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[Giant Steps]
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Cooking with Steve
An expat brings his jazz recipes home

After more than 30 years in Europe, the New York–born composer/bandleader/soprano saxophonist, MacArthur Fellow, and Thelonious Monk scholar Steve Lacy has come home. Lacy is a unique figure in a music made up of singular characters. He took up the soprano saxophone when no one was playing it, and he did the same with the music of Monk. He pioneered the solo-saxophone concert and is generally credited with influencing John Coltrane to pursue soprano sax. Meanwhile he’s created a musical world entirely his own, one that comprises pieces for small groups and large orchestras, multimedia theater and dance, opera and song cycles.

The music itself has an oddball integrity. You can hear Monk in Lacy’s angular melodies, with their wide intervallic leaps and displaced rhythmic accents. But even Monk is more conventionally "songful" in his verse-chorus structures and comparatively long lines. Lacy likes short phrases that he repeats mantra-like perhaps a half-dozen times before fitting the next phrase, like the piece of a puzzle, into place. A Lacy line can resemble a Slinky flip-flopping itself down a set of stairs, a cartoon elephant lumbering into view, or, in a delicate piece like "Flakes," snow falling on a bright, cold Paris day. Lacy’s short lines are perfect for setting poetry, and he’s set poetry of all manner, from Robert Creeley to Osip Mandelstam. One song cycle, The Way, sets Witter Bynner’s translation of The Tao Teh Ching. This Monday, November 25, Lacy and his wife, Irene Aebi (his principal collaborator as a vocalist since he met her in 1966), will present The Beat Suite, a setting of poems by the likes of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Kaufman, and Gregory Corso.

So what brought the saxophonist home after so many years away? "The phone stopped ringing," Lacy explains simply when we get together to chat in a conference room at New England Conservatory. "I’ve been playing more and more in America in the last 20 years and less and less in France." He also talks about Paris’s devolution into a "theme park for tourists," his fatigue with the "Old World," and a need for some "New World freshness." And he concludes, "When you’ve done all you can in a particular place, it’s time to move on." One would also guess that at age 68, and after a life of making jazz from scratch, Lacy is looking for the kind of security that an institutional affiliation — with its health insurance and pension plan — can bring. And as we talk, it’s clear that he’d like to bring to America some of the large-scale pieces that he’s performed all over Europe.

"Futurities [on a hatART CD] is an American work with text by Robert Creeley and decor by Kenneth Noland," he says, "and it’s never been shown in America. We brought the décor from Paris. It’s in my garage now." Lacy also hopes to stage The Cry (available as a Soul Note CD), his setting of the poetry of the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin. "It’s about the oppression of women, the story of a woman from birth to old age, in an Islamic country. There’s a small group on stage, about six musicians, a harpsichord, accordion, saxophone, bass, and percussion, a singer, and two large painted canvas backdrops. The musicians and the singer are in costumes with the words of the songs written on the costumes. It’s all about language and power and danger, because Taslima, they wanted to kill her, she had a fatwah — it’s still in effect — there were mobs screaming for her and she was under police protection for many years. Now she’s relatively free."

Certain metaphors crop up in Lacy’s speech. He likes to describe his life’s work as "organic." "What I do, and what I have been doing for all these years is organic, it’s grown over a period of time with certain relationships and based on real collaborations and friendships with other artists."

Listen to him talk about the key artistic relationships in his life and those "organic" confluences keep cropping up. Lacy was playing in a Dixieland-style band in the ’50s when Cecil Taylor saw him, approached him, and asked why such a young man was playing old music. It was the beginning of a six-year collaboration that helped revolutionize modern jazz. Lacy’s long association with the late composer/arranger Gil Evans began with a phone call. "I never even heard of him when he called me up and he said he wanted me to be on his record. He had heard me on the Arthur Godfrey show five years before that when I had an amateur Dixieland band. He was interested in using that instrument, and he wrote lead parts for me — man, nobody ever did that for me before. All of a sudden I was playing lead. I’m on his first record and his last record."

Evans, like Taylor, had a consuming interest in all the arts, another effect that carried over into Lacy’s life. "Gil had perfect taste, a complete understanding and knowledge of music, and he had a long stretch. He heard Ellington in 1929 with Bubber Miley in the band — he heard that live — and Louis Armstrong back then too. I met him in ’57, but before this he had had all this fantastic experience. He also loved painting and literature and theater, and fun and people. He was a great person, very generous, very large."

Allan Chase, NEC’s dean of faculty, echoes Lacy’s words when he describes the saxophonist. "He bridges such a wide range of jazz history. He played with Rex Stewart as a teenager and was already doing it well." Chase compares Lacy to other senior faculty members like George Russell and Bob Brookmeyer, the latter of whom has been on stage with everyone from Count Basie to John Coltrane.

And then, of course, there’s Lacy’s own playing. Unlike other reed jazz reed players, he has focused exclusively on soprano, with a virtuosity that’s unmatched on this notoriously difficult instrument. He has a broad, plush, mostly vibratoless tone and pinpoint control of pitch, as well as the ability to achieve all manner of "extended" effects in every register, from high, piping squeaks to burly low moans and honks. Lacy forgoes the kind of speed associated with most virtuosos in favor of deliberate, staccato, one-note-at-time constructions varied by slippery little legato runs and calligraphic asides. Similar to his mantra-like compositions, his solos have an airborne transparency.

"His playing is very pure, and free of extra filigree," says Chase, "very direct, boiled down to the essence. I hear the same thing in Sonny Rollins and Monk and Miles Davis, and to me he’s on that level."

When I ask Lacy how things have changed for the students he’s now teaching, and for young musicians who want to play jazz, he recalls his own apprenticeship. The scene, he says, was smaller then, and everything you needed to hear was in Manhattan. "On that island there were hundreds of really great players — from New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City, different schools, young players, modernists, beboppers, experimentalists, traditionalists, all kinds. 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. Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane played for eight weeks in a club, and you could go there for the cost of a bottle of beer every night and you could study the music every night for eight weeks and watch it evolve."

It was that kind of immersion that led him to form a now legendary band with the trombonist Roswell Rudd wherein they studied Thelonious Monk exclusively (their live, crude recording, Schooldays, is a touchstone that has been in and out of print since it was recorded in 1963). "We wanted to play every night, not just Saturday night, and we wanted to keep that going until we learned what we wanted to learn."

Another metaphor Lacy uses a lot is "cooking" — not in the sense of "the band is really cooking tonight" but in the sense of preparation. When asked about finding the right producers for his large-scale works, he says, "I need people from theaters and festivals to invite me to do what I want to do, not give me ideas, like ‘Oh, look, we’d like to put you and Mr. X together and play together and we’ll record it.’ Those kind of things are almost always a drag, really. Instead, I’d rather they said, ‘Well, we’d like to have you, what would you like to do?’ And then we can do these organic things that are ready, that are cooked, not things that are raw."

When I visit one of Lacy’s NEC ensemble classes, they’re working on pieces that have been "cooking" all semester — several Lacy pieces, and Monk’s "Let’s Call This." There’s a rhythm section with bass, drums, guitar, and piano, plus trombone, alto sax, and two vocalists, male and female. The class proceeds with Lacy playing with the group on the introductory themes and ensemble passages and signaling students for solos. By now, the pieces they’ve studied individually have coalesced into a set that they’ll perform as a recital concert on December 11 as part of NEC’s Keller Jazz Series. "The cake is starting to rise," he tells me.

Lacy begins with some scales and the students enter one at a time, playing more or less freely until he cues "Let’s Call This." The solos grow in confidence with each number. When he isn’t playing, Lacy sits in a folding chair listening to the circle of musicians around him and breaking into a broad smile when one of them does something he especially likes. There’s "Flakes." "Prayer," from a poem by Galway Kinnell. Poet Bob Kaufman’s "As Usual." "Gospel," which Lacy has described as "a shout and a blues stomp and a wail," with Stevie Wonder as its model. And "Bone," from The Way.

"Can I improvise on the words as well as the notes?" asks vocalist Sara Leib during a break.

"As long as the creative juices are flowing, I’m happy," says Lacy, standing with his horn. "Risk taking — that’s part of the show. But don’t get carried away, because then we’ll have to say, ‘Come back! Come back!’ " He’s speaking sotto voce, one hand at his mouth, aiming his cry at the sky. "Sometimes," he tells me later on, "I rap their knuckles, or things get out of hand and I stop it."

During the second hour, Lacy takes off his shoes. "The Usual" is in a dark tonality that’s at once ominous and comic, and during the instrumental theme, Leib and vocalist David Devoe mime a Punch and Judy show over its emphatic rhythms. They negotiate the speedy "Pop Goes the Weasel" melody of "Bone," with its tongue-twisting lyrics, ending on the final deep tonic title word. At noon, with the class packing up, Lacy says offhandedly, "You guys are getting better, what’s happening? What’s wrong?" There’s an appreciative laugh and one of the students asks, "Is there a rule against that?"

"Not yet," says Lacy.

Steve Lacy and Irene Aebi perform next Monday, November 25, at Jordan Hall. It’s free. Call (617) 585-1122.

Issue Date: November 21 - 28, 2002
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