10 of Dukes + 6 Originals
Senators Records SEN-01

Approaching a mixed program of 10 familiar Duke Ellington compositions and six originals would be a provocative venture for any musician. Doing the whole thing on solo soprano saxophone should be even more daunting. But 68-year-old Steve Lacy has been going against the grain for almost half a century, so one more challenge doesn’t faze him.

Initially attracted to the soprano after hearing Sidney Bechet playing Ellington’s “The Mooche”, a variation of which is rhythmically deconstructed on this fine disc, Lacy soon moved from Dixieland to the avant garde in the company of pianist Cecil Taylor in the mid-1950s. Unclassifiable since then, Lacy who recently returned to the United States after three decades in France, has played in many countries of the world and with the equivalent of several symphony orchestras worth of musicians. He has been associated with musicians as different as jazzers Thelonious Monk and trumpeter Don Cherry, classical composer/pianist Frederic Rzewski and Euro improvisers, guitarist Derek Bailey and pianist Misha Mengelberg. He organized repertory bands before they were fashionable, was allied with the New Thing but never part of it, early on allied songs and spoken work with improvised music, and has lead a series of impressive French-based sextets and trios over the past 20 years.

Lacy was also a pioneer in giving solo concerts. This one, recorded at the Egg Farm concert space in Japan, is the most recent example of his mature musical preeminence.

By necessity the ducal material, which dates in the main, from Ellington’s developing oeuvre of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, retains the familiar melodies, but is somewhat recomposed using extended techniques like polytones, smears, kisses and extreme glissandi. “Koko”, for instance is all tongue slaps and guttural growls until Lacy begins limning the familiar theme rubato in a higher register. “Azure” seems to expand in the horn from a region just short of his large intestine, with a high-pitched recapitulation of the melody in the middle. “Cottontail” and “In A Mellow Tone”, on the other hand are treated straightforwardly enough with only a hint of torqued glissando, though intimations of other Ellington tones are suggested by the later.

Meanwhile his moderato trilling version of “Portrait of Bert Williams” seems to sum up the descriptive tune at almost the same length as the original Barney Bigard’s halting speech-like clarinet and the underlying pathos of Tricky Sam Nanton’s trombone did in the original.

The six originals are a different matter. Inspired by distinct personages including singer Stevie Wonder, novelist Herman Melville and philosopher Lazo-Tzu, the saxophonist reins in his variations here, relying in the main on mid-range, tasteful harmonies. “The Breath” for Tzu does engender repetition and extended trills, while surpassingly, “Art”, for Melville, suggests some lines that resemble French bal musette. Briefly Lacy introduces the final track, reciting Ryokan’s Zen epigrams that inspired him. The performance, built on soaring bird-like cadences, slides up and down the scale with differentiated tones to mark the shift from one section to another.

A vital addition to the expansive Lacy catalogue, this CD, which can only be obtained through the Internet at, should be welcomed by fans of Lacy, the saxophone or just plain improvised music lovers.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. In a Mellow Tone 2. The Mooche 3. Morning Glory 4. Prelude to a kiss 5. Portrait of Bert Williams 6. Azure 7. Cottontail 8. In a Sentimental Mood 9. Koko 10. To the Bitter 11. Art 12. Gospel 13. On a Midnight Kick 14. Wave Lover 15. The Breath 16. Traces*

Personnel: Steve Lacy (soprano saxophone, recitation*)