Sketch SKE 332028

Opposite to the average person who supposedly becomes more conservative as he or she ages, improvisers seem to go in a contrary direction. In earlier times Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins — to take two examples — were still experimenting with new methods in their sixties and seventies. Today, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Derek Bailey and Steve Lacy, all of whom are on either side of 70, are as probing in their playing as they ever were.

Take WORK, American soprano saxophonist Lacy’s newest session recorded in France with 63-year-old Swiss drummer Daniel Humair and relative young’un — American bassist Anthony Cox. With all musicians in perfect control of their instruments, it’s as satisfying a session as Lacy has made in his almost 50 year recording career.

Secret weapon is Humair, whose experience ranges from work with (pre-fusion) Jean-Luc Ponty and Ur-bopper tenorist Johnny Griffin to Gallic experimenters like saxophonist Michel Portal and bassist Henri Texier. Except for his solos, the essence of this drummer’s art lies not so much in what he does, but what he doesn’t do. A cymbal caresser and brushes-and-fingers man par excellence, Humair’s accompaniment is so abstruse that it often seems as if the rhythm is being produced by osmosis. Cox, whose associates include saxists like Marty Ehrlich and Joe Lovano, keeps his head down as well. In fact, except for some arco noise making on one track, his contribution may be a little too low-key.

Then again, that opens up that much more space for Lacy, who recently relocated to Boston — and the New England Conservatory — after nearly 40 years as an expatriate. Among the 10 tunes are three by the saxophonist and two by his old friends and mentors — pianists Mal Waldron and Thelonious Monk.

Monk’s “In Walked Bud”, which the saxophonist likely played with the piano master, or in his Monk repertory combo with trombonist Roswell Rudd in the mid-1960s, is a fairly uncomplicated tune from that canon. He uses his bristly, slipsliding vibrato to take the lead and reconfigure it in distinct obbligatos.

Waldron, one of whose final CDs was recorded barely four months before this one, with Lacy guesting on a couple of tracks, collaborated with the saxist on-and-off throughout his career. Made up of high-pitched split tones and buzzing growls, it appears that Lacy’s solo on Waldron’s “Snake Out” is even more astringent than usual. Could its abrasive tone and Cox’s solo, which manage to approximate bell-ringing tones, be heard as being funereal? Lacy keens like an inconsolable mourner and Cox suggests tolling church bells?

Elsewhere, each of the saxman’s distinctive compositions unrolls in such a way that they sound newly unfamiliar. Floated on walking bass lines and simple cymbal accents, “Tina’s Tune” features someone — Cox perhaps — doubling Lacy’s gliding, tongue-twisting theme as the swinging piece moves in a comfortable fashion. “Resurection”[sic], on the other hand, is a pulsating freebop number. Chirping split tones arise from the saxophonist, Cox’s stately walking bass evolves into well-elaborated arco discord, and the drummer produces the perfect pulse to back up each of its sections, whether it’s the ping of cymbals or shuffle of brushes on snares. Old enough to appreciate song construction, this “Resurection” besides being misspelled doesn’t seem to be honoring someone’s life after death as much as celebrating a straightahead melody like “The Pink Panther Theme”.

Further to this, Lacy sounds uncharacteristically jazzy on French reedman Louis Sclavis’ “Maputo”, as his sweet-sour tone and subtle slurs mix it up with Cox’s wailing bass and Humair’s bop-inflected sizzle cymbal strokes.

“Sorcelery” [sic], the drummer’s one composition and the longest piece on the CD, is also his showcase. Employing belfry-resonant, unselected cymbal tones, single beats on his bass drum and floor tom, Humair sets up a main theme that is commented on by Lacy in duck-like, double tongued polyrythms. Using a phlegmatic tone, the saxman not only spits strangled notes all over the music, but their overtones as well. In response the drummer counters with cross sticking on his snare and toms.

An exceptional demonstration of jazz as an old man’s art, WORK can be enjoyed by any improv fan.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Bois d’arbe 2. Snake Out 3. Tina’s Tune 4. Oldenburg Bed 5. Resurection 6. Acrylic 7. Maputo 8. Sorcelery 9. The Crust 10. In Walked Bud

Personnel: Steve Lacy (soprano saxophone); Anthony Cox (bass); Daniel Humair (drums)