Reviews of Recent Recordings
Steve Lacy’s final public solo recital took place in Zürich, Switzerland, on 29 November 2003, three months following the diagnosis of the cancer which would take his life. No doubt, the mood in the room that evening intensified the experience for all in attendance, and knowing what we know now, in retrospect, will affect the way some listeners will respond to this disc. But the music should – and does – stand on its own. Lacy was a master of the solo performance, employing a keenly focused sense of pacing, choice of repertoire, tonal tension, exposed vulnerability, and generous spirit to his particular expressive ends. Fortunately, there is no evidence of the kind of failing instrumental powers which made the last recordings of Coleman Hawkins or Chet Baker, for example, such painful, albeit honest, documents. Lacy sounds fluent, willing to take risks, and in characteristically remarkable control of the soprano throughout the program – witness the microtonal coloring of pitch in “The Door,” the playfully distorted tonal qualities in “The New Duck” – even as he grunts with the effort of projecting the tangled lines of “The Hoot.”
That said, there are moments here which nevertheless evoke the special circumstances of the event. There are several layers of dramatic irony in his decision to play elegies for lost friends, the most poignant of which occurs as he sings the haiku “If I must die/Let it be autumn/Ere/The dew is dry,” the phrases punctuated by his shortness of breath, in “Tina’s Tune.” The hazy, haunting resonance that emerges as he blows the soprano directly onto the piano strings during “Blues for Aida” is like an audible apparition.
And it’s hard not to hear the encore, a lovely diversion on Monk’s “Reflections,” as a valedictory gesture, even down to the witty little flourish with which he ends.
Baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton, trumpeter Kirk Knuffke, bassist Reuben Radding, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara pay tribute to the music of Steve Lacy in the best possible way; they remain entirely true to their individuality within the context of Lacy’s tunes. This is no small feat. Lacy’s tunes powerfully assert his personality and they are so rigorously constructed that they practically compel a certain kind of response from improvisers. But interpreters and composer are each in some way enriched by the encounter between them.
Lacy’s huge book of tunes remains one of the great, unexplored territories in jazz. It’s actually rather surprising how few improvisers chose to play Lacy’s compositions during his lifetime. The ROVA Saxophone Quartet’s 1983 Black Saint recording, Favorite Street, and Mats Gustaffson’s 1999 Blue Chopsticks solo album, Windows, are just about it. (There might be a few stray individual tracks by others.) The same situation prevailed for Lacy’s acknowledged role model, Thelonious Monk, whose compositions were only widely hailed and played after his death.
Perhaps Ideal Bread's second album – the first was The Ideal Bread on the micro KBM label – will help launch the renaissance of Steve Lacy’s music. It’s hard to imagine better advocates for the music’s riches. With their thorough understanding of Lacy’s tunes, Ideal Bread makes you hear these songs afresh. You come away with new admiration not only for how well put together they are, but also for how catchy, how tuneful and pleasurable they are. They make the tunes their own using the simplest and most elegant of means; an approach Lacy would surely appreciate. They might displace a note or two of the melody to give it a different spin. Sinton or Knuffke might inflect a note differently to shade its feeling. They give “Papa’s Midnight Hop” – a tune that Lacy didn’t play often enough after recording a terrific version with Roswell Rudd, Kent Carter and Beaver Harris on Trickles – a few delicate tweaks and discrete reharmonizations that bring out new aspects of its earthy wit. They use tempo to similar effect. For instance, the tempo they choose for “Clichés” moves the tune along at a pace that let’s you can hear each simple phrase and how each leads into another until you have a tune that is actually quite complex. And they get Lacy’s humor. The baritone lumbers through “As Usual” with just the right balance of weariness and irony. The band puts a joyful bounce in “Flakes” as the melody sinks downward into darkness – a merry doom.
They are all canny enough soloists to take their cues from the tunes without imitating the composer’s own style. There’s not a slavish moment on the album. Sinton can take an initial idea and play with it over the courses of an entire solo. During his solos on
“The Dumps” and “Clichés,” he plays a phrase, pauses a moment to see what it suggests for the next one, and moves ahead. It’s a neat blend of conscious decision and inspiration, the planned and the unplanned. He evokes a quiet unease on “Longing,” with long tones and highly abstract lines that never resolve. Knuffke's even, rounded tone and lyricism always seem to preserve the song in his solos. “The Dumps” features an especially relaxed flow of ideas, with phrases highlighted by growls or sparkling clear note. His solo on “Longing” is complete in its simplicity and a sudden turn toward pure sound at the very end is a nice surprise. Placing his notes carefully around Radding’s bass line on “Papa’s Midnight Hop,” he gradually works his way from paraphrasing the composition to improvising his own song on Lacy’s framework. Radding really seems to enjoy how well these tunes suit the bass. His playing throughout the album is constant reminder of an often-overlooked aspect of Lacy’s composing. Fujiwara has a subtle touch on the drums and brings a musical sensibility to his timekeeping, interactions with the rest of the band, and soloing.
Ideal Bread has done Lacy’s music a great service by showing its limitless possibilities. Let’s hope others will follow in their footsteps.
The Rent is a Toronto-based quintet devoted to the compositions of Steve Lacy, mirroring Lacy’s own concentration on the work of Thelonious Monk and, to a lesser extent, Duke Ellington. Consisting of saxophonist Kyle Brenders, trombonist Scott Thomson, vocalist Susanna Hood, bassist Wes Neal and drummer Nick Fraser, the band is faithful to the particulars of Lacy’s music as well, mirroring the most frequent instrumentation of his later years. Thomson has studied with Roswell Rudd, one of Lacy’s closest musical partners, and his evident stylistic empathy extends to the group’s approach. It’s an intensely disciplined project. Brenders, frequently heard elsewhere on tenor, plays soprano exclusively here, and the band combines both tight ensemble execution and fluent improvisation within Lacy’s structures. While there are a few instrumentals here – “The Rent,” “The Bath” and “Blinks” (the latter including fine collective improvisation led by Brenders’ spiralling lines) – the emphasis is on Lacy’s special interest in setting poems and his collaborations with singer Irene Aebi. Hood handles the material effectively, melding her voice with the rapid-fire chirping and broad intervals of Lacy’s compositions on texts that include ancient Asians and Beats alike. Highlights include the brief explosion accorded Robert Creeley’s “Jack’s Blues,” used to frame a Fraser drum solo, and the version of Gregory Corso’s “The Mad Yak,” with Hood pressing her extended improvisation into the special terrain of Sainkho Namchylak. It’s clear here that there’s much for musicians to learn from playing Lacy in repertoire, and much for listeners to gain as well.