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For the Boston jazz fan, itís difficult not to feel a bit selfish about the death of Steve Lacy. He just got here.
Lacy, who died of cancer on June 4 at the age of 69, was the most renowned of latter-day jazz expatriates ó living in Europe, primarily Paris, for more than 30 years, visiting America sporadically since the mid í80s to play with his various bands. When he returned to live in America, it was to teach at the New England Conservatory. When he and his wife, Irene Aebi, gave his first faculty concert at Jordan Hall in Boston in November 2002, it was a kind of annunciation. The hall was unusually crowded for a free faculty recital. He played a handful of solo Monk pieces, then his settings of poetry from his "Beat Suite," with Aebi singing. It brought down the house. The beginning, it seemed, of a beautiful friendship.
In his time here, Lacy was joyously promiscuous. For several years an annual visitor to the Regattabar with his trio, he now showed up everywhere, as player and audience member. He played with the Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra at the ICA, at the Artists-at-Large Gallery in Hyde Park, at Zeitgeist Gallery in Inman Square. He and Aebi performed in a concert/reading with their friend the poet Robert Creeley at MIT last April. These were not high-profile, big-money gigs, but Lacy, with the financial security of a teaching job, was eager to do them, even as he played at the MFA with Aebi, the Regattabar with Danilo Pérez, and Iridium in New York with Roswell Rudd, Dave Douglas, and the Lacy Trio in a Monk tribute.
He tended to show up everywhere as a fan, too. To see not only his old friend Rudd play the Regattabar but also Dave Douglasís quintet there (he remarked, in passing, that he was especially fond of Douglasís pianist, Uri Caine). And, of all people, the singer/composer/pianist Dave Frishberg at the Jewish Theatre of New England at Newtonís Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center. This latter appearance was particularly surprising because Lacyís pedigree since the late í50s, when he was playing with Cecil Taylor, had been as an inveterate avant-gardist, and Frishberg, even to himself, is a Tin Pan Alley throwback to the music of Jerome Kern, Frank Loesser, and Johnny Mercer. But Lacy was a repository of jazz styles and jazz attitudes. The particulars of his career have been well documented. A clarinet student, he picked up the soprano saxophone after hearing a recording of Sidney Bechet and soon immersed himself in New York Cityís Dixieland scene. Born Steven Lackritz, he was given his new name by the great cornettist and trumpeter Rex Stewart. It was Taylor who challenged Lacy by demanding to know why such a young man was playing such old music. That led Lacy to join Taylorís group.
But Lacy never segregated the jazz styles ó they lived side by side in his music. Shortly after he arrived in Boston to teach at the NEC, he described living and playing in New York City in the 1950s. "On that island there were hundreds of really great players ó from New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City, different schools, young players, modernists, beboppers, experimentalists, traditionalists, all kinds ó but real giants. The principal players from all these schools were still active and the music was accessible. All these things were going on simultaneously in New York, and also in my head."
Lacy was fascinated by the soprano sax because of Bechetís big sound. (He once described that first experience of hearing Bechet play Ellingtonís "The Mooche": "God, thatís it! Iíve got to have one! What is it?") But he was also fascinated with the soprano sax because no one else was playing it ó it was a dead instrument. Likewise, he said he became fascinated by the music of Thelonious Monk. On the one hand, he said, no one but Monk was playing Monk in the í50s, so there was plenty of room to explore. And as he once told an audience at Harvard, "Monkís music fit my horn," whose range extended "from a little below middle C to the top of the piano. I can get to the top of the piano when Iíve got a good lip and a good reed."
He and Rudd started a band who specialized in Monk (their legendary, rough live recording, School Days, is these days available on hatART). Throughout his later career, he named Taylor, Monk, and the big-band leader and arranger Gil Evans as his mentors. With Monk, he played for several months in 1960 (Lacy appears on the 1963 all-star conclave, Monk: Big Band and Quartet in Concert from Columbia/Legacy). He played with Evans throughout both menís careers ("Iím on his first record and his last").
In later years, Lacy always talked about his music ó both as player and composer ó in terms of long-term study and long-term personal relationships. Two maxims from Monk that he repeated over and over were "Lift the bandstand" and "Make the drummer sound good" ("A remark like that Iím still thinking about," Lacy said with characteristic dryness). Meeting the Swiss-born Aebi, who had been performing as a folk musician, he was inspired to set texts to music, particularly by the poets they both loved. And here, too, itís difficult to separate work from friendship ó poets like Creeley, Brion Gysin, Bob Kaufman, Jack Spicer, Anne Waldman. Lacyís "jazz art song" settings of their work grew out of friendship, even as he also set prose pieces by Matisse, Buckminster Fuller, and Lao-Tzu. Eventually, his holistic view of art took in dance and theater, and one piece included a stage set by painter Kenneth Noland.
Lacyís music developed from building blocks he learned from Monk. Although he early on spurred wild and woolly "free" group improvisations and developed the "extended" saxophone techniques of squeaks, squawks, and harmonic overtones (one of his funniest and most elegant pieces is an aviary tribute, "Duck"), his work is nonetheless resolutely tonal. Like Monk, he favored short, repeated melodies, broad melodic leaps rich in harmonic possibility, displaced rhythmic accents. He sometimes said that his music was built on "rhythmic intervals" and that his saxophone was "an interval machine." What this meant in terms of his playing was a broad, beautiful tone applied to melodic phrases that grew with motivic logic, like prose sentences, full of funny curlicue digressions and asides and the occasional rude honk, with a distinctive, subtle sense of swing. Itís not for nothing that Lacy explored those extended techniques ó he lavished deep love on every note in every register his horn was capable of.
Lacyís mastery of the soprano saxophone inspired John Coltrane to pick it up, and from Coltraneís "My Favorite Things" in 1960, the instrument spread through jazz like a virus. But Lacy was its specialist (he never "doubled" on other horns), with unerring control, and a tone like no one elseís. It was cheering to watch him work with students at the New England Conservatory, where he taught his own and Monkís compositions, and where students and younger colleagues alike hung on his every word as if he were a sage. "His playing is very pure, and free of extra filigree," NEC dean of faculty (and alto-saxophonist) Allan Chase told me shortly after Lacy began teaching there. "Very direct, boiled down to the essence. I hear the same thing in Sonny Rollins and Monk and Miles Davis, and to me heís on that level."
At that Harvard visit in 1990, where he was enjoying a residency sponsored by the Learning from Performers program of Harvardís Office of the Arts, Lacy talked with an audience of students and fans in an open forum. One musician tried to provoke him into criticizing Monkís long-time employment of saxophonist Charlie Rouse instead of a more esteemed player. Lacyís answer was revealing of his experience as a musician and a bandleader. "Monk didnít always prefer the supercharged players. Not necessarily. He didnít necessarily want the hottest thing going. But he wanted the goodest thing going, the rightest thing going, the thing that was happening. And what Monk valued was the minuscule changes that go on night to night from a beloved person. Not the flash from out of the blue once in a while. No, but itís a kind of love, a kind of continuity, where you play with the same people and every night it unfolds a little bit. And thereís always something new. Not a whole lot like that, but something. And then some nights, itís really fantastic. But itís always ongoing. And thatís what Monk valued ó that kind of fidelity and that kind of continuity, and that is another kind of swing.
"But at the same time, I know that his favorite horn player was Sonny Rollins. And Sonny Rollins understood his music certainly as well as Charlie Rouse did and in a sense could play rings around Rouse. But Sonny Rollins wasnít always available for him all the time. And Rouse stayed with him. Rouse loved him and stayed with him for all those years. Thatís whatís happening."
Thereís perhaps no better statement about a jazz community that supports individual expression. When the economics of the American scene wouldnít support him, Lacy went to Europe and built his community from scratch ó with like-minded players in and out of his band, starting with his wife and extending to Mal Waldron, Steve Potts, Frederic Rzewski, Kent Carter, Bobby Few, Oliver Johnson, John Betsch, Jean-Jacques Avenel, and many more. And itís that sense of community, and greatness, he brought back to Boston.
The New England Conservatory will present a Steve Lacy Memorial Concert on Tuesday, October 4 in Boston's Jordan Hall.
Issue Date: June 18 - 24, 2004
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