Steve Lacy

December 22, 2003

The Holy la
Sunnyside SSC 1120

Definitely not a misprint for the common expression “the Holy Land”, this fine trio CD takes its name from something held even more sacred by musicians: “la”, the pitch to which all instruments are almost always tuned.During the course of these nine tracks, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and his associates also prove that they can do just anything they want with any variations of “la” and the other degrees of the scale most famously celebrated by Rodgers and Hammerstein in the song “Do-Re-Mi”.

During a career that stretches back more than 50 years, Lacy no doubt played many of Richard Rodgers’ tunes, but as someone who early on helped define so-called Free Jazz, for years his sonic references have long gone past common rhythm and show tunes. Indications of this on THE HOLY LA include the poetry of Robert Creeley, Mark Rothko’s paintings, African and reggae inflections, plus the music of Alban Berg and, of course, Thelonious Monk.

Proponent of Monk’s music long before it was fashionable, here his trio runs through a characteristically jaunty version of “Shuffle Boil” as it often does in live shows. Like Monk’s quartet aggregations, this version of Lacy’s band is almost perfectly aligned — both French bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel and American drummer John Betsch have played with the saxophonist since the mid-1980s.

Also present on two tracks is Lacy’s wife, vocalist Irene Aebi. Although often treated by Lacy’s fans as a Yoko Ono to his John Lennon, she’s more of a distinctive stylist and her voice meshes with Lacy’s horn much appropriately than Ono’s voice ever did with Lennon. However Aebi’s curious intonation and delivery seems never to alter a whit, whether she’s intoning a Creeley poem put to Lacy’s music on “Inside My Head” or singing in French on “Retreat”.

Avenel, whose steady time keeping is featured throughout, acquits himself admirably however, playing sanza or thumb piano and mixing it up with Betsch’s exotic, African influenced percussion on “Clichés”, a Lacy composition written for a deceased Guinean saxophonist. More appropriately, Avenel advances the line and shows off his double stopping skill and pizzicato slides on “Blue Jay”, a portrait of Lacy’s friend of the 1960s, French bassist Jean-François Jenny-Clark. Consummately modern, Betsch is never showy or in the way, always creating what patterns are needed at the appropriate times and even making something musical out of simple knocking and rolling on “The Door”.

What’s left to say about Lacy’s playing after all these years? The man who gave the soprano saxophone a role in modern jazz, has grown along with appreciation for his instrument and shaped the sound to his requirements — and to others that were probably never imagined until he took up the horn. Familiar with every acre of its real estate from its mellow mid-range to its screeching top notes, his mastery is such that it appears effortless. While he continues to experiment with different sounds and timbres, as he shows on the pieces here, his music is always embedded in the lodestone that defines jazz and improvised music.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Shuffle Boil 2. The Holy La 3. Inside My Head* Steve 4. Blue Jay 5. Flakes 6. The Wane 7. Clichés+ 8. Retreat* 9. The Door

Personnel: Steve Lacy (soprano saxophone); Jean-Jacques Avenel (bass, sanza+); John Betsch (drums); Irene Aebi (voice)*