August 16, 2012
The Sun (1967-73)
Steve Lacy Quintet
Clean Feed CF 247 CD
Comfortable in his status as an expatriate musician, by the late 1960s soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy (1934-2004) was ensconced in Europe experimenting with different configurations. When he finally settled on his unique version of the quintet format, he maintained it on-and-off for the next quarter century. These valuable reissues of tracks from 1967, 1968, 1972 and 1973 not only itemize his early combo experiments, but also demonstrate the subtle shifts in Lacy’s playing at that time that would characterize his work from then on.
The Sun includes sessions from Rome and New York where Lacy, plus his partner, cellist-vocalist Irene Aebi, and MEV associate Richard Teitelbaum on synthesizer were preoccupied creating sounds to reflect the so-called Peace and anti-Viet Nam War movements. Previously un-issued tracks from around that time also find Lacy with his final European quintet, filled out by German vibist Karl Berger, and Italians, drummer Aldo Romano and trumpeter Enrico Rava, plus Lacy’s American Jazz Composer's Orchestra confrere, bassist Kent Carter who would continue to play with the soprano saxist for many years. Tellingly, the last four tracks from 1973, featuring Lacy, Carter, and Aebi in a new quintet formation adding alto saxophonist Steve Potts and drummer Oliver Johnson, more American expats. A year previously, Estilhaços, translated into English as “shrapnel”, captures another set by almost the same quintet, except with Jamaican-American Noel McGhie, whose tenure with Lacy was under-recorded, behind the drum kit in place of Johnson. Extra-musically this Lisbon date is significant because it was probably the first time an all-out Free Jazz group played in Portugal. Plus its presence was a harbinger of the revolution which would sweep away the country’s long-entrenched fascist government in 1974.
Overall, what’s most noticeable about Lacy’s work at this time is how much of a hard-line Free Jazz player he still was. Everything he, Rava and Potts play for instance is agitato, fortissimo, hard and heavy. Even the 1968 tracks from Rome featuring flanged polytones, jet-engine-like whooshes, gravelly voltage outlays and crossed-wire crackles arising from Teitelbaum’s programming, are met with screeching glissandi plus sharpened and narrowed reed bites from Lacy.
Also notable on those tracks – “Chinese Food” from New York and even “Stations” from Lisbon – was how wedded Lacy and company were at that time to a primitive version of musique concrète. Besides a hippie-mystical ethos, usually expressed in Aebi’s vocalizing and verbalizing of the lyrics, which may actually benefit from her imperfect command of English, mechanized dial-twisting and machine-like crunches predominate. On the earliest tracks, Aebi sometimes double tracked, and other voices (Lacy’s?Teitelbaum’s?) appear to be mumbling in non-European tongues. Additionally, the first Lisbon track is divided between staccato interjections of radio sounds including orchestral music and vocals plus Bop-like tandem honking from Lacy and Potts. Even “The Wave” from 1973 includes cassette recordings of gunfire and other battle noises that share aural space with pure instrumentalism. Arguably playing in the most radical fashion of his career, Rava’s outer-breathed triplets and broken-octave flutter tonguing fit appropriately and sometimes contrapuntally with Lacy’s whistling and whinny altissimo notes, as vibraphone bars ring with pressured mallet strokes, double bass strings sluice powerfully, and the drummer smacks, rolls and rebounds.
Epitomizing Energy Music in his contributions, McGhie, who has since played in a variety of styles, finally returning to Free Jazz on gigs with French pianist François Tusques a couple of years ago, keeps the polyrhythms and military-styled pardiddles rolling throughout Estilhaços. Aebi and Carter often unite into spiccato swipes and mercurial pitch-sliding, while the two saxophonists spar, shrill, strain and scream, while maintaining a vocabulary angled towards glossolalia, tongue slaps and reed sucking. At the same time there are important contrasts in their playing, with the more Bop-oriented Potts coming across as an Eric Dolphy to Lacy’s Ornette Coleman.
Making no compromises for an audience that at first seems tentative in its applause before turning enthusiastic by the end, Lacy duck-quacks and peeps, backed by tremolo glissandi from the strings, while Potts honks and crests to altissimo squeals. The most characteristic of the McGhie band tracks is “The High Way”. Built on mercurial pitch slides and sul tasto sawing from Carter, intense rebounds from the drummer, plus Abei’s discordant harmonica squeals, the performance becomes more staccato and tension-ridden as it develops. Lacy and Potts circle around one another with squeaks and, split tones, eventually joining McGhie’s rat-tat-tats and Carter’s triple-stopped bounces for a smeared rhythmic tone that lingers past the selection’s end.
Although he too drifted more towards the mainstream playing with the likes of saxophonist Johnny Griffin before his death in 2002, Johnson was a regular part of Lacy’s ensembles up until 1989. On this, some of his earliest recorded work with the saxophonist, the drummer sticks pretty much to drum rolls and cymbal smashes. On “The Wage” for instance, it’s Carter’s thumps and spiccato sweeps down the bass neck that are more percussive than cymbal jangles and drum head rubs. Plus Lacy’s and Potts’ splayed multiphonics and tongue-slapped reed tones seem more attuned to the sampled war sounds than any military-styled pacing from Johnson.
It’s a different story on the climatic “The Wane” however, with hints of Lacy’s more mercurial strategy gradually being revealed. Carter’s sul tasto pumps again serve as the bottom, as the two saxophonists work out lockstep timbres. Here it’s Potts who exposes squeezed and shredded lines while Lacy’s slim obbligato slides complement them. By the end the reed harmonies suggest that musicians can be advanced improvisers without being completely discordant.
Taken together the CDs provide a fascinating look at the soprano saxophonist’s constant evolution. It would continue and encompass very little rote material until his death three decades later.
Track Listing: Sun: 1. The Sun*+& 2. The Gap*+& 3. The Way (introduction)+; 4. The Way (take 5?)# 5. Improvisation (Numero Uno)# 6. The Way (take 6)# 7. Improvisation (Numero Due)# 8. Chinese Food (Cantata Polemica)# 9. The Woe: The Wax^~& 10. The Wage^ ~&11. The Wane^~&12. The Wake&~
Personnel: Sun: Enrico Rava (trumpet)*; Steve Lacy (soprano saxophone [except 3]); Steve Potts (alto saxophone)~; Richard Teitelbaum (synthesizer)#; Karl Berger (vibraphone)+; Irene Aebi (voice [1, 4, 6, 8, 12 ] and cello^); Kent Carter (bass)&; Aldo Romano* or Oliver Johnson~ (drums)
Track Listing: Estilhaços: 1. Presentation 2. Stations 3. Chips/Moon/Dreams 4. No Baby 5. The High Way
Personnel: Estilhaços: Steve Lacy (soprano saxophone); Steve Potts (alto saxophone); Irene Aebi (cello, transistor radio and harmonica); Kent Carter (bass) and Noel McGhie (drums and percussion)