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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Steve Lacy – Free for a Minute (1965-1972) (Emanem, 2017) ****½

By Colin Green

Steve Lacy’s discography is, to put it mildly, complicated. Over 150 albums recorded on a variety of labels, mostly European and now defunct. Saravah, Soul Note and Hat Art made a decent stab at cataloguing his work, which has been continued, posthumously, by Martin Davidson at Emanem, mainly known for his invaluable documentation of the Brit Improv scene. Previous releases by the label have included School Days (1960/63), The Sun (1967/73), Avignon and After - 1 (1972/74) and 2 (1972-77), Hooky (1976) and Cycles (1976-80), and we now have Free for a Minute (1965-1972), the first official release on CD of two significant albums: Disposability and Sortie, plus some previously unreleased material. It plugs some important gaps for anyone wanting to get a better understanding not just of Lacy, but free jazz in a crucial period of its development.

In 1965, frustrated by the lack of gigs and recording opportunities in New York, and so as to put some distance between himself and the music scene of his home town, Lacy took the opportunity to travel to Europe where he spent a year, initially in Copenhagen for a residency at the Cafe Montmartre with Don Cherry, then Paris, eventually settling in Rome, with an excursion to London in 1966 “for a minute” (a favourite expression of Lacy’s, to refer to something of relatively brief duration) where the cover photograph was taken.

Disposability (Vik, 1966) was recorded in Rome in December 1965, featuring Lacy (soprano saxophone), Kent Carter (double bass) and Aldo Romano (drums). In mono – though it has better depth than some of the heavily separated stereo recordings of the era – and with distorted ride cymbal noise reduced by Davidson’s remastering, this was Lacy’s fifth album under his own name, but the first to feature some of his own tunes. He felt his writing had matured sufficiently to bear repeated performances, and recording.

The album looks both backwards and forwards. 'Tune 2' was written by Cecil Taylor, with whom Lacy had worked for about six years in the Fifties, appearing on the pianist’s first two albums. Although a formative influence it’s difficult to detect any of his more obvious traits in Lacy’s music. Taylor opened his eyes to possibilities but was “not decisive with regards to the choice of a personal style” said Lacy. His performance here is very different from that which appears on Taylor’s At Newport (Verve, 1957), although perhaps ironically, structurally if not stylistically, it’s similar to what Taylor was doing at the time. The deceptively simple melody is almost immediately subjected to variations, which push it to its boundaries, in an unsystematic manner, with jump-cuts between different but equally valid ways to treat the material as it’s compressed, extended and paraphrased in coextensive currents.

In New York, Lacy’s piano-less quartet with Roswell Rodd (trombone) had performed Monk numbers almost exclusively, his second album, Reflections (New Jazz, 1959), comprised only Monk tunes, and he had even played briefly with Monk’s quintet and big band. Disposability features three typical Monk compositions – elliptical, with ambiguous harmonic progressions and matching rhythmic twists: hooks that offer no definitive resolution, thereby encouraging players to extemporise (one of the reasons so many of Monk’s tunes have become standards right across the jazz community). Presented in relief with the crisp articulation afforded by the soprano sax, Lacy’s version of ‘Pannonica’ is very much by the book: choruses of standard duration, each with a different take on the melody. Too much interference might destroy its particular beauty. On the other hand, with ‘Coming on the Hudson’, Lacy accentuates the irregularities of Monk’s tune, so that bar lines seem to dissolve and the piece moves at will between two different tempos. ‘Shuffle Boil’ falls somewhere between the two approaches, with the tune divided into a call and response between soprano and double bass. Lacy had met Carter in Paris and they continued to collaborate for many years; their empathy and complimentary movement are apparent throughout the album.

Lacy would subsequently return to Monk’s music with renewed vigour, but for the immediate future his focus lay elsewhere. The four Lacy pieces give an inkling of his idiosyncratic compositions to come, tunes sometimes as brief as their one-word titles, on occasions having a nursery-rhyme simplicity but sharing the harmonic and rhythmic equilibrium which Lacy admired in Monk’s designs. ‘Barbie’’s wide intervals and shifts in note values never allow it to settle, enhanced by Romano’s accelerations and decelerations on brushes, and Carter alternating between moulded plucking and scratchy bowing. Some notes form the end of one phrase and the beginning of the next, a common Lacy ambiguity, increasing the possibilities. ‘Chary’ is more an idea than a composition, and as the name suggests, doubts and hesitations can form the proper subject of music; in fact, musical process can be as interesting as the result. An identifiable melody only emerges out of vague tones and suggestions from Lacy, and not all at once, accompanied by disconnected meanderings on bass and drums. ‘M’s Transport’ unfolds languidly, with sly harmonic changes suggesting paths not taken, and on ‘There We Were’, soprano seems to merge and separate with bass in ethereal combinations of harmonics, rolling chords, and spicatto and sul ponticello squeaks.

Lacy had also played with Carla Bley in the Composers Guild Band in New York, and Disposability concludes with her ‘Generous 1’, which highlights the deliberately disjunctive facets of much of the album. Lacy unpacks the sprightly tune against Carter’s ominous fumbling in the lower register, while Romano strikes up a nervous tattoo, which doesn’t quite synchronise.

The Disposability trio toured Europe as three-fifths of Carla Bley and Mike Mantler’s Jazz Realities quintet, which recorded in Holland in early 1966 (Fontana, 1966). A month later, the trio taped Sortie (GTA Records, 1966) in Milan with the addition of a young Enrico Rava on trumpet. All four had formed part of Giorgio Gaslin’s Ensemble – which included two bass players and two drummers – for his Nuovi Sentimenti (New Feelings) Suite (La Voce Del Padrone, 1966) session a few days earlier in the same city, and. Sortie is energised with the same experimental drive. All titles are credited to Lacy but it’s clear that free-flowing improvisation is the governing impulse. Included in the package are Victor Schonfield’s insightful sleeve notes for the Polydor reissue of the LP in the same year, in which he states that “there are no themes” but as Davidson suggests, some of Lacy’s melodic weavings are composed elements set against a shifting backdrop. While embracing free form, Lacy was mindful of structural markers to achieve the kind of contrast and balance he was looking for. Few of his albums are entirely free, as reflected in the title to this collection. Defined melodies clearly open each of the pieces on Sortie, which are gradually disassembled in little voyages of discovery, the components of which form the basis for a series of associative developments, often short, by Lacy and Rava, each with their own inner logic -- Lacy’s lucid lines and Rava’s dots and daubs intertwine as fugitive shapes appear and disappear. The initial idea is reintroduced by Lacy from time to time, wholly or partially, as a reminder or fresh jumping-off point. It’s a continuation of his previous concerns: working material in a variety of ways, taking even the smallest feature or allusion and giving them an independent and often unexpected, life. It’s possible that these mosaic-like permutations were also influenced by Lacy’s study of the music of Webern, which he played alone.

The longest piece, with the heterographic title ‘Fork New York’ (think, Brooklyn accent), is a good example of what’s going on. It opens with Lacy playing a see-saw figure, almost scalar, shadowed by bass at a slower pace. The music moves with varying degrees of animation, Lacy using the motif in a springboard, so that it never appears quite the same way twice – played much faster, than slower, then speeded up again, ascending to the highest registers so it becomes blurred, emphasising the opening and drawing out the closing notes, playing it lyrically, adding weight to its blues tinges, trying out different rhythmic inflections yet retaining its distinctive shape. Admittedly, this is not thematic development in its usual sense, but it does provide a measure of continuity among the variegated textures.

In the absence of a fixed tempo, bass and drums are not so much supportive as parallel streams of thought. Carter’s bass often acts as a slow-moving counterbalance, fleshing out, and as noted by Sconfield, Romano is neither a metronomic drummer nor a player who produces unbroken waves of sound, like Sunny Murray. His erratic, staccato salvos, reinforced by the dry acoustic, punctuate the texture, suggesting alternative patters and adding to the kaleidoscopic feel of the whole.

The remaining material in this 2-CD set is released for the first time. In 1966, Lacy took a trip to Argentina with Rava and others, including Irene Aebi, a Swiss-born vocalist and string player whom Lacy had met in Rome in May that year; they would marry and subsequently settle in Paris. The visit to Argentina is documented on The Forest and the Zoo (ESP Disk, 1967) – two 20-minute improvisations before a mystified audience. The visit was extended until sufficient funds could be found to leave the country, and in 1967 Lacy returned to New York for a period before heading back to Rome the following year. While in New York his quintet with Rava, Carter, Karl Berger (vibraphone, piano) and Paul Motian (drums) was asked to provide music for a movie that was never released a parachute-sabotage murder entitled “Free Fall”. The project required music for specific sequences of set durations so there was limited space for improvisation, but this provided Lacy with the opportunity to restrict scope and possibilities in a way that would later have increasing importance in his music. Without any knowledge of what was being accompanied, beyond the titles, it’s difficult to hear these pieces as anything other than self-contained works, some of the shortest having the quality of epigrams. As such, they work well, with individual instruments tending to dominate each section: quivering trumpet, glistening vibes (with different sticks), closely imitative piano, sax and trumpet. The longest piece is ‘Jump Montage’ a sequence of melees for the whole ensemble separated by virtuosic trumpet breaks. There are some lovely combinations, such as a duet between vibes and trumpet and vibes and drums, and suitably mournful saxophone and trumpet in ‘Death Scene’. It’s a pity we don’t have anything more substantial from this quintet.

Finally, there are two pieces recorded in Paris in 1972, by the quintet of Lacy, Carter, Steve Potts (alto saxophone), Aebi (cello) and Noel McGhie (drums). Lacy and Aebi had moved to Paris in 1970, drawn by the number of leading musicians, many American, then working in the city, and some of the collective improvisations which Lacy had witnessed and taken part in – liberating experiences and the kind of thing that was documented on the French BYG label at the time. A number of those recordings sound like a group of people who each have a great deal to say, but aren’t necessarily listening to each other, where standardised gestures have replaced genuine interaction. Lacy may have eventually felt the same, and a method of working emerged that was to dominate his subsequent music, which he called “post-free”. He put it the following way in a 1974 interview with Davidson:
“I find that the more pinned down you are, the more free you are in a way - that the freedom can come out within limits. Then you are really free. Whereas when you are completely free, after a while it dries up, it turns into the same thing all the time - it winds up to be an act, and that’s why that ended… And what interests me mostly is the coherence and the variety possible between the numbers. In other words, this tune has one type of play and another one has another type of play. It’s a way of extracting the most variety out of what you have.”
Both ‘The Rush’ and ‘The Thing’ might be considered more free than “post” and are pervaded by that slightly frantic mood of some of the free music of the time. The theme in ‘The Rush’ is played by Lacy and Potts in unison, and as they frequently did, a tone or semitone apart so that the instruments seem to merge, but not quite. They settle on a single overlapping note which forms the basis of their oscillating solos at the top of their respective registers until the theme is restated. ‘The Thing’ is divided into two parts. ‘Part 1’ makes use of a short figure as the root for improvisations, sometimes in the loosest fashion, and mainly consisting of undulating waves, most notably on arco bass and cello, ended with a “ssshhhh”. ‘Part II’ is in a similar vein, with a fast-moving exchange between Lacy and Potts based on the same figure, before the rest of the band join in. After a drum solo, probably better seen than heard, the piece ends as ‘Part 1’ began, with intermingled cello and bass before Lacy makes the announcements and thanks the audience.

Lacy’s music continued to develop, but this collection provides a fascinating look at his trajectory over a decisive seven years.


Fotis-N. said...

Great review!

Allthough i'm a big fan of Lacy's art, i strongly believe that his recordings before the seminal The Forest And The Zoo are not THAT good compared to his 70's amazing discography.
So, instead of hunting down the overpriced vinyl editions, this cd is something you can start on.

In any case Steve Lacy is the man!

Tom Burris said...

Excellent review, Colin!

Captain Hate said...

Does anyone know if the collection of around 300 Lacy concert tapes, of which Atavistic's Esteem was the first, has any chance of being released?

Captain Hate said...

And yes, very good review; I ordered the disc after reading the first two paragraphs.

longbranch said...

I'm the one (Jason Weiss) who produced the Atavistic release (ie. I supplied the tape & proposed the original idea), which had some problems I won't go into here. The Cuneiform release, Early and Late, worked out much better. Anyway, as things currently stand, none of those other tapes are likely to be released anytime soon if at all. What Emanem has been releasing comes from a French source, a person who worked with Lacy for years and was a keeper of another part of his recorded archives as well (some of that material I never saw or heard until Emanem released it).

Captain Hate said...


Thanks for the response, including making me aware of Early and Late, and the work you've done.