A Portrait of Steve Lacy

Photography & Words ©Laurence Svirchev

He has led/participated in over 200 recordings, walked the Brooklyn Bridge with Sonny Rollins, collaborated with Gil Evans for thirty years. He is the foremost contemporary interpreter of the music of Thelonious Sphere Monk, with whom he played for two years, and whose music he has spent his whole working career studying. Curiosity is his proclivity; he proclinates towards unusual combinations: with butoh dancers, with sculptors, with poets, with another soprano saxophonist. He won the no-strings-attached “Genius Grant” from the MacArthur Foundation in 1992. His 1994 book, “Findings, My Experience with the Soprano Saxophone” is a witty guiding light for musicians who strive for the highest levels of expression.

He is Steve Lacy, iconoclast of the first order and at age 62, the pre-eminent soprano saxophonist of the last 35 years. Unlike other musicians of his stature he can be heard at least once every 18 months in Vancouver, usually at the Western Front. Aside from gigs, he has another professional reason for visiting the West Coast. In his book, he says, “Saxophone requires a good bite. Take care of your teeth… See your dentist regularly.” This homily is adhered to with rigorous discipline: his dentist, Doug Foster, is in Vancouver.

He is an open man, ready to share his wealth of experience, knowledge and insight, but never for less than serious artistic intent. That may help explain why he can project a demeanor seemingly inscrutable, devoid of humor, a dour and distant man. The first time we met, those vague impressions of personality seemed confirmed. Lacy is punctual and expects the same in others. In spite of mutual pre-occupation with timing, both of us were late for the photo shoot. The tardiness seemed to put us in states of agitation.

We went to a little park on a side-street; it was a beautiful day with lovely light but the shots just weren’t coming. Collaboration and self-revelation between musician and photographer had not yet revealed themselves. I was about to end the session when I noticed he was preoccupied, listening intently to something. Through the city traffic, I could hear birds and asked him if he often listened to birds singing.

He looked up and smiled at me for the first time. His right hand rose close to his face in what others have noticed as a characteristic sign of being pleased. “Oh, you noticed that,” he said. “Yeah, I often compose after I’ve listened to birds!” I photographed him at that moment of mutual delight. Then I thanked him for the session, happy for a singular insight into this complex man.

He has resided in Europe since the late 1960’s, and when asked “Why Europe?” he responds, “The music drives, pulls, keeps me. I followed it everywhere. It took me to Rome, where I met Irene [Aebi] in 1966, to New York, to South America. I finally found the musicians I wanted to form the Sextet and Quintet in Paris. But for now, the Sextet and Quintet are suspended. It went as far as it could.”

The next place, the current place, that the music has taken him to is Berlin. “We were invited for one year on salary, with a place to live, as part of the Künstler [Artist’s] Program. You can do anything you want; it’s a golden parachute after getting the MacArthur award.” He leans forward, and those tremendous furrows on his brow unfold. His serious visage intends a profound statement, but a twinkle in his eyes gives him away. “But after Berlin? It’s the poorhouse, unless we get a hit,” he says with humor.

The stage of a Lacy concert is apt to be decorated. For his 1993 Octet presentation of Vespers in Vancouver, the setting was a church with the afternoon sunlight shining through stained glass windows. On more mundane stages, potted plants are brought in and the floor strewn with rose petals. The last two Vancouver concerts were opened with a set of Monk tunes played solo. For the second set of these concerts, he introduces, “My lifetime musical companion, Irene Aebi.” Together, they perform a cycle of jazz art-songs, poetry put to music. These days, the poetry comes from Judith Malina and Julian Beck of the legendary Living Theatre.

In duet concert, Lacy typically begins by stating the melody of each song; Aebi then sings the lyrics strictly according to the composition while Lacy plays the same line; following this Lacy improvises, and finally the lyrics and melody are reprised using improvisory counterpoints. The result is a classical, even operatic interpretation that is quite beautiful and can provoke both enormous introspection and delight.

Lacy’s collaboration with his “lifetime musical companion” confounds many fans and music critics; Aebi does not fit any kind of jazz repertoire these folks recognize. Some simply don’t like her voice or musical attack. While other collaborations become acclaimed, those with Aebi are politely ignored. In any case, the group Lacy is concentrating on these days is Packet, a trio of Lacy, Aebi and pianist Frederic Rzewski, so if you want to hear Lacy, you are probably also going to hear Aebi. And if you want to know why Lacy includes Aebi as the voice, it is because Aebi is the only singer capable (or perhaps willing) of interpreting exactly what Lacy wants the world to hear.

And that is as it should be. For in the world of composition-leading-to-improvisation, it is wise to suspend what the ear is trained to hear. This suspension is not easy, for what we expect on entering the concert hall or turning on the stereo is always tempered by mood. Those who love Lacy’s work either come to him immediately identifying with his music, or they are mystified and develop an appreciation by devolving their own pre-conceptions. Yet once stuck on Lacy, there is no turning back. In turn, being stuck on Lacy means listening forevermore with logarithmically enhanced perceptions.

A Brief Discography on Compact Disc:

Chirps (FMP CD29) Soprano Duets with Evan Parker. He really does compose after listening to birds!

Only Monk (Soul Note 121160-2) Solo Thelonious Monk

Paris Blues (OWL049CD) Duets with Gil Evans; an amazing opportunity to hear Evans’ piano work

Weal and Woe (Emanem 4004) Lacy’s first recorded solo concert; The Woe is Vietnam protest music. Lacy said: “We didn’t know how to march, so we protested through music.”

Revenue (Soul Note 12134-2)

1995 Quartet recording Vespers (Soul Note 12160-2)

1993 Octet recording, an essential for any collection

Packet (NAO80CD) Jazz art-song trio

Originally appeared in an edited form in 5/4 Magazine, Seattle, 1998.

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