Thursday, 8 September 2011

Lacy's not here, but where is he?

I was moved to write this little blogpost after searching in vain for hours, days and weeks for recordings of the late Steve Lacy (1934-2004). How sad it is to find that half of his recordings are either no longer available but also difficult to obtain even if they are still in someone's catalogue.  Of course if you check around Amazon or other online sales services you'll find the usual glut of mainstream albums that Lacy recorded, but not however the more interesting stuff which in general has gone 'underground'. Steve Lacy's Solo in Mandara a rare 1975 solo recording made in Japan is nowhere to be seen any more. In fact I noticed on a site (after being sold) at the price of 511$ !!!! I wonder what Steve Lacy would have thought about that? It seems sad to me that albums such as - Live: At the Unity Temple, Clinkers, Weal and Woe (£66 on Amazon UK) or the two wonderful albums with Mal Waldron - Live at Dreher, Paris 1981 Volumes 1 and 2, are either out of print or nearly impossible to buy for the average mortal. I must say that I haven't downloaded so much material before, but in the case of Lacy one only has that nowadays (the net) as a source of his work. It's sad to think that his family isn't seeing a penny of any of this, due to the rather narrow minded view of those holding the master tapes. What's even more absurd is the idea of some great record sitting in it's cover never being played because it's to rare and irreplaceable. It's like having a picture that you keep covered up - and it does happen also!

Steve Lacy's rare - Solo at Mandara ('75)
 Luckily Snips : Live at Environ a wonderful live solo recording from Steve's first return to New York in the early 70's is easily available and full of wonderful music. Some people say the recording quality is not top notch, which is true when listening to his other recordings, but the music is so good there's really no excuse not to have a copy of this in your collection. The last track on side one of this double CD is called Snips. I've included a sound bite of this track so you can hear the atmosphere and the great music.  
Steve Lacy - Snips : Live at Environ
Snips - Tk 7 from the above album.

What also astounds me about Lacy's work is the originality of his approach in developing his material. I must say that I have never transcribed any of his music, somehow that seems pointless, after all it's about improvisation at it's highest level. Lacy obviously didn't use a bop vocabulary either which makes his work even more interesting - no approach tones, no 2-5-1 patterns, few (if any) running scales with tensions such as flattened 9th's or augmented 13th's. There are surely a few  standard ideas, but not in the conventional way that most jazz musicians use them, even the more avant-garde players (*).  I notice when working from the Slonimsky Thesaurus of Scales and Patterns that you find much material that (I suspect) Steve Lacy must have studied and developed over his career, especially in his solo work. Below I've included a (long) track from Live in Mandara it's 35 minutes in length - please take time to listen to it. Here you'll hear many characteristics of Lacy's playing style, taking themes or interval sets to develop his amazing improvisations. It's one piece on the record, however you'll hear how he pauses between pieces before setting off into the next theme  - listen also for the uses of multiphonics, repetition, extremes of register, slap tonguing, over-blowing, singing/growling and the rest.

  Six Pieces from the Tao : Existence, The Way, Bone, Name, The Breath, Life on it's Way

It's also interesting to note whilst listening to these recordings the originality of Lacy's sound and approach. Lacy worked on the music of Thelonius Monk all his life, and also with Monk. It seems the most important lesson Monk taught Lacy was to be an original. Monk had such a truly original style - i.e. it's difficult to copy his playing without sounding exactly like him. Lacy also has a style that is also truly original and thus difficult to imitate without becoming a clone, a true compliment if ever there is one! 

Not only was Steve Lacy a musician but also a thinker, that is to say his music is also about intellect. One can learn much about Lacy and his philosophy in 'Steve Lacy : Conversations - Jason Weiss' a book recommended to me by Sam Newsome another fine soprano player also influenced by the work and innovations of Steve Lacy. Jason Weiss has brought together 33 +/- interviews with the man himself from 1959 to 2004 (he also died the same year). The interviews show someone  that is highly cultured, not what most people imagine when thinking of your average 'jazz musician'.  Lacy certainly isn't to be classed as a jazz musician and was probably the prototype for today's clean living 'open minded' improvising artist, yes I use the term artist. His music and concepts seem to have influenced many artists. Moving to Europe in the early seventies, his interest in Oriental culture  like that of John Cage seemed far ahead of it's time and his compositions often used  haiku poetry for inspiration. He also combined his poetry into his pieces working with the likes of Robert Creeley or Brion Gysin (also a close friend) among others. On Hooky (Snips : Live at Environ) one hears Lacy shouting "Don't go to school, don't go to school" using it as part of the music, the rhythm of the phrase helping shape the melody that follows. I should maybe add that it was a also a message (or mantra) for those in 'jazz schools' which Lacy thought destroyed individuality and so detrimental to the development of jazz.  

A collection of interviews with Steve Lacy spanning 45 odd years.
Finally, there seems much in Steve Lacy's work which is being forgotten by the mainstream music media. College's still only teach post-bop as 'the' music of improvisation. It is normal that whilst we ignore such important advances made by Lacy we are somehow keeping jazz and improvised music from developing into more fruitful areas. I hope that someone will one day collect together much of his vast catalogue and re-issue what to me seems an essential part of today's improvised music scene, and one of contemporary musics most important figures.

Postscript :

Although I only mention Steve Lacy's solo work one should also remember that he also worked  with his  groups, which I have to admit (I'm ashamed to say) I know very little of. I hope to remedy this in 2012!
(*) One player does come to mind is the great Lol Coxhill, a true individual in the improvising world. However, you can hear similarities between Lacy's style and Coxhill which are probably unintentional.


  1. Great piece on Steve Lacy. I used to have a couple of his things on vinyl - or rather a couple of things he appeared on ie Company. The only thing I have by him is the Snips album. Must get that out again. Many thanks for the prompt, Joe.

  2. Hi Sid

    Thanks for the comment.

    I must say I never heard the 'Company 4' record, but now I'm inspired! As I mentioned he seems to need someone to put his catalogue back into order, and needs a bit of a publicity boost. He said in one of his interviews that it takes 25 years for people to start to recognise your work and that's true of Lacy.

    Anyhow, I know you already have loads of stuff to listen to in you work schedule, but if you get a chance to roam the net get yourself a copy of Live at Mandara ...... you know it makes sense!

    Thanks again - Joe


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