Steve Lacy: 10 of Dukes + 6 Originals

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©Laurence Svirchev

10 of Dukes + 6 Originals is a solo soprano saxophone concert recital. Set one comprises ten Ellington compositions from 1929-40;. Set two decants compositions dedicated to artists as diverse as Melville, Ryókan, and Stevie Wonder.

Lacy votaries may be surprised that he appears to be moving backward with this project. In his liner notes, Lacy explains, “Duke Ellington was my first inspiration in jazz, and he will surely be my last one.” Having championed for decades a playing of Monk that was faithful to his compositions, Lacy may well be serving notice that he is challenging the recent spate of tepid Ellington interpretations.

The Ellington selections range from the well known “Cottontail” to the lovely but little-kenned “Azure.” Lacy has a long-standing reputation of playing melodies with conciseness and exactitude; his attention to the details of Ellington’s nuances is no exception.

He is equally known as a consummate improviser, frequently performing in the intimidating context of solo recitals like this. In Paris in 1999, Lacy told me that one of his objectives in the Ellington project was “to put the entire Ellington Orchestra through the horn.” To accomplish this end he uses kisses, smears, growls, and other deluxe extended techniques that make the horn shine with brilliant aural colors. Having seen Lacy turn the horn around and blow through the bell to make music during a 10 of Dukes concert, one could well imagine him doing this on this live recording during “Koko.”

The six Lacy compositions of the second set find him in an introspective mood. Lacy is one of the few major-league players who pays attention not only to music but also to the written word. He has evolved elaborate song-cycles by contemporary and ancient melodizing poets. In this concert, he gives of the words of Ryókan’s “Traces” before he plays but for Lao-Tzu’s poem which he calls “The Breath” we are left only with his melody and improvisation.

Listening to a recorded solo performance (other than piano or perhaps some of the string instruments) requires exacting attention. A CD like this is not for everyone, but Lacy’s transcendent ability to articulate color, emotion, and beauty make the effort to subsume oneself to the music well worth the effort.

Originally appeared in Planet Jazz, Montreal, 2002.

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