STOP! If you’re sick ‘n tired of reading more words about Steve Lacy, I have a recommendation for a healthy alternative. This Sunday, June the 13th of 2010, Ideal Bread will present a musical rendition of these same ideas. You’ll be able to find us at 6:40 P.M. performing at Kenny's Castaways in the West Village of New York City as part of the Undead Jazz Festival. But if you find yourself wanting yet another pamphlet about Mr. Lacy, read on.
Consonance is the sine qua non of today’s jazz discourse. No matter how thorny/atonal/disruptive the chord or melody note, today’s jazz musicians by and large work mightily to integrate all their utterances into a seamless fabric of sound. If they don’t, then often times said musician’s product is thought to be lacking. And if it’s not the product, then the musician himself is thought to be missing some information. So it would seem from my previous post that Steve Lacy somehow missed something in his training. He didn’t demonstrate any clear knowledge of consonance in those five selections. This post will rectify any lingering doubts about his abilities with more consonant sounds.
SL- sop. sax. recorded live on Oct. 30, 2001 at Afkikker in Ghent, Belgium. Released in conjunction with the book Bone.
It starts with a clarion call of repeated intervals but quickly gets down to business. The melody proper starts at 20s but by 25s it’s already sidestepped into another key a half step away and then it moves away yet again at 28s. This piece isn’t just consonant, it’s very tonal. And with a very intervallic approach (in this case, the interval in question is a perfect fourth). It proceeds with great patience culminating at the 1:30 mark and then follows a brief improvisation. Importantly, the improvisation sticks to the sounds already presented. Steve does not start introducing auxiliary sounds here, he sticks to pure tones.
SL – sop. sax., Ran Blake – piano. Released in 1991 on That Certain Feeling on Hat Hut records.
Steve playing not just consonantly and tonally, but playing a song from the Great American Songbook. While his love of Monk and Ellington is well-documented, what sometimes get forgotten is that for many years, Steve was a working musician. That meant he had to know the lingua franca of his student years (approx. 1949-1959), which puts him right in the middle of the Songbook’s heyday. In a lot of ways, this recording reminds me of the meeting between Art Tatum and Ben Webster. Ran Blake is all over the keyboard, playing all sorts of beautiful chords with his trademark voicings. Steve’s response to this is to simply play the melody. Even when he’s improvising, the listener never loses track of where the melody is. It’s an incredible juxtaposition of simplicity and complexity.
SL – sop. sax., Steve Potts – alt. sax., Jean-Jacques Avenel – bass, Oliver Johnson – drums. Recorded live at the Sunset in Paris, February 19, 1986. Released on Morning Joy on Hat Hut records.
This fragment presents just Steve’s solo statement on this rather funky tune of his. It’s pretty classic Lacy, an old-school medium tempo (very few people play at this speed now), a super-stretchy rhythm section and long laid-back phrases draped on top. But the truly deep thing here is that Steve sticks to raw basics: clearly played tones in the form of quarter notes and eighth notes. Believe me, the easiest thing in the world to do here as a saxophonist is to start screaming or doubling and quadrupling the time. But Steve refrains from all that. And in the process he digs an even deeper pocket. Notice also that he sticks to a mezzo forte dynamic throughout and only occasionally playing at a full-out forte.
SL – sop. sax., Lee Konitz – alt. sax., Dave Kurtzer – bassoon, Louis Mucci – tp., Jake Koven – tp., Jimmy Cleveland – tb., Bart Varsalona – bs. tb., Willie Ruff – fr. hn., Gil Evans – pno., Paul Chambers – bs., Nick Stabulas – drums. Recorded Sep. 6 & 27 and Oct., 1957 in Hackensack, NJ. Released on Gil Evans & Ten on Prestige Records.
For me this is where it started. It’s the first track featuring Steve’s playing that I heard and I listened to it constantly on a mix-tape I made for myself back in high school (thank you Franklin Mint and your “Saxophone Stylists” box!). It’s frightening to me just how self-assured Lacy sounds here seeing that he’s all of 23 years old (!?) and still hadn’t learned to read music yet (??!!!), but that’s not the most pertinent factor here. For this discussion, this track is the one that I thing clearly demonstrates what a JAZZ musician Steve was. He swings so beautifully and so hard on this. From the offbeat quarter notes at 1:17 and 3:39 to the harmonic fake-out he initiates at 3:45, this is jazz that even this guy can get behind [link]. And while it’s not steeped in the language of Charlie Parker, it clearly is the product of someone who knows his Lester Young and Louis Armstrong.
SL – sop. sax., Tom Stewart – tenor horn, Dave McKenna – piano, Whitey Mitchell – bs., Al Levitt – drums. Recorded Feb., 1956 in New York City. Re-released on Steve Lacy Early Years 1954-1956 on Fresh Sound Records.
And for Steve, this is where it started. It’s from one of the first recordings he appeared on. He’s 21 years old and has been playing for five or six years at this point. The track as a whole is charming but not particularly inspiring. Everyone gets a turn at the melody (a half chorus each), the rhythm section is solid but plodding and very little that’s surprising happens here. So why did I include this? Two reasons: 1.) To reinforce Steve’s jazz bona fides. While there’s evidence to be gleaned from his treatment of Monk’s, Ellington’s and Nichols’ oeuvres, I think Steve’s commitment to jazz runs deeper than this. It’s as deep as any classic saxophonist’s (think Rollins, Coltrane, McClean, Mobley) and deeper than many avant-gardists of the 1960’s (see below). and 2.) Steve’s solo is clearly indebted to the playing of Lester Young. This is important for several reasons, but what I find most interesting is that it’s not such a Charlie Parker-inflected statement. In 1956, Parker had been dead for almost a year so his shadow still loomed very large. For Steve to shrug off some of his influence is deep, but to really commit himself (harmonically) to an older model (Young was not dead, but would be in less than three years) shows what a staunch individualist he was. He was going to play the way he heard things no matter what.
If these five things were among the only tracks Steve was known for, he would be remembered as a gifted but firmly traditional player. Taken in conjunction with the previous post, one’s head starts to spin trying to hold all those sounds in one’s head. What stands out above all though, is that Steve was committed in the deepest possible way to these sounds. Whether it was tonal, atonal, noise or prettily consonant, it all had a place and a purpose. The music was always about something.
[N.B. Two paragraphs ago I made light of Steve’s “commitment” to jazz and insinuated that it was “deeper” than some of his fellow musicians. Let me be clear what I mean by this. I’m writing of Steve’s commitment to an older generation’s notion of what jazz is. And that notion centers on community. It’s the idea that jazz signifies a group of people who are committed to upholding certain (musical) values and to communicating these values amongst each other. In real-world terms, this plays out as a series of demonstrations. Artists who subscribe to this definition of jazz believe that one has to be able to demonstrate the ability to do certain things (swing eighth notes, improvise on songs from the Great American Songbook, etc.). In contrast, someone like Roscoe Mitchell I believe has little patience with this. He could care less what people think of his jazz bona fides, he’s going to play his music no matter what anyone says or does. In a slightly similar but different vein, I think Mitchell’s colleague Anthony Braxton is actively involved in redefining and expanding what these values are. I have no hard evidence for my opinion, but I do know for a fact that Steve was one of the most staunchly traditional/old-school jazz musicians I ever met. He chastised me and other students at NEC for not being able to play a blues properly, disliked scat singing and generally assigned rolls to instruments in student ensembles based on what their rolls would have been in a New Orleans small jazz group.]
The question that lingers for me after all these exegeses is why doesn’t Steve Lacy have more students? That is, why don’t more jazz musicians model their sound and approach on the sounds and approaches he pioneered? I think there’s a lot of answers to this one, but I think it has something to do with Steve’s choice of musical models (Lester Young, Monk and Ellington), his home (he spent half his life in Europe) and his refusal to play to nostalgia (he never played the way he ‘used’ to play). Be that as it may, Lacy left a lot of information to ponder and no shortage of good reasons to investigate it.
"Are you proud or satisfied to be an American?
No, not of being just an American. I'm happy to be an American jazz musician."
- Steve Lacy as interviewed by Philippe Carles in Aug. 1965. Reprinted in Conversations. edited by Jason Weiss, Duke University Press 2006