rather than at the feet of Thelonious Monk that he began to evolve his personal language. Taylor’s importance in modern music is immense, but also somewhat occluded. An artist without an identifiable apostleship always runs the risk of seeming less monolithically important than an artist like, say, Coltrane, or Charlie Parker before him, who spawns copyists. There is a substantial literature on the nature of influence – or what Harold Bloom calls ‘the anxiety of influence’ – but Taylor stands somewhat apart from that process. He taught Lacy a great deal without imparting anything remotely doctrinaire. They’re heard together on Taylor’s astonishing 1956 album Jazz Advance, a rare example of a hyperbolic title that lives up to its own billing, on which Lacy, just a couple of years away from playing Dixieland, sounds astonishingly mature and Taylor himself takes Monk to the cleaners. In later years, Steve was somewhat reticent about the connection, which is perhaps a sure sign that it was what Bloom would call a ‘strong’ one.

Having quite literally sat at Monk’s feet – “I’d be there, almost under the piano, night after night, and sometimes he’d look down and say in this slightly tired voice ‘Oh, it’s you again, Steven’!” – Lacy set about creating a body of work that seemed to be trying to find a genuine point of contact between entirely free playing and strict melody, between the cadences of speech and those of music, between atonality (if such a thing really exists) and diatonic vernacular music, between the avant-garde and popular music, between old and new: the list goes on. His long engagement with Monk compositions really began in 1958, with the fine quartet LP Reflections, which also featured pianist Mal Waldron, a future duo partner. Waldron told me that Lacy would sing Monk tunes over and over to himself, even before playing them on the saxophone. “He’d change a note here or there, speed them up and slow them down, and he’d shake his head in wonder and laugh. I guess he was a little obsessed . . . but he was happy-obsessed!”

Now, nearly ten years after his death, Lacy has begun to attract similarly obsessive attention among creative players. Lacy compositions, which while he lived seemed to belong to the composer and to the composer only, have started to enter the modern repertory. Tunes like ‘Ducks’ and ‘The Wire’ (after which a celebrated contemporary music magazine took its name), ‘Lumps’ and ‘Wickets’ are turning up in the credits of recent jazz and improv recordings. Among the most sustained attempts to close with the Lacy is legacy is a two-CD set by The Whammies – they take their name from Steve’s tribute to Fats Navarro – called very simply Play The Music Of Steve Lacy: Volume 1 & 2 (Driff Records CD 1201/1202). It’s a great outfit, fronted by alto saxophonist Jorrit Dijkstra and pianist Pandelis Karayorgis, who between them run the label, and trombonist Jeb Bishop, whose presence recalls Lacy’s early work with Roswell Rudd. Completing the group are violinist/violist Mary Oliver, bassist Nate McBride and drummer Han Bennink. Much of the material has been taken direct from manuscript and has never been recorded in its original form. Inevitably, Thelonious Monk is also a presence, represented by a remarkable interpretation of ‘Shuffle Boil’ and the Lacy dedication ‘Hanky Panky’ on volume two, ‘Locomotive’ on the first disc. But the emphasis is squarely on Lacy as a composer and one whose imagination was never restricted to post-bop jazz. The music’s sources range as far afield as fine art (‘Pregnant Virgin’ is a dedication to Vincent Van Gogh, ‘Art’ to Kenneth Noland’, ‘Dutch Masters’ is based on a Larry Rivers canvas), film (Marilyn Monroe), poetry and fiction (Brion Gyson, Herman Melville, and St John of the Cross. I once asked Steve why poetry and painting mattered so much to him. ‘I suppose that’s what I aspire to in some way. You look at a painting and you take it in all in a great gulp. You might look at it for an hour, but it was in your consciousness in that very first instant. With poetry, there is both music and meaning. There’s a very direct, very fast, very specific communication which it’s much harder to pull off in music. I suppose it’s that. It’s the desire to do those two very different things in a song  . . .  Do I think of them as songs? Yes, even when there are no words being performed’ – and Lacy compositions often featured a vocal component for his wife Irène Aëbi – ‘there’s that desire to paint a picture, tell a story, make a meaning. I fall short, which is maybe why I keep on writing and playing!’

Even without the more obvious textural similarities with Lacy’s own groups, The Whammies give an authentic spin to the compositions and in the process serve as reminder of how close Lacy stayed to the ensemble ideals of classic jazz. Even if by his time Dixieland had become a revivalist music, or possibly even a survivalist music, its protean energies are always at work. For all the occasional dryness of his tone and bareness of his line, he was a ‘hot’ composer and player. Like a painting by Mondrian (the dedicatee of ‘As Usual’, one of the best tracks on volume one), the energy comes from the precise juxtaposition of melodic fragments, syncopations, slippages of metre and harmonic resolutions that are, strictly, ‘wrong’, but somehow inevitable.

One of the most interesting aspects of modern music, and a sign that we live in an Alexandrian culture which maintains at least the illusion that all of history, all of art is available to us simultaneously – is how assiduously major creative figures choose to align themselves with predecessors, influences and sources. Lacy’s fellow-saxophonist Anthony Braxton, who has been as promiscuous with the saxophone family as Lacy has been monogamous, once rather notoriously cited everyone from Charlie Parker to Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, from Paul Desmond to Sun Ra, ancient Egypt and modern Chicago, pop, classical, primitive folk and Noise among his musical enthusiasms, so Lacy left a kind of family-tree of admirations in his work-list. Apart from those already mentioned, the pieces here refer to Samuel Beckett, Lao Tzu, the great saxophonist Sigurd Rascher, Bobby Timmons, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Ivie Anderson, Lester Young, Spike Jones, Mal Waldron, Ben Webster and Albert Ayler. One might say that Lacy’s oeuvre is a lot like Nicolas Roeg’s movie Insignificance in which Marilyn and Einstein, Joe McCarthy and Joe Di Maggio not so improbably get together in a dream-like hotel. That’s very much the tone of these pieces, as realised by The Whammies. It’s a music of many rooms, some capacious, some tiny, some brightly lit, some murky and obscure with secrets. In fact, ‘insignificance’ is a very good term for this music: not because it is throwaway and without seriousness, but because it both proposes and denies meaning, a very Taoist position. Anything with Han Bennink at the helm, or in the engine room, is likely to be playful, but here the playfulness is in earnest, a vivid comedy of tones played out in a completely relativistic universe in which ‘modern’ and ‘classic’ don’t really compute as categories.

The pitching of these deceptively simple, actually rather difficult pieces is handled with great attention to detail. Even where there are sliding tones, as from the trombone and violin, the destination is always carefully mapped and exactly enunciated. I’ve rarely heard a modern jazz record – certainly not since some of Braxton’s earliest – which gave off a comparable impression of exactitude, even though its essential spirit is free and unfettered. We’ve given over a great deal of time and attention to the works of Thelonious Monk, and he is certainly one of the American masters, but it now seems time to let Monk take his place in the transhistorical, subversive canon he occupies alongside Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Ezra Pound, Norman Mailer, and concentrate a little on what Steve Lacy left behind. It’s no less remarkable a body of work and most of it is still terra incognita. Exciting.

Brian Morton is the co-author of the Penguin Guide to Jazz. His previous article for Jazz CD Reviews can be found here

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