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Steve Lacy
by Fabio Tullio

"Hello? Is that xxx yyy music shop?"
"Yes, good evening. Can I help you?"
"Hi, listen, I was looking for a second hand saxophone."
"Look, we only have a contralto available at the moment."
"No, no, I was looking for a sax."

At this point, the shop assistant, who had understood who he was talking to, hissed:

“Exactly, a contralto sax, come and have a look at it”.

I was 14 at the time and eventually went to see and bought a contralto for which the definition "band instrument" would have been a compliment.

Anyway, it did not last long, after a couple of years I got a soprano and I practically learnt to play on it.

The idea of a soprano came to me after seeing, and listening to, Steve Lacy in concert: I was totally bewitched by him, by the instrument and by the sound that came out of it.

This story is intended, above all, as a modest homage to a great jazzman, but since his importance is little known and appreciated, it is also a humble attempt at making him better known.

Steve Lacy
, whose real name was Steven Lakritz, was born in New York on
July 23rd 1934.

Steve has always played the soprano with absolute devotion, so as to inspire, as the story goes, John Coltrane (and later many other musicians) in the strange use (for the times) of this instrument as second saxophone.

His devotion has translated into unreachable perfection in terms of timbre and tuning and, as we shall see, into an absolutely peculiar style.

Steve's sound is "thick", substantial and lyrical at the same time.

et's listen to an extract from the theme presentation of
Paris Blues, where he plays with Gil Evans (Paris Blues, Owl Records: R2-79247 - 1988), a record I particularly love because of its dreamlike atmosphere.

Paris blues MP3 93KB ()

In this record, Steve’s sound keeps carrying a breath of air that makes it even more intense.
And now let’s listen to the end of the theme of
Reincarnation of a Lovebird (Charles Mingus) and to the beginning of the solo.

Reincarnation of a Lovebird MP3 43KB ()

Intonation is always a torture for soprano players, but Steve does not have this kind of problems.

Let's listen to Esteem (Steve Lacy), a composition of his own in which he starts as if he were tuning his instrument and at the end he "grabs" a (real) very high D, which is not easy on a soprano.

Esteem MP3 78KB ()

Now that introductions are over, let’s try and talk about style.

From these first extracts it is quite evident that Steve has a very personal view of style.
In very few musicians the musical and the spiritual dimensions blend as they do in him. His way of playing has always been consistent with his personality, that is why I have decided to tell this story backwards starting from his artistic maturity.

Steve's stylistic development is very peculiar: he starts with Dixieland and moves straight on to "creative" or free music starting a fundamental collaboration with Cecil Taylor (New York, 3/15/1929).

Also his steady collaboration with Gil Evans (Ian Ernest Gilmore Green: Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 5/13/1912 - Cuernavaca, Mexico, 3/20/1988) from the beginning of his career is very important and fruitful.

He reinterprets Bop in a deeper way, without letting himself be caught by its hyper-technical aspects but taking in its emotional and creative approach.

For this reason he has always played Monk (piano, Thelonious Sphere Monk: Rocky Mount, 10 ottobre 1917 - Weehawken, 17 febbraio 1982) and played "with" Monk for several months in 1960, becoming, in my opinion, one of the interpreters who got conceptually closer to the creative dimension of this pianist.

As a proof of this, listen to the
Evidence solo from the beautiful record (Prestige/New Jazz OJC 1755, 1961) carrying the same title in which he plays with Don Cherry (trumpet, Donald Eugene Cherry: Oklahoma City, 11/18/1936 - Malaga, Spain, 10/19/1995), Carl Brown (double bass) and the late, and great, Billy Higgins (drums, Los Angeles, 10/11/1936 - Inglewood, 5/3/2001).

Evidence MP3 218KB ()

Before going on, I would like to spend a few words on the exceptional rhythmic section of this record.
The solidity and swing of the Brown - Higgins duo are stupefying. Notice that Billy Higgins does not touch his toms for the whole solo and dialogues with the leader using his roll and always looking for the finishing touch.

I'm not trying to steal anybody’s job but, especially while listening to Lacy, the percussion specialists of Jazzitalia should not give in to the temptation of listening only to their instrument and should pay attention to all the shades of the interplay between the musicians.

Going back to Lacy, this solo perfectly shows his idea of style.
He will never play Parker-like, Coltrane-like or Rollins-like.

His notes are "heavy", they are always meaningful, and so are his pauses, he never plays a phrase just for the sake of it. He is always in search of a personal, and consequently universal language, free from any cultural mannerisms.
He shows a natural desire not to sound like anybody but to express his own interiority, without any compromise, and this makes him very similar to Monk.

Notice the beginning of the solo, its long notes never rhythmically the same, shifting to produce a sense of swing.

The logic of his phrases is disarming, it melodically and rhythmically rides the time, in a transversal way, apparently ignoring it, but in fact skilfully interpreting it and bending it to his own expressive ends.

The rhythmic part is never a simple "swinging metronome" but is an essential component to be entered in relation with.

He phrases on the very high notes with unusual lightness and mastery.

In his solos, the theme is always there and from time to time it surfaces more or less evidently, rhythmically modified and/or translated, like at the end of the solo.

At this point I’m afraid I should give a definition of Steve's style. But it's a no easy task.

It is neither bop, nor cool, nor modal, then it’s free! Not even that. He plays in his own way. Could we call it "melodic free"?

No, I don't like this definition either. I'd better give up. I own my incompetence, you decide, and to help you, here is a fragment of solo on Air, a piece by Cecil Taylor from The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy (Candid 8007, 1961), with Charles Davis (baritono sax, Goodman, MI, 5/20/1933), John Ore (double bass, 12/17/1933) and Roy Haynes (drums, Roy Owen Haynes: Roxbury, MA, 5/13/1926).

included the end of Charles Davis's solo to emphasize the contrast between his bop phrasing and the leader's more personal one.

Air MP3 127KB ()

A very personal chords and rhythm interpretation interpretation and absolutely original, with relax and without common phrases, not even those tipical of "free jazz".

e seems to be trying to set free from the chains of the tonal system and of the metrics without denying the importance of melody and lyricism, two elements he can't do without.

It is obvious that his idea of melody and catchiness changes according to various factors, mainly the cultural (and consequently structural) ones mentioned by other critics.

For this reason, Lacy's latest production is surprising because he gets much closer to free jazz than we are used to.

The difference is that in him this conclusion is the natural evolution of a consistent and constant research. For many years now, he has been exploring the extreme technical possibilities of his instrument, drawing the most unexpected results out of it.

Listen to the way he wears out his soprano in
Snips, a solo performance recorded live in New York in 1976.

Snips MP3 176KB ()

Impressing, fascinating, I'm wordless: listening to Lacy in a solo performance is a "no limits" experience.

But the most interesting thing is that this performance comes a long time before the record he made with Gil Evans (
Paris Blues) we heard at the beginning and which is pervaded by a totally different atmosphere.

t may seem a contradiction but it isn't.

Being consistent does non mean playing in the same style and using only one language but playing everything with everyone with the same intellectual honesty and the same creative force.

If you take a look at his boundless discography you will find out that Lacy has played with the most diverse musicians from Joe Puma to Roswell Rudd, from Miles Davis to Cecil Taylor, from Gil Evans to Tadd Dameron, from Albert Mangelsdorff to Phil Woods, and then Alvin Curran, Enrico Rava, Misha Mengelberg and many many others.

At this point, someone might ask the classical question that comes to mind when talking about (more or less) free musicians: can he play on the chords or does he play like this because he can’t do anything better?

A hideous as well as useless question, if only because in order to be able to play what you have just heard you need an awesome knowledge of your instrument.

The only problem is whether a musician can communicate something or he can't.

However, in the case of Steve Lacy the question is even more out of place and to prove it let’s hear one of his first recordings with Gil Evans.

From "
Gil Evans and Ten" (Prestige 7120 1957), listen to Just One of Those Things of which I will also provide a transcription, contradicting what I said in a previous article (I am not as consistent as Steve!)

Just one of Those Things MP3 448KB ()

(fai click sui numeri di pagina per visualizzare lo spartito disponibile in Bb, C e Eb):

pag. 1 2 3 4 (Bb)   pag. 1 2 3 4 (C)   pag. 1 2 3 4 (Eb)

What a swing, folks!

From this recording, young Lacy already shows a certain tendency to break up the rhythm, to interplay in a very interesting, swinging way with the rhythmic section and then to abandon himself to long phrases interrupted by very high and effective notes.

Evans' arrangement is great, as usual.

The first time you listen to it, you could not fully appreciate Lacy’s music.

You don't necessarily have to like it but, if you take my advice, try again, because, if we are used to bop and Coltrane, it takes a little time before we get rid of our expectations, especially the first time.

For me, listening to Lacy means keeping in touch with the essence of music and music making, that is to say with non stereotyped creativity.
I need this never to forget that a different view of music exists, that a different way of improvising can exist.
I need this to remember to play fewer notes, to emphasize the long ones, to pay attention to the timbre of my instrument, to dare something different , to try, I said try, non to sound like anyone else.
It's a bit like taking a lesson from a guru, who brings you back to the straight and narrow path, or like going to confession on Sunday. It can be useful every now and then.

My way of playing the soprano does not sound like Lacy’s, I don’t even try to sound like him, because he is unreachable and because I don’t think like him. But nevertheless, every time I listen to him I get new ideas and feel a great admiration. So, maybe, little by little, a bit of his musical style will enter my phrasing (until there’s life there’s hope).

I hope this will happen to you too and that this modest contribution of mine will make someone want to know more about this extraordinary musician.


Some links:

Steve Lacy’s official site, with photos, audio and video-clips and various pieces of information, also about his book on the soprano technique illustrated by his own performances (a present I'll soon buy myself)

his boundless discography

a collection of photos and his biography.

another biography


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