Thursday, July 24, 2008

Steve Lacy

I can't let this blog go any further without writing about Steve Lacy. Lacy is not just someone whose music I like, but is one of my musical and personal heroes. From his first recordings in 1954 until his death in 2004, Lacy wrote music and played the soprano saxophone with a rare individuality and strength of purpose. Although inspired by Sidney Bechet and Johnny Hodges in his youth, he never sounded like anyone else. His music was thoughtful, yet passionate; orderly, yet spontaneous; controlled, yet unpredictable. On record or in person (I was lucky enough to hear him about eight times), his music is and was always inspiring.

Early in his career, Lacy played dixieland/mainstream jazz. He has said that he was accepted by the veteran musicians he played with because he posed no threat - no one else was playing soprano sax, so he couldn't take anyone's job. An encounter with the young Cecil Taylor changed his direction; Cecil asked him "What's a young man like you doing playing this old music?" He sooned joined Taylor's band, and for the rest of his career pursuing music "on the brink," as he said.

I discovered Steve Lacy's music by accident. As a teenager learning about jazz, I bought a reissue of Gil Evan's Gil Evans and Ten album. The major soloist was a soprano saxophone player I had never heard of; my first reaction was disappointment that someone more famous didn't take most of the solos. His solos, however, were amazing improvised constructions, and they swung like hell. I started investigating Lacy's music, which was not easy in the 1970s - he was living abroad and recorded mostly for small, obscure labels. I remember finding Mal Waldron's One-Upmanship album, on which Lacy is given featured billing and on which he contributes some amazing solos. Other discoveries followed, like the fact the Lacy regularly performed and recorded as a solo (unaccompanied) soprano saxophonist. For a jazz player, this might seem like a sideline activity, but I think that my "desert island" Lacy recording would either be either 5 X Monk, 5 X Lacy or Live at Unity Temple, both solo CDs.

Lacy discovered the music of Thelonious Monk as a young man, and devoted himself to mastering it. He recorded numerous albums devoted wholly or partly to Monk's tunes. He even talked himself into Monk's band for a short period. In his maturity, he mastered all of Monk's compositions, even those which Monk had recorded once and never played again. But Lacy was just as adept at totally unstructured free improvisation as he was at meeting the complex demands of Monk's music.

Other favorite Steve Lacy albums:

Evidence (1961, with Don Cherry) Possibly his finest early album. His soprano just soars through four Monk tunes and one each by Ellington and Strayhorn.
Disposability (1965) From his Italian sojourn, this album shows Lacy turning the corner from Monk and Cecil Taylor tunes to free improvisation. And it has his first recorded composition.
The Door (1988) From his one major-label stint (RCA), this is my favorite album by Lacy's long-lived sextet.
Steve Lacy Meets Steve Potts (1994) This is a rare, limited-edition promotional EP featuring two duets with his longtime saxophone partner.

I hate to stop there, but with the two unaccompanied solo albums listed above, that's half a dozen. You can't go wrong with any of them. Long live the music of Steve Lacy.

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