Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Steve and Roz

I haven't written, except in passing, about my biggest musical hero, Steve Lacy, in a while. So here are some thoughts on the Steve Lacy/Roswell Rudd Quartet in its various incarnations.

I don't know exactly when soprano saxist Lacy met trombonist Rudd, but it must have been in the late 1950's, when both men had one foot in traditional jazz and one foot in the avant-garde of the time, such as it was. Both of them recorded early on with Cecil Taylor - Lacy played on Taylor's first album, Jazz Advance. Somewhere along the line they started exchanging ideas and learning tunes together. They eventually decided to form a band - a pianoless quartet - that would concentrate on the great compositions of the jazz repertoire. They played Ellington/Strayhorn, Monk, Herbie Nichols,* Cecil Taylor, etc. Eventually all of that music proved to be unwieldy, and they pared it down to just Monk, learning everything he wrote.

They rehearsed incessantly and scared up a few gigs, but the band never made any money or achieved any level of recognition. It lasted about three years, from late 1961 to 1964. Besides Lacy and Rudd, the band consisted of drummer Dennis Charles and, as Lacy later said, 28 different bassists, including John Ore, Wilbur Ware, and Steve Swallow. Since the gigs were extremely low-paying, the bassists would desert them as soon as something better came along. They recorded for Verve and Columbia, but nothing was released at the time.

But one evening in 1963, the poet Paul Haines borrowed Jimmy Giuffre's tape recorder and took it the a coffee house where the band was playing. Twelve years later, the recordings were released as School Days on the Emanem label; years later they came out on CD on the Swiss HAT label, but the album now seems to be out of print. Low fidelity and all, this is one of the great live jazz albums. The amazing bassist Henry Grimes was on the gig, but was late, so the first two tunes don't have bass. The tunes are all by Monk, but include such rarely-heard pieces as "Skippy," "Brilliant Corners," and "Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are." Lacy and Rudd obviously know the music backwards and forwards, and feel free enough to take some liberties with it, including some oddly dixieland-sounding counterpoint. The rhythm section has an appealing tension between Grimes' rock-solid bass lines and Charles' drumming, which seems to always be leaning forward. It's an instructive and inspiring 50 minutes of music.

A couple of years ago, 23 minutes or so of studio recordings by this band were issued on Early and Late on the Cuneiform label. It's not clear whether this music is from the Verve or Columbia sessions or from a demo session. It's excellent music, although not quite at the high level as the School Days session. In addition to a couple of Monk tunes, the band (with Bob Cunningham on bass) plays Cecil Taylor's "Tune Two."**

Lacy finally got fed up with trying to make a living as a jazz musician in New York, and left for Europe - Rome, then Paris. There were a few encounters between Rudd and Lacy over the years, including an excellent one-off reunion album on Black Saint, Trickles. The two hornmen, with Kent Carter on bass and Beaver Harris on drums, play a program of Lacy's compositions - no Monk. That was pretty much it until 1999, when Rudd joined Lacy's trio (Jean-Jacques Avenel on bass and John Betsch on drums) for a studio album (Monk's Dream) and a tour. They sounded better than ever, playing a book of Lacy originals and Monk tunes, with a few Rudd originals and Nichols tunes thrown in. I heard this band at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta in 2000; the music was incredible, although the theatre was only about one-fourth full.

The contrast between Lacy and Rudd was more pronounced with this later quartet. Lacy's playing was passionate, but controlled, thoughtful, and deliberate. Rudd could be just as thoughtful, but his playing was more extroverted; he made use of devices from his dixieland past, like plunger mutes and tailgate glissandos. I remember Lacy shaking his head and laughing at some of Rudd's outrageous ideas.

It all worked, though, and it can be heard on the rest of Early and Late. The first disc of that album is from the 1999 tour, and most of disc two is from a 2002 show at Iridium in New York. Rudd and Lacy recorded together on a few other occasions over the years (Monk's "Pannonica," played as a duet on Lacy's Associates is a prime example), but the quartets they co-led, early and late, remain some of the highest points of both musician's careers.

*If you don't know who Herbie Nichols was, look him up - now! I'll devote a post to his incredible music soon.

**Lacy recorded "Tune Two" a couple of times over the years, as well as Taylor's early pieces "Louise" and "Air." Besides Ken Vandermark, who else has recorded any of Taylor's music? Oh, that's right - the on-again, off-again duo RoboCromp recorded "After All" on their CD But Does It Swing?

No comments: