Steve Lacy - Soprano Sax Master
Looking back at my many years living in Paris, one of the musical associations of which I am most proud was touring and recording with the marvelous soprano sax player and composer Steve Lacy. He called me in 1984 to help him prepare the recording and premier performances of “Futurities” (released as a double CD on Hat Hut in 1985), an astonishing multi-media happening with a 9 piece band, dancers Elsa Wollieston and Douglas Dunn, and 20 poems by Robert Creeley set to music by Steve, as well as a 9 foot tall triangular painting by Kenneth Nolan which was unfurled as a scenario for our live performances. The band on this album included the great bass and drum team of Jean Jacques Avenel and Oliver Johnson, alto sax player Steve Potts, and trombonist George Lewis, as well as Steve's wife Irene Aebi on vocals. The settings of Creeley's poems were completely notated, however there were no chord changes or pre-conceived structures as soon as the vocal ended. Steve demanded that we improvise on the emotional content of each poem and the mood of each composition. The two dancers, from widely different horizons (Elsa was Senegalese and Douglas came out of Merce Cunningham's company) had to find a common ground, and this openness led to widely different performances each night. The seamless blending not only of styles but of artistic disciplines into a meaningful synthesis ("meta-language") was typical of Steve, who was equally at home playing with a Japanese Noh actor/dancer ("Noh, Baby"), Gil Evans’ big band, and perhaps most importantly, Thelonious Monk. Steve played on Monk’s “Big Band and Quartet in Concert”, also released as "Monk at Town Hall" and subsequently recorded several magnificent albums of Monk’s music, including “Reflections”, with Mal Waldron, (Prestige, 1958), the first album of Monk's music recorded by other musicians, decades before Monk was canonized as one of jazz’s greatest composers. While in New York he recorded avant-garde piano legend Cecil Taylor's debut album, “Jazz Advance” and collaborated with many key figures of progressive jazz including trombonist Roswell Rudd. Avant-garde jazz didn’t pay a very well in New York in the 1950’s and 60’s. Steve told me that before he left NYC in the mid sixties he, Taylor, Rudd and other forward-looking musicians “were playing for $5 in coffee shops”. He moved to Paris and began a mainstay of modern jazz all over Europe, collaborating with Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava, Albert Mangelsdorf, and most of Europe’s leading avant-garde jazz musicians. It was not, however, an easy road to travel, especially for the first 10 years or so. Steve, as he told me, was constantly "Inventing places to play", playing with solo dancers and dance companies, improvising in and composing for a wide variety of instrumental formats, and constantly refining his very personal approach to music and to his instrument. As he put it - "I have a lot of notebooks". His creativity was endless and there seemed to be no end to the formats he devised to stretch his and his collaborators' creativity.
Steve was born Steven Norman Lackritz in New York, July 23, 1934. He played many styles of music in New York, from Dixieland to modern jazz. Inspired by Sidney Bechet to adopt the soprano sax, a rare instrument in the 1950’s, Lacy in turn influenced John Coltrane to take up the instrument. Since Steve played only soprano sax, he became an absolute master of the instrument. I saw (and heard) him play the sax blowing into the bell of the horn, and he was able to play well above the normal range of the horn. Relentless intensity would be a good way to characterize Steve's music - he was always searching or new musical and artistic avenues, never offering concessions to commercial tastes or trends. Steve, like many other progressive jazz musicians of the 1950's, used Nicolas Slonimsky's "Thesaurus of Scales and Musical Patterns" as a launching pad for investigations off the beaten path of bebop and into new musical territory (he told me "in the late 50's, every serious jazz musician in New York was using Slonimsky's book"). His musical language, documented in his book "Findings", was often based on scales and scale fragments, as opposed to chord progressions, for which he sometimes expressed deep mistrust (although his tenure with Monk showed that he had no problem "running changes", that is - improvising on a set harmonic structure). I once saw him teach a workshop to a large group of young musicians, during which he compared improvised music to boxing - the way a boxer jabs and feints to find an opening.
"Futurities" opened to two nights of sold out crowds at the Opera du Nord in Lille and we toured many different countries in Europe. Some of the highlights included a marvelous 3-week tour of the British Isles and a trio performance with Steve and Irene at the Aix-en Provence book fair. One very dramatic moment for me happened during our first night at the Russell Square Theatre in London, when the entire pedal assembly of the (tired) Steinway grand fell off as I was playing. I kept playing, with our sound technician bravely trying to fix the piano as the band played on. The recording was done at the Centre Pompidou in Paris direct-to-two tracks (Oliver Johnson told me "play loud and fast or no one will know you're on the record"!) and is a good interpretation of the music although we certainly hit some higher moments in live shows. I somewhat subversively devised a Latin-tinged 7/4 vamp with a set harmony on one of the pieces that enabled Jean-Jaques, Oliver, and myself to inject some "groove" into the show, which was otherwise strictly based on free improvisation.
After many years as an "outsider", Steve Lacy earned a MacArthur foundation "Genius Grant" in 1992, and returned to the USA in 2002 to take a teaching post at the prestigious New England Conservatory in Boston. He died in Boston on June 4, 2004. Playing and recording with Steve, and assimilating his combination of open structure and disciplined improvising without chord changes through the prism of his aural vision, was a great stimulus to me to put into question everything I thought I had known about music. This experience opened up my playing to new and more open areas, for which I will be forever grateful to him.