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soprano saxophonist, Monk enthusiast, free jazz pioneerby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2004 Todd S. Jenkins
Steve Lacy's return to America in 2002, following three decades in France, was welcomed with as much enthusiasm as Dexter Gordon's triumphant repatriation in the 1970s. A quirky and beloved individualist, Lacy, who died in Boston of liver cancer on June 4, 2004, took a mongrel horn and brought it into a permanent place of jazz prominence. Lacy was the first jazz musician since Sidney Bechet to concentrate specifically on the soprano saxophone, and his adeptness inspired John Coltrane to give it a spin. Ironically, Trane's recording of "My Favorite Things" led him to quickly overshadow Lacy as the soprano sax's principal spokesman. If Lacy were revenge-minded he would have attained it; the number of record sessions he appeared on, and mostly led, surpassed three digits years ago.
He was born Steven Norman Lackritz in New York City on July 23, 1934. He changed his ponderous last name to Lacy in the early 1950s when job opportunities began to appear. Like trombonist Roswell Rudd, whom he continually encountered around the city, Lacy began his career in Dixieland bands, playing soprano and clarinet with Henry "Red" Allen, Rex Stewart, and other jazz forefathers. His first recording was a 1954 date led by Dick Sutton which has long been forgotten. After his Dixieland days he dropped the clarinet in favor of the straight sax, and in 1955 he landed a spot in Cecil Taylor's courageous unit with bassist Buell Neidlinger and drummer Denis Charles. His tenure with the iconoclastic pianist lasted but a couple of years, and Lacy appeared on only two tracks of Taylor's debut album, Jazz Advance! (1956, Transition).
Following his stint with Taylor, Lacy fell back into slightly more mainstream projects: Gil Evans + Ten, led by the brilliant cool-school arranger, and his own bebop-laden debut Soprano Sax (both 1957, Prestige). For a while Thelonious Monk was a much greater influence on Lacy than Taylor had been, and the chance to work in Monk's quartet in 1960 was a dream realized. In '61 Lacy and Rudd formed a new quartet with Henry Grimes and Denis Charles which performed Monk's tunes exclusively (School Days, 1975, Emanem; reissued 2000, HatHut). The band's renditions were generally straightforward, ironic since all four men went on to become giants of free jazz. The hornmen never denied their lasting love for Monk's works; Lacy, in particular, continued to perform Monk's tunes solo and with partners like Mal Waldron and Gil Evans.
Eventually Lacy found himself growing tired of the New York scene, with so many young cats coming up in the ranks and trying to outdo each other for the few available jobs. He began to check out the rest of the world to see if better opportunities could be found. In October 1966 he found himself in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava and South African expatriates Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo. That fortuitous circumstance led to the recording of The Forest and the Zoo, one of the better sessions issued by the ESP label.
In 1970 Lacy decisively moved to Paris, where he remained for the next thirty-two years. Along the way, Lacy became almost obsessed with the notion of music emulating the characteristics of objects or motions. His composition and album titles began reflecting these ideas: "Stabs", "Trickles", "Ducks", "Clinkers", "Blinks", "Chirps", "The Door", "The Rent". He also drew inspiration from poets, ranging from the Beats to Marcel Duchamp and Bulgaria's Blaga Dimitrova. In time Lacy's compositions began to move away from freedom to allow for ensemble coherence, developing an utterly unique form.
Lacy's solo efforts tended to be of a piece, each showing his pinpoint-precise intonation and delivery no matter what the underlying motif (Hooky, 2000, Emanem). His group recordings were something else again though they, too, tended to be of consistent quality. Most of his ensemble discs after 1977 were with his Parisian sextet: bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel, drummer Oliver Johnson (replaced in 1990 by John Betsch), saxophonist Steve Potts, pianist Bobby Few, and Lacy's wife, vocalist/violinist Irene Aebi. The excitement of two soprano saxes uniting or clashing in waves, teamed with Aebi's breezy strings and curious vocals, made a sound like no other in jazz. Among the sextet's best discs were Prospectus (1982, HatHut), Clichés (1999, HatHut), The Gleam (1986, Silkheart), The Door (1988, Novus, with former Ellington drummer Sam Woodyard sitting in on "Virgin Jungle"), and Live at Sweet Basil (1991, Novus). Lacy also made plenty of recordings with larger and smaller ensembles including Associates (1997, New Tone), a collection of duets with players like Few, Potts, Aebi, Derek Bailey, Mal Waldron (a frequent duo partner), and George Lewis; and The Rent (1999, Cavity Search), a modest but gripping trio session with Avenel and Betsch that strips some Lacy classics down to their glorious bare bones.
In 2002 Lacy was offered a teaching position at the New England Conservatory of Music, which he accepted. He and Aebi returned to America, and Lacy remained on staff at NEC up until his death. He fell ill in May 2004 and entered a coma two days before his passing. He leaves behind an immense legacy of recordings, compositions and inspiration.
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.