By John Eyles
As its title indicates, this album revisits Steve Lacy‘s Saxophone Special which was recorded live at London’s Wigmore Hall in December 1974 and released on Emanem. The reason why is explained by this sleeve note: “Saxophone Special lit up the ears of the soon-to-be ROVAs and sparked our imaginations during the band’s earliest days. This album says thanks and pays tribute to one of the band’s mentors and greatest inspirations.” Of course, ROVA have past form when it comes to tribute albums; witness their two separate live recordings of Coltrane’s Ascension from 1995 and 2003. They had also recorded an album of Lacy compositions before, the 1984 Black Saint release Favourite Street. However, none of the pieces on that album were as suited to ROVA as those on Saxophone Special; Lacy mainly played his compositions solo or in a group with Steve Potts on second sax. Only on Saxophone Special did he record with three other saxes, the Britons Evan Parker and Trevor Watts joining him and Potts, making its music fertile territory for exploration by ROVA.
On the original Lacy album, the four saxes were joined by what Lacy called a “noise section”, consisting of Derek Bailey on amplified guitar and Michel Waisvisz on synthesizer. That explains the presence here of Henry Kaiser on guitar and Kyle Bruckmann on analogue synthesizer alongside ROVA, recreating the 1974 instrumentation. As Bailey and Waisvisz did, Kaiser and Bruckmann provide accompaniment combined with just a touch of anarchy to offset the saxophones. The album features the five tracks from the Lacy version, “Staples”, “Swishes”, “Sops”, “Snaps” and “Dreams” plus two non-Saxophone Special bonus tracks, “Clichés” and “Sidelines”, all Lacy compositions except “Sops” which is a free improvisation. The use of “revisited” in the album title is a wise one, as these versions of the pieces do not seek to recreate the original versions but to be re-imagined and rethought versions of them; that could not be otherwise when over forty years elapsed between Lacy’s live versions being recorded and ROVA’s studio-recorded ones.
Although the pieces Lacy wrote for the original recording were all good, due to the well-documented lack of rehearsal time and equipment problems, a question mark has lingered over the album. Nonetheless, it is not difficult to hear why that album inspired ROVA. Back in 1974, no saxophone quartets as we now know them existed, so Lacy, Potts, Parker & Watts were blazing a trail for others to follow. Although some of their efforts may sound naïve with the benefit of hindsight, they were hugely influential; it is no coincidence that the World Saxophone Quartet, the first of its kind, was formed in 1977 in the wake of the album’s release. Here, in total contrast, ROVA use Lacy’s themes as springboards for explorations that would have been unimaginable in 1974. The two albums complement each other, together providing a measure of the distance we have come in forty years. Ultimately it seems likely that the relationship between this album and Lacy’s original will be similar to that between ROVA’s Electric Ascension and Coltrane’s own version. In each case those who listen to the ROVA version seem likely to be drawn to the original, and vice versa.