Steve Lacy: Keyed to Thelonious

Oct 9, 2017

It's been over twenty years since the late Steve Lacy last came to town, but the memory remains vivid of his annual visits to the Iron Horse in Northampton. 

Few experiences made NoHo feel quite so cosmopolitan as an appearance by Lacy’s Paris-based sextet, which included the American expatriates Lacy, saxophonist Steve Potts, pianist Bobby Few, and drummer John Betsch, as well as Lacy’s Swiss-born wife, the singer and violinist Irene Aebi, and the French-born bassist Jean-Jacques Avinel.  (Betsch lived in Amherst when I first came to the Valley in the mid-'70s, and we stay connected on Facebook.)

The group played a mix of Monk tunes, Brechtian art song, Beat poems, quirky, catchy originals and, through the quacking sopranos of Lacy and Potts, a virtual conference of the ducks. Monk was a key centering devise in Lacy’s music, so no matter how far out it got, there was usually a landing zone marked Thelonious in the distance.

Steve Lacy Sextet

Tomorrow is Monk's centennial. It's now 35 years since his death in 1982, and over 45 years since his last significant recordings were made. The pianist was 30 by the time he made his first session as a leader for Blue Note, and it took another decade before he really began to develop a dedicated national following. But good things sometimes come to those who wait, and Monk, who enjoyed a fair measure of popular renown in the '60s and a Time Magazine cover story in 1964, is today as iconic as any figure in jazz. His compositions, about 70 in total, are the second most recorded in jazz history, trailing only Duke Ellington, who composed about fifteen times as many works. Speaking of Duke, when Ray Nance first played him one of Monk's early Blue Note sides in 1948, he said, "He sounds like he's stealing my stuff." But in 1962, Monk guested with the Ellington Orchestra at Newport, and later that year Duke recorded, "Monk's Dream,"

Decades before Monk repertory bands became prominent in jazz, Lacy was the foremost specialist in his music besides Thelonious himself. His 1958 recording, Reflections: Steve Lacy Plays Thelonious Monk, was the first of its kind, and while Lacy steadily established himself as one of the most original and intriguing figures in jazz, a player who ran the stylistic gamut from New Orleans traditional to Euro post-modern, Monk’s music paralleled it all.

One of the keys to understanding the devotion Lacy had to Monk centers around the notoriously challenging soprano saxophone, which Lacy settled on as his exclusive instrument by the mid-'50s. Finding modern music that was appropriate for the horn is what led him to Thelonious. As he told saxophonist Mel Martin in a 1991 interview, “You must have the music to justify an instrument's extensive use. The problem I had on this instrument was that I not only had to learn how to play it, I had to learn what to play on it because there was nothing written for it. I couldn't play Charlie Parker tunes because they were too low."

Credit Steve Lacy with Phil Woods

“When I found the music of Monk I finally found music that fit that horn. Every one of his tunes fit it perfectly, so I started really studying his music but I also studied the songs of Webern because that also fit my horn. If someone wants to play soprano saxophone all their life, they must find someone else's music or eventually their own that will make it worthwhile for them, the public, and everybody.”

Lacy, who died in 2004, was born Steven Norman Lackritz in New York City in 1934, and his early calling was playing traditional jazz and swing on both soprano and clarinet. Sidney Bechet was a model, and by the early '50s he was appearing at the Stuyvesant Casino and elsewhere with New Orleans legends Henry “Red” Allen and Pops Foster, Basie-ites Buck Clayton and Dicky Wells, and young piano lions Dave McKenna and Dick Wellstood, who were just then striding into view. By 1955, he’d also begun playing with Cecil Taylor, a move that may have struck some as a dramatic stylistic leap, including the iconoclastic pianist himself. Taylor’s first question to Lacy was, “How come a young fellow like you is playing Dixieland?” Lacy, however, did not recognize a discontinuity between the traditional and Taylor’s music. As he told Max Harrison in 1966, “Taylor seemed to be right in the tradition. As for harmony, he showed me that harmony is color, and I understood his color right away.”

Lacy appeared on Taylor’s first studio album in 1956, and he was with the pianist at Newport the following year where Verve recorded their vigorous, three-song set. It included "Nona's Blues," which Taylor acerbically introduced as, "one of the more traditional forms," and Billy Strayhorn's "Johnny Come Lately." Taylor also took Lacy to see Monk, and through his music Lacy began to find an identity for himself. He told Martin, “[Monk was] the best model I could find to help me get to my own stuff. I played that as long as I could before I started to uncover my own sound.”

Jazz at Take 3 in 1963

Once Reflections was released, Lacy delivered a personal copy to his main man, and Monk apparently dug it.  He hired the saxophonist for four months in 1960, and Lacy was with the big band that Monk appeared with at Lincoln Center in 1964. Lacy elaborated on Monk's importance not only to himself but to the emerging generation of free jazz players in his interview with Martin: "[Monk] provided appropriate structures to contain the type of improvisational material that we had discovered. What Monk had was the appropriate containers. He wrote the lines that made the guys sound good and that they liked to play. They developed a language and improvisation came naturally out of that material and it was a coherent whole…I was spoiled by Monk's music because it was so good, so complete. You could play them over and over again, even just the heads. You could play them badly and they sounded good!"

Here's Lacy (soloing @ 3:07) with Monk's Quintet in Philadelphia in 1960 playing "Evidence." Charlie Rouse, who spent a decade with Monk, is the tenor soloist, John Ore is on bass, and the unmistakably crisp drumming is by Roy Haynes. 

Lacy, who was awarded a MacArthur "Genius" grant in 1994, was one of the most prolific recording artists of his generation, with well over 100 releases as a leader, and several dozen more as a sideman. With Mal Waldron, he made at least a dozen sessions over the course of forty-plus years, and they all still sound essential. Of his Monk-related sessions, one of the most renowned is School Days, which was culled from a 1963 performance recorded by Jimmy Giuffre, who'd formerly led a group with Lacy, at the Phase Two Coffeehouse in New York.  It was the first recorded collaboration between Lacy and trombonist Roswell Rudd, and whatever it lacks in audio fidelity it more than makes up for in musical vitality.

Lacy and Rudd found common cause in the music of Monk and later Herbie Nichols, and School Days finds them in the outstanding company of bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Dennis Charles, who’d been with Lacy in Cecil Taylor’s Quartet in the ‘50’s.  In the liner notes for School Days, Peter Kostakis wryly notes that the music may sound more like play than work, and there lies the secret to what makes the unfailingly melodic Lacy and the amazingly expressive Rudd, not to mention Monk, so enduringly enjoyable.

Rudd has been an essential custodian of Nichols' musical legacy since he played with the pianist-composer in the '60s.  In 1982, he and Lacy recorded the Soul Note album, Regeneration, which was equally divided between tunes by Nichols and Monk; two years later Lacy recorded an all-Nichols release, Change of Season. Here's Lacy and Rudd at Iridium in 2004, only months before Lacy’s death on June 4 of that year, co-leading the group they called Monksiland. The tune is "Nutty."