Soprano sax, Monk and the shock of recognition"
Steve Lacy was 16, growing up in New York, when he heard soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet's recording of the Duke Ellington tune "The Mooche." It was a revelation, a moment that changed his life.
"When I heard that record, it was like a shock of recognition," recounts Lacy, now 66. "I just had to have that sound."
Despite knowing virtually nothing about the instrument, Lacy took a job — and a leap of faith — to earn enough money to buy a soprano saxophone. It's a familiar instrument now, he says, but in those days "nobody was playing the damn thing. It was in pawnshops, in the back of music stores, it was in complete limbo."
Lacy, whose trio performs two shows this Friday at the Red Light Café, has become a champion of the soprano sax and one of the premier performers on the instrument. The soprano sax, he says, "is well established now, but it's [still] considered a secondary instrument for tenor players or sometimes alto players. There are a few people who specialize in it."
The instrument enjoys a higher profile of late, thanks to the emphasis on Bechet and John Coltrane (who played it as a second instrument) in the Ken Burns film, Jazz. It was Lacy, in fact, who introduced Coltrane to the soprano sax. "I sort of modeled it for him," Lacy remembers. "I was playing with Jimmy Giuffre at the Five Spot club in New York, and [Coltrane] came in to hear us play. He was intrigued with the soprano and he asked me what key it was in. I told him it was in B-flat, just like the tenor. He said, 'Oh yeah?' And then a couple of weeks later, he was playing it."
Armed with a unique instrument, Lacy began a musical quest that took him from Dixieland jazz (with Rex Stewart, Red Allen and others) to a six-year stint playing with free jazz pioneer Cecil Taylor. His repertoire with Taylor included "Bemsha Swing" by Thelonious Monk, a jazz legend Lacy first saw perform in 1955 — another key moment in Lacy's development.
Though considered an icon now, Monk at the time was much less known, with his music considered by many to be esoteric and problematic. For Lacy, though, it was ideal, much better suited to his instrument than the music of Charlie Parker, for example, which was too low for the soprano sax. "It seemed like [Monk's music] was just made perfectly for my instrument," Lacy says. "It was fun to play and difficult and nobody else was playing it."
In 1958, with pianist Mal Waldron, Lacy recorded Reflections: Steve Lacy Plays Thelonious Monk, the first all-Monk recording made without the composer's involvement. Lacy then worked with Monk for four months in 1960 and subsequently formed a quintet that played nothing but Monk material. The influence remains: Lacy's most recent CD, released on Verve last year, is titled Monk's Dream.
His performance at the Red Light, which also will feature longtime bandmates Jean-Jacques Avenel on bass and John Betsch on drums, will include primarily original tunes, as well as some Monk material.
While Lacy left the U.S. in 1966 — relocating to Rome, then South America (with his wife, vocalist Irene Aebi), then settling in Paris in 1969 — he has made a comeback of sorts back home in recent years. After years of finding his best audiences in Europe, particularly in Italy, Lacy says he's now in greatest demand in the U.S.
In addition to his current trio work, Lacy has an upcoming quintet tour with his wife as vocalist and George Lewis on trombone. He also has plans for duo gigs and recordings with pianist Danilo Perez, and hopes to have his opera, The Cry, performed in the U.S for the first time. It has been staged 16 times in six different countries.
With a 50-year perspective on jazz, Lacy suggests the key to success for contemporary jazz artists is research into the history of the music, its forms and the nature of its instruments. That level of research, of immersion into jazz, was easier in the New York scene in which Lacy was raised, he says, because it enabled him to study great artists for extended stretches of time.
"New York in the '50s and early '60s was full of musical giants from all schools," Lacy says. "The music was very accessible; it didn't cost $20 to go into a club. You could go in for a dollar or a dollar and a quarter and hear groups play from 9 [p.m.] to 4 [a.m.]. I worked with Monk for 16 weeks in the same club every night, and every night [the room] was full. I was able to hear Charles Mingus play for weeks at a time. That way, you could study the music. Those conditions don't exist anymore and those giants are all dead, with just a few exceptions."
The Steve Lacy Trio performs two shows at the Red Light Café, Fri., March 9, at 8 and 10:30 p.m. Tickets are $17.50. For more information, call 404-874-7828.
On the Beat:
Mark your calendars for the 24th annual Atlanta Jazz Festival, which takes place May 20-28. The festival will include performances at Piedmont Park, Woodruff Park, Centennial Olympic Park and Chastain Park Amphitheatre. Among those scheduled to appear: Terrence Blanchard; Brian Blade; Dee Dee Bridgewater; Medeski, Martin & Wood; Sonny Rollins; Poncho Sanchez; Arturo Sandoval; and the Afro-Rican Ensemble. A schedule of local performers should be available soon.
Churchill Grounds hosted a benefit Sunday, March 4, for jazz drummer Billy Higgins. Higgins, who underwent a liver transplant five years ago, is unable to work and is being evaluated for another transplant. For more information on making a donation, mail Larry Grenadier/Rebecca Martin, P.O. Box 850, Marlboro, NY 12542; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; phone: 845-561-3608.
Off the Beaten Path:
The University of Idaho, in Moscow, Idaho (that's right), launched a $60 million dollar project last month to build a center for jazz artists and scholars. The Lionel Hampton Center at UI will include an 83,000-square-foot performance and education facility and an international jazz archive. Already collected are artifacts from Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, Stan Kenton, Al Grey, Dizzy Gillespie and music critic Leonard Feather, as well as 34 years of jazz festival memorabilia and various items from abroad. The project will also offer music scholarships targeting minorities, professorships and funding for the school's annual Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. For more information, visit www.uidaho.edu/ lhampcenter.