a column by
Steve Lacy Laurence Svirchev©2010
In the early spring of 2007, Flavio Bonandrini engaged me to develop a series of one-disc compilations of artists who recorded substantial bodies of work for Black Saint and Soul Note The series would relaunch the influential labels in the US after a lengthy dormancy, and introduce younger listeners to a wide swath of important artists with whom the labels had a long-term relationship. The prospect of selecting and sequencing the tracks and writing the booklet notes was exciting, and my enthusiasm was bolstered when Flavio chose Muhal Richard Abrams, Steve Lacy and David Murray to be the subjects of the first releases.
By May, I had completed my work for the Lacy volume, and was knee deep in Abrams’ catalog when the project was halted. Flavio was negotiating the sale of the labels to CAM Jazz, which he successfully concluded. There was the possibility that CAM Jazz would pursue the series, but that did not pan out. Instead, after a couple of years taking a rather passive approach to the catalogs, CAM Jazz recently initiated a Black Saint/Soul Note box set series, the first batch featuring Charlie Haden, Enrico Pieranunzi, Enrico Rava and Henry Threadgill – important artists, certainly, but not among those most closely identified with the labels.
I recently came across the CD-R of the sequenced Lacy tracks and a hard copy of the notes.
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Steve Lacy, soprano saxophone.
1. “The Uh Uh Uh” from Revenue (Soul Note 121234-2)
2. “Troubles” from Troubles (Black Saint 120035-2)
3. “Rimane Poco” from The Condor (Soul Note 121135-2)
4. “Flakes” from The Window (Soul Note 121185-2)
5. “I Do Not Believe” from Vespers (Soul Note 121260-2)
6. “Robes” from Trickles (Black Saint 12008-2)
7. “The Cry” from The Cry (Soul Note 121315-2)
8. “Esteem” from Communiqué (Soul Note 121298-2)
9. “Gusts” from The Flame (Soul Note121035-2)
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Steve Lacy’s recordings for Black Saint and Soul Note span a legacy-shaping 22 years. Though Lacy’s vocabulary as a composer and soprano saxophonist was fully matured when he recorded Trickles in 1976, American jazz fans knew him primarily as a sideman or a budding leader covering repertoire by Ellington, Monk and others on recordings made in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Though he was more established in Europe, Lacy was still struggling to have his music heard. By the time The Cry was recorded in the pre-dawn of the millennium, the times had caught up to Lacy to an appreciable degree: he was lionized on jazz magazine covers; his market value had been validated by a major record label contract; and he had been named a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government in 1989 and a MacArthur Fellow in ‘92. While Lacy’s music was still stereotyped as avant-garde in some quarters, he was able to tour and record ambitious projects in addition to maintaining a high volume of work in solo and small group settings.
Lacy’s prolific recorded output was essential to this ascent. He recorded with many labels during these years, and none of them can claim to have a singularly comprehensive catalog. This was perhaps an unintended consequence of Lacy’s tactical brilliance in matching projects with labels at a brisk pace. Lacy’s Black Saint/Soul Note catalogs are among the very few that can even address the breadth of his activities with a single-CD compilation. Counting Trickles as a Lacy-led session (Lacy writing the entire set trumping the collective billing with Roswell Rudd, Kent Carter and Beaver Harris), Lacy recorded ten albums as a leader for Black Saint/Soul Note, including two volumes of solo interpretations of Monk compositions. He is the co-leader of another five titles, two with Mal Waldron (of which only one featured Lacy compositions) and three with permutations of the repertory-oriented Regeneration quintet (of which only the last contained Lacy pieces). And, he appears as a guest artist on a few tracks on albums by Giorgio Gaslini and Tiziana Simona.
Certainly, these sessions comprise a rather small percentage of Lacy’s output during these years; but, they contain more than enough material to make the assembly of the current collection initially daunting. Even after establishing winnowing parameters – limiting the selections to Lacy-penned pieces (which precluded some classic performances of compositions by Ellington, Monk and Nichols) and using only one track from any album (preventing, for example, the inclusion of both “Esteem” and an equally affecting solo version of “Prayer” from Communiqué) -- hard choices remained to achieve the desired balance between the enthusiasm of a mix tape, the comprehensiveness of a formal anthology, and the reverence of a homage to a great artist. Subsequently, several Lacy associates are not represented, including Han Bennink, Denis Charles, George Lewis and Misha Mengelberg.
Still, these nine performances trace several threads of Lacy’s music from the early ‘70s through the late ‘90s. The three compositions that Lacy had recorded for other labels prior to 1976 demonstrate how the mulling and the curing central to Lacy’s sensibility as both a composer and an improviser took form during the late ‘80s through the mid ‘90s, when these versions of “The Uh Uh Uh,” “Flakes,” and “Esteem” were recorded. A 1972 dedication to Jimi Hendrix, “The Uh Uh Uh” underwent major changes between its first recording in 1975 (Dreams; Saravah) and the version included on Revenue, a 1993 quartet date with Steve Potts, Jean-Jacques Avenel and John Betsch. The frisky introduction of the original is cut, as well as the first reading of the piece’s most developed section, in which the tension of a short biting motive is increased through ascending key changes until it spills over with capering exuberance. The repeated exclamatory phrase that was the C section of the piece now serves as brackets, streamlining the original A/B/C/B/C structure to a C/B/C form. The other notable change in this performance is its Latin-tinged rhythmic feel, one far removed from the rock groove of the original, which was underlined by Derek Bailey’s strident use of wah-wah.
The British guitarist also brought his trademark clangor to Lacy’s skating piece for Mark Rothko, “Flakes” (The Crust; Emanem); the ’73 London performance and the 1974 recording by the first edition of Lacy’s sextet (Flakes; Italian RCA-Vista) are busy, even cluttered compared to the trio performance recorded in ’87 for The Window. Avenel’s close adherence to Lacy’s fundamental bass parts softens the piece’s central five-note phrase while Oliver Johnson’s light brush work enhances the gliding feel of the material. A 1971 piece that has “something to do with Johnny Hodges,” “Esteem” underwent perhaps the more radical transformation over the years of any Lacy piece, which is evidenced by the differences in tone between the astringent quintet version recorded in ’72 (The Gap; America) and the ’94 duet with Mal Waldron included on Communiqué. While the elegiac, high note-punctuated theme remains largely intact on what was by then the second rewrite of the piece, Lacy’s increased reliance on legato lines and Waldron’s spry attack and bluesy voicings give the piece an appealing, somewhat autumnal aura.
While Lacy tended to round down the sharp edges of earlier pieces during this period, his songs – the body of work that caused Lacy to coin the term “lit jazz” (“lit” being short for literature) – followed a markedly different trajectory. The steady refinement of his writing for voice yielded a profoundly personal music for which “art song” is a somewhat wanting description, as Lacy’s songs also privileged elemental jazz improvisation and often doubled as blowing vehicles on his trio and quartet dates. The three songs sung by Irene Aebi are useful milestones in this aspect of Lacy’s compositional evolution. Recorded in 1985 for The Condor, “Rimane Poco” has a slinky swing and glints of syncopation in the phrasing, qualities Lacy would extensively hone in his major song cycles of the ‘90s, Vespers and The Cry. Though The Condor is a collection of songs, rather than an extended work, it is notable that some pieces, including “Rimane Poco,” end without a reiteration of the sung materials, a somewhat common practice in Lacy’s song cycles. From the almost magisterial fullness of the introduction to Aebi’s lissome yet melancholic delivery (appropriate given that Nanni Balestrini’s verb-less poem describes the scant remnants of a highly charged moment/experience/relationship) and the simmering solos of Potts, Lacy and Bobby Few, this is a quintessential performance by Lacy’s Sextet.
The penultimate movement of Vespers, the 1993 song cycle inspired by the poems of Blaga Dimitrova, “I Do Not Believe” is built upon the tension between a sultry groove, the plusher voicings gained by the addition of Ricky Ford and Tom Varner to the Lacy-Potts front line, and a somber melody and text. Aebi incorporates all of these qualities into a performance that smolders with ambivalence, a subtle intensity heightened in solos by Lacy and Ford that are connected by their unaccompanied duet. Even though Lacy’s writing on Vespers is well off the beaten path of jazz vocal music, generally, conventional jazz practices such as head-solos-head structures are very much in evidence on pieces like “I Do Not Believe.” The Cry, written in 1998, is Lacy’s most radical departure from such conventions. Comprised of 13 songs based on the poems of Taslima Nasrin, this 80-minute work finds Lacy venturing into new terrain with an unusually configured septet, the members of which – with the exception of Aebi and Avenel – are new to Lacy’s circle. Additionally, his settings of Nasrin’s harrowing texts about the exploitation of women necessarily led him away from the sensuous qualities of the earlier songs. Lacy progressively ratchets the drama of the work, reaching its apex with the title piece. The Cry is a taxing tour de force for Aebi, who not only confidently navigates Lacy’s frequently tricky phrasing; but, most crucially, incisively projects the pain and distain of Nasrin’s poetry.
Though Lacy returned to a core of compositions time and again – 15 performances of “Blinks” have been released to date – some, like “Troubles” and “Robes,” were in the book for only a brief time and some were recorded just once, which is the case with “Gusts.” “Troubles” was recorded twice in 1979, but, only the present version was released contemporaneously; the other was issued as part of an expanded CD reissue of The Way (hatOLOGY) in 1994. Lacy’s entire quintet sings the cleverly worded, chromatic line, giving the piece a loopy tilt that is closer in spirit to Lacy’s interpretations of Brion Gysin’s word-play poems or “La Motte-Picquet” (an ode to his favorite Metro stop included on The Gap) than to his latter songs. It’s curious that “Troubles” did not become a perennial, given that it is such a fine vehicle for Lacy’s vibrant, funky brand of polyphonic improvisation. It’s equally strange that “Robes” was never recorded after Trickles, as it contains one of the loveliest passages Lacy ever wrote, and the bulk of the composition greased the skids for inspired exchanges between Lacy, Rudd, Carter and Harris.
Tracing materials through Lacy’s voluminous solo recordings is complicated by Lacy’s practice of creating ad hoc combinations of existing materials in a solo performance, sometimes making slight modulations of phrasing, attack or tempo. During the 1970s, he also occasionally recorded material under different titles for different labels. This leads to moments where the listener has the sense of familiarity with the material, and an inability to place it. One of two solos included on The Flame, a 1982 collection rounded out by duos and trios with Few and Charles, “Gusts” is more vexing in this regard than the album’s other solo, the tellingly titled “Licks.” Lacy commences the aptly named “Gusts” by blowing into the bell of the horn, and then uses swirling ascending phrases to create a taut, even defiant energy. Though the piece is something of an anomaly in his vast discography, it exemplifies the rigor with which Steve Lacy pursued his art.
Bill Shoemaker, May 2007