September 13, 2017
Uwe Oberg/Rudi Mahall/Michael Griener
Leo Records CD LR 792
Rova/Kyle Bruckmann/Henry Kaiser
Steve Lacy’s Saxophone Special Revisited
Clean Feed CF 415 CD
With saxophonist Steve Lacy’s death now 13 years in the past, musicians have begun dealing with his musical legacy in different ways. Like a visual artist celebrated for his painting who was also an accomplished sculptor, Lacy’s capability as a master improviser who established the soprano saxophone in modern Jazz is unquestioned; evaluating the music he composed over a 50-year career is the next challenge. The CDs here realize the material’s potential however because each group involved interprets Lacy’s works according to its own ideas, rather than embalming it as is the concept behind so-called ghost bands.
The German Lacy Pool trio’s orientation is as obvious as its name. But the way it gets around emulation is threefold. First of all, the tunes are from all phases of Lacy’s career. Second without a double bass and an emphasis on Wiesbaden-based Uwe Oberg’s piano – as well as two of his own compositions – it creates a band approach far unlike the soprano saxophonist’s. Third this idea is expanded even further since there’s no saxophonist in the band. Replacing founding member trombonist Christof Thewes is versatile clarinetist Rudi Mahall from Berlin, with drummer Michael Griener, another Berliner remaining. One of Bay area-based Rova’s myriad projects, Saxophone Special Revisited in contrast recreates one 1974 Lacy project, but with Rova’s Bruce Ackley on soprano, Steve Adams on alto and sopranino, Larry Ochs on tenor and sopranino saxophones and Jon Raskin’s baritone, alto and sopranino taking the place of Lacy, Steve Potts, Evan Parker and Trevor Watts; with guitarist Henry Kaiser taking Derek Bailey’s role and Kyle Bruckmann’s analog synthesizers standing in for Michel Waisvisz, electronic synthesizer on the original.
More than 40 years on some of the liberties taken with this performance include rearranging the track order from the original LP and adding two additional Lacy tunes. Oddly, even without a piano there’s a decided Monkish cast to the proceedings as well, with the reed harmonies not only stuttering, peeping and burbling, but also angled in a unique fashion. As the nasal slurs and excavated grunts ooze from the harmonized or contrasted reed strategies, reflective guitar echoes and synthesizer crackles move the pieces forward. The architecture of snorting baritone sax or another horn exploding from the reeds’ nest that reflects and echoes initial themes serves as leitmotifs throughout. But the key to the sextet’s sibilant reshaping is showcased on “Sops” and “Snaps”. An exercise in blending shrill reed pitches and tongue slaps, the first concludes with “Frere Jacques”-like harmonies, but not before contrapuntal splintering in the form of kazoo-like blares and hard-edged chirping is pasted over it, aided by Kaiser’s Hawaiian-guitar-like chording and Bruckmann’s signal processing. Expanded snuffles and squalls from Bruckmann’s electronics dominate “Snaps” with the saxophonists’ modular cries nuanced as well as multiphonic. “Sidelines” evocation of simple swing that wouldn’t have been out of place played by Count Basie’s reed section is the CD’s distinctive finale. Most spectacularly Ochs’ stuttering tenor saxophone cuts loose from the constant split toned, tongue-slapping from other horns to preserve the theme, initially challenged by Kaiser’s flamenco-like plucks and machine-like static from Bruckmann using a Waisvisz-designed crackle box.
Ironically – or appropriately – “Cliches” is the only Lacy composition that features on both CDs. Rova and company play it hard and heavy with a snorting baritone bottom, daring spetrofluctuation from the alto and comments from buzzing guitars. Meanwhile in a recital-like form on Lacy Pool, “Clichés” is different. Griener’s pings and pops color the backing Oberg’s double-gaited comping and vibrations are Mionkish to a “T”, while Mahall’s squeezed snarls are still a tame skirmish compared to Rova’s stacked blitzkrieg. About the only points of congruence are the frequent recapping of the theme in both treatments. Overall, like cottage builders rather than skyscraper developers, the German trio’s approach is minimalist compared to the American’s quintet’s maximal interpretation. This is indicated as early as track 1, “Deadline”, with delicate piano picking, harmonized with clarinet peeps and occasional percussion asides. Wedded more directly to Lacy’s long Jazz history, tunes such as “Troubles” have a rent-party-like feel with Mahall’s wavering pitch almost Johnny Dodds-like and Oberg’s harmonic pacing going backwards from Monk to brush against Stride ticklers like James P. Johnson; or “Dreams” taken soothingly and creamy, as the clarinet tone narrows a drip at a time and Oberg inclinations could come from a baroque harpsichord. A radial drum pattern and chalumeau clarinet tinting give “Blues for Aida” more of translucent shading than a lachrymose centre; while the lengthy “Trickles” is both a romantic intermezzo and a contrapuntal showcase. Rattling drums and cuckoo-bird-like cries on Mahall’s part don’t upset the toothpaste smooth flow of the piece which encompasses theme variations. Oberg’s two originals fit in with the Lacy material as snugly as extra eggs on a carton. “Field (Spring)” features a circular selection of reed trills, while “Jazz ab 40” suggests Monk’s knotty explorations during the decade of the 1940s with Mahall becoming a contemporary Tony Scott.
Like other achievements of masters of an idiom, musical or otherwise, Lacy’s compositions can be opened up to many interpretations. These CDs preserve two of the better ones.
Track Listing: Pool: 1. Deadline 2. Cliches 3. Trickles 4. Field (Spring) 5. Blues for Aida 6. Ladies 7. Jazz ab 40 8. Dreams 9. Troubles
Personnel: Pool: Rudi Mahall (clarinet and bass clarinet); Uwe Oberg (piano) and Michael Griener (drums)
Track Listing: Special: 1. Staples 2. Swishes 3. Sops 4. Snaps 5. Dreams 6. Cliches 7. Sidelines
Personnel: Special: Bruce Ackley (soprano saxophone); Steve Adams (alto and sopranino saxophones); Larry Ochs (tenor and sopranino saxophones); Jon Raskin (baritone, alto and sopranino saxophones); Henry Kaiser (guitar) and Kyle Bruckmann (analog synthesizers)