Steve Lacy – The Sun (Emanem)
Avignon and After, Vol. 1 (Emanem)
Steve Lacy – Estilhaços, Live in Lisbon (CF 247)
A great jazz musician is always a work in progress. There are periods of equilibrium and refinement, but sometimes progress comes faster, with major changes crowding together. These three CDs cover the years 1968–1974 in Steve Lacy’s career, a six-year period of rapid development indeed. The Sun, an anthology of quintet dates and electro-acoustic sessions with synthesizer player Richard Teitelbaum, documents Lacy’s maturing vision of small bands, the first art song settings of poetry for Irene Aebi, and the emergence of a methodology for electronic and acoustic improvisers to work together. Avignon and After charts the birth and subsequent development of a solo saxophone language, certainly one of the most far-reaching of Lacy’s innovations. Estilhacos is an early quintet masterpiece, an astonishing concert performance from early 1972 that showcases the first flowering of Lacy’s first “classic” quintet.
The Sun opens with two tracks (and a short vibraphone solo introduction to “The Way”) from a short-lived quintet featuring Aebi, trumpeter Enrico Rava, vibraphonist Karl Berger, bassist Kent Carter, and drummer Aldo Romano. Recorded just after Lacy emerged from a period of playing free improvisation, the writing is not yet fully developed. “The Sun” features Aebi declaiming a poem by Buckminster Fuller in an operatic recitative style while the instrumental part is through-composed but freely interpreted and provides a contrasting backdrop. There’s little of the structural clarity that marks Lacy’s more mature writing and there’s no attempt to wed words and melody in the vocal part. “The Gap” is a graphic score and allows the band to flow through collective improvisation, and different instrumental combinations and tempos in an orderly fashion, but it feels more like a composer in search of a voice. The performances are committed and lively, especially “The Gap,” but immature nevertheless.
Teitelbaum explains in the liner notes that “Chinese Food,” recorded in New York in 1967 and released here for the first time, is “the first real project I ever did improvising with electronics.” There is a palpable air of excitement and discovery in the session and a second recorded a year later. Lacy himself sounds engaged by the challenge of playing with an electronic instrument and brings his extended sound vocabulary into the mix. Recorded as the Vietnam War escalated, it is an anti-war piece with Aebi performing the poetry of Lao Tzu in a speaking-singing voice full of nuanced inflections and outrage. Lacy and Teitlebaum are forthright and polemical as well, feeling their way into an electric-acoustic equilibrium of hard and sometimes harsh sounds.
The later session, originally issued on LP on the Roaratorio label (with lovely hand-painted covers), is worth restoring to print. Aebi delivers one of Lacy’s early, but enduring songs, “The Way” a capella in a matter of fact tone but she sometimes displays the alpine brightness of her voice that Lacy loved to exploit. As Lacy and Teitelbaum slip into their duet, it’s fascinating to hear them invent a new acoustic-electronic music, a dialogue never possible until then. Teitelbaum’s instrument is limited, at least by current standards, but he finds ways to work within the synthesizer’s capabilities. He pits sounds against each other, creating novel sonic hybrids, he bends and inflects tones, creating waves of sounds, little crackling, pointillistic fields of notes. The sound events succeed one another, but there is nothing like traditional melodic development. Lacy responds with his own growing vocabulary of soprano sax sounds, paralleling Teitelbaum’s progress, but unable to resist linear development. There are two duets and another version of “The Way,” and each has its own character, charts its own path.
The Vietnam War inspired another directly political piece, the four-part suite The Woe, performed here by what can only be described as Lacy’s first classic band, the quintet with Aebi, Steve Potts, Kent Carter, and Oliver Johnson. It’s a harrowing work, calculated to assault the senses. Its centerpiece, “The Wage,” uses the taped sounds of gunfire, exploding bombs, helicopters, and jets to make a hellish assault on the quintet. The band sounds tight in an extended collective improvisation, clinging together against the attack and wailing and lamenting like a community caught in the crossfire of battle. Potts and Lacy solo together exceptionally well, expressing outrage, horror, and suffering with shrilling and shrieking cries. Potts is featured on “The Wane,” and his grasp of how to use Lacy’s compositions in his soloing is in full display. Lacy wraps up the suite with “The Wake,” a setting of a chilling poem by French poet Eugéne Guillevic that’s an early example of how he could find the right melody, rhythm, and tempo for a poem to amplify its meaning musically. The Sun, a seemingly quirky anthology of miscellaneous sessions, ends up being a revealing and insightful collection of Lacy’s music.
Even as Lacy put together his new quintet, he was also embarking on his long odyssey as an unaccompanied soloist. Lacy as much as any saxophonist of the ‘70s, established the solo performance as an important vehicle for improvisers. He had the foresight to record his very first attempt, two 1972 concerts in a church in Avignon, which became the very first release of the indefatigable documenter of British free improvisation and American free jazz, the Emanem label. This new reissue includes four previously unreleased, but not essential, tracks from Avignon as well as an unaccompanied version of Lacy’s suite, Clangs, recorded in Berlin in 1974. It’s the first of two projected releases of early solo material, and a historically significant one.
The Avignon recording is remarkable for its level of control and focus, especially since it was Lacy’s first-ever solo concert. Lacy already could strike a masterful balance among sound, line, and silence and he could take his solos from one point to the next with a sense of inevitability that was nonetheless full of surprises. He doesn’t attempt to fill all the sonic space, he lets silence play a role in the music in a way that it can’t in a band. The music flows without having to take input from other instruments into consideration and each phrase has a natural integrity and wholeness that’s impossible in a group. “Original New Duck” is a tremendous version of a tune Lacy played quite often. He subjects each motif to a surprising variation or distortion, hitting alarming high notes and brusque low notes with absolute control of timbre. “Josephine” begins with a section of strong linear development, moves into sound manipulations, including quiet kissy noises, timid mouse squeaks, and rusty hinge creaks, and returns to melody with a spritely, dancing tune. “Weal” is a fiendishly difficult composition with an improvised section that explores different permutations of a shrill buzz and an insistent high note pattern.
Clangs is a worthy addition to the documentation of Lacy’s solo work. Lacy patiently develops the “The Owl,” playing a phrase, adding a few notes to it, then repeating it and appending a few more until the melodic thread is stretched to the breaking point. The resemblance to bird song is pronounced, with unpitched notes forming patterns and contours recognizable as melody. “Tracks” begins with a melody formed of little paw-print staccato notes that Lacy then develops into wandering trails of delicate chirps and twitters. Here, too, his mastery of the straight horn is complete, disciplined, adventurous, and original. “The New Moon” features one of his great melodic abstractions, full of melodies that avoid tonality, astringent cries, flatulent blats, and phrases of all shapes and lengths. Performances like these remind you of how expansive Lacy’s vocabulary was and how specific to the instrument the sounds and notes were. No one had gotten more out of the soprano saxophone than him. These concerts don’t sound like experimentation, either. Lacy has control over all the material. Although he’s exploring how to assemble sounds into new forms and pathways, he’s using materials he thoroughly understands.
Recorded a year before the Avignon solo concerts, Estilhacos is another of Lacy’s early ‘70s recorded masterpieces. It features a similar band to the one on The Woe, with Noel McGhee instead of Oliver Johnson, on an especially good night in Lisbon. They open with “Station,” which features a tart, angular Lacy melody played over a shortwave radio, and a solo from Potts at his most confrontational. On “Chips/Moon/Dream,” Potts continues on a tear, with his amazing repertoire of shouts and wails punctuating a ferociously swinging solo. Lacy counters with a lean, linear solo as stark and humorous and vulnerable as Samuel Beckett’s prose. McGhee is sensitive to the contrasts between Lacy and Potts and accompanies each differently. This is especially clear on the concert’s tremendous version of “No Baby,” which also features the best Lacy solo of the night, a prolonged and closely reasoned statement of untempered notes and uncertain tonality that is both damned odd and totally logical. They go out on “The Highway,” whose abrasive theme goads the band into its most energized and abstract playing of the night. Potts infuses his solo with blues and bop and his most plangent cries, while Lacy once again sails far beyond tonality but still holds tight to melody.
These three albums outline one of the great stories of modern jazz, the story of Steve Lacy putting together his first important working band, beginning to write persuasively for voice, and building a new instrumental and compositional vocabulary to arrive at one of his peaks of artistic maturity.