Steve Lacy (Unfinished)

Organized by Guillaume Tarche
Lenka Lente

By Ken Waxman

Strictly speaking American saxophonist Steve Lacy (1934-2004) is finished. That is if we’re speaking about leave taking of this temporal plane. However the influence of the musician who introduced the soprano saxophone to modern Jazz and improvised music is far from over. Significant as an innovator, performer, composer and mentor, Lacy’s career, much of which was spent in Paris, was richer, varied and more complex than simple biographies and discographies can convey. This 470-page volume provides a kaleidoscopic, if somewhat eccentric, compendium of the many strands of Lacy’s life from 43 contributors writing in English, French and Italian.

Appropriately reflecting Lacy’s peripatetic life as a freelance composer/player, the selections take many forms. There are strict musicological examinations of Lacy’s compositions, complete with musical notation and academic footnotes. There are two exhaustively researched charts organized by Guillaume Tarche and Patrice Roussel, collating available information about the soprano saxophonist’s recording sessions to the time of publication. One lists each Lacy disc by recording date and every appearance on LP and CD. The other collects versions of Lacy tunes played by others, again in chronological order.

Besides this there are personal memories from those affected by the soprano saxophonist’s exploratory reed and compositional work. These include appreciations by the likes of British saxophonists Evan Parker and Seymour Wright; memories of musicians who studied with him, either formally at the New England Conservatory INEC) or during a short private lessons such as Swiss saxophonist Christoph Gallio, Dutch saxophonist Jorrit Dijsktra and Americans, saxophonist Josh Stinton and clarinetist Ben Goldberg; and recollections of those who played with him for brief or extended periods, including of course his wife, vocalist Irene Aebi, bassist Kent Carter and saxophonist Urs Leimgruber. A different perspective comes from those writers and musicians who either observed Lacy’s work first-hand or organized bands playing his music, including Québécois saxophonist Jean Derome, who recorded a Lacy tribute; German pianist Uwe Oberg, whose Lacy Pool trio pointedly doesn’t include a saxophonist; and Gilles Laheurte’s report of one prolonged Japanese gig.

Even more enlightening are essays which flesh out the details of important junctures in the saxophonist’s life. James Lindbloom describes the personal and professional struggles Lacy faced as a unique, avant garde soprano-saxophonist in early 1960s New York; Alvin Curran remembers the saxophonist’s interaction with the MEV, the pioneering electronic ensemble in Rome; and Allan Chase details situations that took place during Lacy’s end-of-life tenure at the NEC.

Over the years the details of Lacy’s long relationship to the music of Thelonious Monk and tales of his abortive stay in Buenos Aires at the height of the 1966 military dictatorship have taken on lives of their own, That’s why two of the essays that deal with the topics in greater detail are tangential but fascinating. There’s Guillermo Gregorio’s explanation of the real parameters of Argentina’s advanced arts scene around the time Lacy and his band spent unhappy months there; and Peter Katz’s detailed examination of the life and influence of Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the Jazz baroness, who was a patron and facilitator for Monk and many other modern musicians in the 1950s and 1960s.

Much more actually is available within the volume whose format allows you to dip in-and-out of various sections at will. Considering the breath of Lacy’s life work though, just as there are multiple volumes written about Beethoven and Mozart, for example, or Coltrane and Ellington, Steve Lacy (Unfinished) is an appropriate title. That’s because it surely won’t be the last word on the subject.