Play The Music Of Steve Lacy Vol. 2
I was quite
surprised when I found that a recently-released CD by an ensemble called The Whammies (I had a look at the line-up, saw that the names of those involved looked promising - just to anticipate my
conclusion, I'll say the album is quite good) titled Play The Music Of Steve
Lacy Vol. 2 (hence, I reasoned, there must be a Vol. 1, somewhere) was waiting for me in my mailbox. The list of the
featured compositions printed on the CD cover showed me titles I was familiar
with - Lumps, Threads, the Thelonious Monk-penned
Shuffle Boil - side-by-side with stuff I didn't remember at all. Which is not
terribly strange when it comes to Lacy: in fact, while the quantity of Lacy
albums in my possession could be regarded as being "respectable",
when compared to the hundreds of albums he released in his lifetime it appears
to be on the "miniscule" side (I seem to remember that, being asked
about the generous quantity of albums he released, Lacy replied that he hoped
that his albums could at least be found in the shops of those nations in which
they were released!).
But the composition whose title immediately ringed
a bell for me was Art, 'cause I clearly remember the version I'm familiar with
and the circumstances of my first listening to it. The album on which Art
appeared is called Momentum (1987), the fine Lacy debut on U.S. Major RCA/Novus
after decades when he recorded albums for tiny or medium-sized European labels.
This version features - and highlights - the fine vocal performance of Irene Aebi, this version on first listening reminding me of
European "rock" collective News From Babel, which featured the voices
of Dagmar Krause and Robert Wyatt. The LP dust jacket featured an essay by the
late, great Robert Palmer where the U.S. critic had to deal with the unenviable
task of telling the U.S. audience who this Steve Lacy was (which in a way was
not too difficult) and why they had never heard of him: Lacy "is
Paris-based" (...) "and has been heard only rarely in the U.S., where
jazz reputations are still media-made".
Which was something a bit funny to read for
somebody living in Continental Europe, where for a couple of decades Lacy had
been one of the musicians whose concerts one could easily attend, in a variety
of styles, line-ups, and locations. And while I have beautiful memories of
concerts he played in solo, and by his quartet, and his sextet, I have to
confess I have a soft spot for the line-up (appearing on Dutch Masters,
recorded in 1987, but released four years later) which performed on tour the Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk repertory: Lacy on soprano, Misha Mengelberg on piano, George Lewis on trombone, Ernst Re˙seger on cello, Han Bennink on
I think the Lacy story - the one that's
"told", of course, not the one that's "performed" - is
splendidly represented by the exhaustive book of interviews edited by Jason
Weiss and published in 2006 by Duke University Press under the title Steve
Lacy: Conversations. A great volume which I didn't review, due to the fact of
having ignored its existence for a full year after its original publication.
Reading the book again now made me remember the fact that Lacy died in 2004:
hence, 2014 will be the tenth anniversary of his disappearance. Which, I
realize now, could at least partially explain the noise of engines that I've
been hearing in the background in the course of the last year or so.
Here everyone will have to decide on their own
whether Lacy's music really needs to be
re-interpreted, and what those versions add/subtract to/from the originals,
which for the most part remain available - and quite difficult for a mass
audience. The contract with RCA/Novus expired in '92, after five albums, with
not much commercial success. Europe becoming increasingly drier, in 2002 Lacy
accepted a post at The New England Conservatory in Boston. His compositions
were covered, back in the day, through prisms I'd define as being of the
Braxton-Mitchell kind by ROVA Saxophone Quartet on the album titled Favorite
Street: ROVA Plays Lacy (1984). It's funny to notice that Lacy, one of the
first players to be perceptive enough to highlight Monk's stature as a composer,
also championed his compositions after Monk was featured on the cover of Time
magazine, while Lacy himself had a very low profile. But at the time the point
was not making Monk more famous than he already was, but rescuing his
composition from the sad fate of becoming nothing more than simplified, banal
heads to Be-Bop jam-sessions.
I have to confess I was quite embarrassed when I
noticed that those of The Whammies (the name derives from a Lacy composition,
by the way) I am less familiar with are the two leaders, who also run
"artist-run" label Driff Records: alto
player Jorrit Dijkstra, who studied with Lacy at the time when he taught in Boston; and pianist Pandelis Karayorgis. My
prodigious memory reminded me of Karayorgis with Mat Maneri on some CD by Leo from the mid-90s, of which - alas!
- I don't seem to remember a single note. The same is true when it comes to Dijkstra, whom I only remember from a CD by Tone Dialing,
which I reviewed here in favourable terms. I had a
look on the Web, saw those about-fifty have recorded a lot of stuff.
Maybe I'm just lazy, by I still associate the names
of double bassist Nate McBride and trombone player Jed Bishop with the work of
Ken Vandermark. Completing the line-up, Han Bennink on drums, and, on violin and viola, Mary Oliver,
known for her being part of the Instant Composers' Pool Orchestra. There's a
certain "Dutch" air which is not too difficult to get here (Dijkstra is Dutch, too), at least when it comes to the timbral palette - Mengelberg's leadership would produce quite diverse results. One has to notice the skillful
use of the lyricon, an old wind instrument that's
interfaced to an analogue synthesizer, with fine results. The only criticism I
have is that, particularly on certain tracks (Skirts, Lumps, and Threads), the
whole sounds too congested in the low-medium frequency range when the whole
ensemble is performing, so making the threads of the music a bit difficult to
Let's have a quick look:
Skirts. It opens with a clear phrase, jumping from
alto, to violin, to piano. Cut, enter the ensemble, quite "swinging".
The B section has the viola, with ensemble permutations. Han Bennink! There's a solo for alto, which reminded me of
Steve Potts, an excellent 4/4 on the double bass, drums, violin. (As also in
other parts of the album, after 3' I seemed to detect an alto overdub.) Fine
violin solo, with backing by piano, drums, double bass. Then it's back to the
Pregnant Virgin. Here the piano starts the piece,
with cymbals, and snare played brushes. Theme for piano, trombone with plunger,
the lyricon emits a "space" high sound.
Trombone solo, backed by an almost-Theremin, great work by Bennink.
There's a piano solo that sounds quite angular-percussive, which reminded me a
bit of Mal Waldron.
Lumps. A minimal arpeggio. Development for
ensemble. I found the whole here sounding a bit cacophonous. Tutti! With more than a hint of I.C.P.
Art (a Madrigal?) is the European-sounding
composition I talked about above. Piano and alto playing unison. Slow solos. I
heard the sax on both channels, producing beatings.
Somebody Special. Theme, tutti,
here the viola is the soloist, brushes. Tutti,
explosive cymbals (echoes of Ellington's Caravan?). A trombone solo that
reminded me of Roswell Rudd, with fine backing by double bass and percussion.
The Oil. An angular theme (two altos?), with sax
and violin playing unison; it gets developed by the ensemble, I found it a bit
too "obsessive"-sounding (though I get that's in the spirit of the
Feline has a crystal-clear opening from the piano,
the lyricon appearing to enunciate the theme in
parallel, the synth playing overtones. The violin appears, adding an ambiguous timbral shading that's quite appropriate. The lyricon sounds like a clarinet, a fine idea. A minimal
arpeggio from the right hand. Bravo!
Saxovision features two overdubbed altos. The theme sounds definitely Lacy-like, with
echoes of those duos Lacy and Potts used to play. This piece makes very
skillful use of both ends of the range of the instrument (with a touch of
Braxton here and there?). Fine close, theme.
Threads has a very fine start with the whole
ensemble, with violin and lyricon placed
"below" the piano solo. There's a trombone solo, here more in the
style of George Lewis. The theme features the lyricon.
Hanky-Panky. Cha cha cha! A "minimal" theme (remember Thelonious?). Trombone in the foreground, then it's time
for a light orchestra. Trombone and alto going parallel (Roswell Rudd + Steve
Lacy). There's a fine double bass solo, pizzicato on chords, fine snare drum.
Swinging theme, close.
Wickets gives a percussive dimension to the theme,
with great use of pedals. Non too distant from early Cecil Taylor.
Shuffle Boil. It's Monk time! Intro by double bass,
cymbal, the theme is performed by the double bass. Enter the ensemble, with Bennink full force. Trombone, the bass in 4/4, walking,
it's time for the alto to appear, in its high range, a bit ŕ la Lacy soprano,
and a fine piano solo, halfway between Monk and Mal Waldron. Theme. Han Bennink on fireworks!
© Beppe Colli 2013
| Aug. 19, 2013