GUEST POST BY JOSH SINTON
"The only thing important in music, as in anything else, is life and death. Any kind of style, any kind of way is valid if it's alive. Life and interest are two things I equate...If it's alive, I'm for it. In my own case, I don't want to be put to sleep, so I don't want to put others to sleep." Steve Lacy as interviewed by Brian Case in 1979.
Dissonance is not popular among jazz musicians today, at least not in any broad sense. Think of other musics where twenty somethings are a vital audience (rock, hip hop, techno, the various metal musics, r&b and even pop to an extent) and that makes jazz an anomaly. For the most part, dissonance in jazz is either used in the traditional way (as a dynamic way of returning to consonance) or it’s softened by couching it in reverberating timbres (think of most of the ECM records of the past 25 years). Where dissonance does exist by itself, it’s often played LOUDLY and rarely does it contrast with less dissonant textures. This is where I think Steve Lacy made some pretty thoughtful (and profound) contributions. Building on the precedence of Monk (and before that Ellington, and before that James P. Johnson and contemporaneous with that Sidney Bechet), Lacy heard dissonance as a sound, a fairly compelling one and something that didn’t need much in the way of softening.
[N.B. ‘Dissonance’ is a word that gets bandied about a fair bit without any real clarity of meaning. Of course, like any frequently used word, it has a lot of meanings. For the purposes of this essay, I’m using dissonance to mean this, this or this (scroll down to “Quality” and click on Minor second, Major second, Tritone, Minor seventh or Major seventh).]
I’ve selected five of what I consider some of Lacy’s most dissonant pieces. I left plenty out, but these are pieces that range from the cryptically strange to the downright harrowing. What they all share is that they are clearly the work of an exceptionally musical mind that has as deep an understanding of dissonance and its expressive possibilities as it does consonance.