steve lacy | saxophone special

steve lacy and derek bailey at 28, rue danois, paris, 25 june 1983



PERFORMANCE OF DECEMBER 19, 1974 at Wigmore Hall, London.

Steve Lacy / soprano saxophone, Steve Potts, Trevor Watts / soprano and alto saxophones, Evan Parker / soprano, tenor and baritone saxophones, Derek Bailey / guitar, Michel Waisvisc / synthesizer.

“Saxophone Special” was a pre-Christmas concert at Wigmore Hall (not well publicised, seeming almost to spring from nowhere) which managed even so to pull in a fair number of people from the more usual round of celebrations. And good value it was too. The title was perhaps fair enough in view of the musicians involved, yet to my mind had overtones of JATP-style mass jamming, and so didn’t give an altogether exact indication of what it was about. In fact it was a well-organised programme, directed by Lacy. It took off from what were clearly his compositions, those quirky and rather tricky lines, always pointing in more than one direction at a time, typified best perhaps by something like “Flops” (on Franz Koglmann’s Flaps album, Pipe PR 151) and involving the musicians in some fairly complex and provocative situations.

They provided a very necessary foundation to the improvising, for though most of the men present are masters of the uncommitted, non-thematic approach, the on-off nature of the concert and the relatively uncharted territory (in terms of instrumental balance, dynamics and so on) opened up by the instrumentation necessitated some kind of overall guiding force. For the only wide application of ensemble saxophones and electronics exists in Sun Ra’s music, and the nature of that music wouldn’t offer much of a guide in the present circumstances.

e4024.jpgAs it was, it was nearly right here. There was a flaw, no point in disguising it, and that was in Waisvisz’s use of the synthesiser. It was too loud, too blunt, too obvious most of the time, tending to overpower the far more subtle and, to be honest, more interesting music that Bailey was making. Waisvisz himself is only young, and it has to be said that he introduced some telling detail at times, but he was a bit out of his class with a team of this kind. Apart from that, though, sheer enjoyment. It’s not often that one hears four soprano saxophones improvising together, as happened on one piece, with masses of overtones literally ringing round the hall, nor do you get to hear every day the kind of furiously inspired performance that Trevor Watts was putting together by the end of the evening. Lacy himself played beautifully, as usual making every note effective as an individual sound as well as logical within the overall context of that inimitable style. Evan Parker had the kind of role that demands a high degree of improvising skill, yet at the same time an ability to make it all very self-effacing. It was an important balancing factor in this ensemble, but didn’t give any indication of where he’s presently at.


Steve Lacy

Not by any means the least daring aspect of the music lay in the actual shape of the concert. The first half was made up of five pieces, separated only by the time needed for Watts, Potts and Parker to change over instruments, and it made overall a clearly defined, effective and interesting set. Potts at this stage was proving to be the man who took the ear most after Lacy himself. Most of the possible difficulties appeared to have been ironed out in rehearsal – except for balancing Waisvisz against Bailey, which never sorted itself out completely – and at this stage it was possible to look forward to things taking off right after the intermission. Yet when the second half started it soon became clear that it was going to be based on exactly the same material, in exactly the same order. Certainly it had enough in it to justify a second development of it; and the challenge to the musicians to get something else out of it, to make it different in spite of the fact that they could now only do so within limits, was obvious. But the risks were equally clear should Lacy’s gamble fail to come off. No concessions either. For all the little, maybe too carefully thought-out details, the ones that could lead to self-consciousness, to a mechanical tightening up that would make this a mere run-through – like a finger-snapping intro to one piece, gramaphone records played in with the music at one point – were included again, for all the danger.

In fact it worked well. The logic of the compositions came home with greater force the second time around, while the individual contributions, once it became evident that it was all going to come off, and with Lacy beginning to look really happy with the situation, began to take on the edge and snap of real confidence as the improvisers took over the basis of their improvising and made it their own, culminating in the dazzling show from Watts, previously mentioned.

Jack Cooke, 1974

selected Steve Lacy recordings:


Steve Lacy biography:

Steve Lacy (July 23, 1934 – June 4, 2004), born Steven Norman Lackritz in New York, was a jazz soprano saxophonist.

Lacy began his career playing dixieland music with much older musicians such as Henry “Red” Allen, Pee Wee Russell, George “Pops” Foster and Zutty Singleton and then with Kansas City jazz players like Buck Clayton, Dicky Wells, and Jimmy Rushing. He then became involved with the avant-garde, performing on the debut album of Cecil Taylor and appearing with Taylor’s groundbreaking quartet at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival; he also made a notable appearance on an early Gil Evans album. His most enduring relationship, however, was with the music of Thelonious Monk: he recorded the first album to feature only Monk compositions (Reflections, Prestige, 1958) and briefly played in Monk’s band in 1960 and later on Monk’s Big Band/Quartet album (Columbia, 1963). Monk tunes became a permanent part of his repertoire, making an appearance in virtually every concert appearance and on albums, and Lacy often collaborated with trombonist Roswell Rudd in presenting interpretations of Monk’s compositions.

Beyond Monk, he performed the work of jazz composers such as Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington and Herbie Nichols; he rarely played pop standards of the day. Lacy also became a highly distinctive composer with a signature simplicity of style: a Lacy composition is often built out of little more than a single questioning phrase, repeated several times. In the 1960s he continued to work with other players involved in the American free-jazz avant-garde and, in the 1970s, the European free improvisation scene: free improvisation became another important element in his musical personality.

Lacy’s first visit to Europe came in 1965, with a visit to Copenhagen in the company of Kenny Drew; he went to Italy and formed a quartet with Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava and the South African musicians Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo (their visit to Buenos Aires is documented on The Forest and the Zoo, ESP, 1966). After a brief return in New York, he returned to Italy, then in 1970 moved to Paris, where he lived until near the end of his life. He became a widely respected figure on the European jazz scene, though he remained somewhat underrated in the U.S.

The core of Lacy’s activities from the 1970s to the 1990s was his sextet: his wife, singer/cellist Irene Aebi, soprano/alto saxophonist Steve Potts, pianist Bobby Few, bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel, and drummer Oliver Johnson (later John Betsch). Sometimes this group was scaled up to a large ensemble (e.g. Vespers, Soul Note, 1993), sometimes pared down to a quartet, trio, or even a two-saxophone duo. Lacy also, beginning in the 1970s, became a specialist in solo saxophone; he ranks with Anthony Braxton and Evan Parker in the development of this demanding form of improvisation.

Lacy was interested in all the arts: the visual arts and poetry in particular became important sources for him (he frequently made musical settings of his favourite writers: Robert Creeley, Tom Raworth, Brion Gysin and other Beat writers, haiku poetry and Herman Melville). He also collaborated with a truly extraordinary range of musicians, from traditional jazz to the avant-garde to contemporary classical music. Outside of his regular sextet, his most regular collaborator was probably the pianist Mal Waldron, with whom he recorded a classic series of duet albums (notably Sempre Amore, a collection of Ellington/Strayhorn material, Soul Note, 1987).

Lacy returned to the United States in 2002, where he began teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. One of his last public performances was in front of 25,000 people at the close of a peace rally on Boston Common in March 2003, shortly before the US-led invasion of Iraq. Diagnosed with cancer in August 2003, he continued playing and teaching until weeks before his death at the age of 69.


Leave a Reply