Saturday, October 11, 2008

On the Edge of Spacy with Lacy

Steve Lacy (1934-2004) knew what he liked: he liked the soprano saxophone. One kind of saxophone or another has dominated modern jazz and especially jazz since bop emerged. This is not to say that the sax is the most common instrument; that would probably be the bass. But the saxophone has been the dominant instrument in establishing the feeling of modern jazz.

Most of the action goes to tenors and altos in that order, and players who favored those instruments occasionally experimented with the larger baritone or smaller soprano sax. Gerry Mulligan pops up when one thinks of a jazz man dedicated to the big horn. While John Coltrane made the smaller sax famous on My Favorite Things, Steve Lacy is about the only jazz man I can think of who played the soprano sax exclusively.

The other thing Lacy liked was the music of Thelonious Monk. A large number of his recordings were dedicated to interpretations of Monk, but it should be noted that he frequently carried Monk out of the hardbop school within which Monk stubbornly remained.

Lacy is mostly avant garde, which is to say that he made the jump from hardbop to "the new thing" along with Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. This is what I call A4, or Page 4 jazz: very challenging music in terms of traditional harmony and melody. But it is precisely Lacy's dedication to Monk that provides the adventurous, somewhat skeptical, but reasonably well-prepared listener (yours truly) a gate into this new realm.

I have been listening to three Steve Lacy recordings: Reflections: Steve Lacy Plays Thelonious Monk, The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy, and Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron: At the Bimhuis 1982. I like it. The first is probably the best, but the last is a close second. I am also experimenting with a new file sharing site: (pronounced dropeeoh, if you care). So go to this link for some samples of Lacy's output:
There you will find "Charge 'Em Blues," a cut from Cecil Taylor's classic avant garde recording, Jazz Advance. I am pretty sure it's a Taylor composition, but you will hear a lot of notes that sound positively Monkish. In addition to Taylor and Lacy, Buell Neidlinger is on bass, and Denis Charles on drums. I think any seasoned jazz fan will be able to follow it, so how do you know its A4 jazz? Well, try to hum the tune after it's finished. I think you will have to listen to this file on Apple Quicktime or iTunes.

You will also find "Four In One," from Reflections. This is a simply wonderful interpretation of the Monk tune. It strikes me that Monk's legacy is unusual in so far as he is almost always playing his own music regardless of who he plays with. But he also tends to play a small part of his corpus over and over, while neglecting a lot of really good music. Four In One is delicious. Mal Waldron plays piano,
Buell Neidlinger again on bass, and the great Elvin Jones (Coltrane's Quartet) on drums.

Mal Waldron was well suited to do Monk, and he made a perfect sparring partner for Lacy. I include an interpretation of "Round Midnight," Monk's most famous composition, and, I think, one of the most beautiful melodies in the jazz corpus. But here, I think, one can see both the greatness and the limitations of the avante garde approach. Monk's melody is here treated as something abstract, to be explored musically. The result is quite moving and beautiful, but I think that the dark, rain soaked street that the original conjures up is missing in action. But maybe that's just me.

Give Lacy a listen. One more genius to put on your list. And if you like it, do what I did: buy the music.

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