Steve Lacy is adaptable. We know that; over his career he has been a Dixielander, a Monk sideman and his foremost interpreter (several tribute albums, including the very first), and an avant-garde visionary. This album highlights his chameleon stature: ten duets, made over a decade (1982-1994), with ten different partners. Lacy changes his tone, changes his approach, changes everything – depending on who he plays with and what they play. It’s a tour de force, and we get more surprises from a man full of them.
The are live performances from Lacy’s own collection; they literally span the globe. Sound quality varies wildly, depending on the venue and the tape machine (a portable, it seems, in some cases.) In some ways the sound adds atmosphere, a feeling that you are there. In the first case, “there” is Hiroshima; Lacy starts pensive, stating the mournful theme over mumbling drums. He walks high like an oboe, making some dog yelps. The drums gather steam, and Lacy makes like an old horn: Ah-oo-gah! Drums get closer; Lacy climbs higher. It is an airy thing, peaceful – and ominous. The angry squawks return, the drummer goes soft (while staying intense), and Lacy is again calm. Masahiko Togashi directs the moods, and Lacy drives them home. A memorable partnership – and there are more to come.
Another continent, another sound. In London, Lacy plays Simon Says with Steve Potts, trading phrases, and then single notes. The two Steves get aggressive, fast, and very loud – and it never becomes empty wailing. Even at this volume, each listens very closer to the other. The rapport is so close they appear to play rounds, and later, in unison. At the end, the sopranos get in clarinet range, and twitter beautifully as they dart from branch to branch.
As this is Lacy, there are also Monk covers. “Epistrophy” has great sour piano from Mal Waldron (he doesn’t copy Monk, but he is plenty dissonant.) Lacy’s tone is low and dirty, with an alto sound. Waldron makes this track, with the same insistent figure he used on “Fire Waltz” from the Eric Dolphy date at the Five Spot. “Pannonica” offers old-time trombone from Roswell Rudd, abd the horns linger on the lady’s splendor. Rudd drawls and works that plunger; Lacy runs some high patterns, makes like a flute, and finished the tune as an oboe. Unexpected? It’s Monk; what did you expect?
On some tracks, Lacy takes the back seat. “Train Going By” is a song; Irene Aebi takes it in a full classical voice. She does not improvise; Lacy’s solo is high, pure, and hyperbolic; he also does a mean train whistle! The tune is the star on “The Rent”, an active line pushjed by Bobby Few’s active piano. Few is thick and blue; he holds his own whether Lacy dances or screams. And Derek Bailey takes over “Untitled” with his everywhere-at-once guitar. Not much interaction here: Lacy plays a stacatto line similar to “Evidence” as Bailey blangs and jangles like crazy. At last Lacy puts his foot down; he gets hyperactive and furious, and Bailey has to catch up with him! Bailey then makes some slow twangs echoed by Lacy – peace at last.
“The Whammies” is funny: Lacy trades high figures with George Lewis, who talks into the trombone at one point. This and “Untitled” are the most experimental takes here, but this is better to listen to. Hear Lacy’s guttural moments – and Lewis’ oinking! “The Crust” suffers from bad sound but benefits from muscular piano. Ulli Gumpert’s part is part Cecil Taylor, part dissonant classical music – which is nearly the same thing. Again, there isn’t much listening, and it becomes Gumpert’s track. And “Clichés” pairs Lacy with the propulsive drummer Muhammad Ali. While Togashi’s piece was led by the drummer, this one is Lacy’s; Ali feeds him Elvin Jones patterns and he goes to town in a performance filled with fire, fervor, and screams. It’s a great performance, and a strong finish.
Some of the partners are famous; many are not. They all have different ways of reacting to Lacy, and most result in fine music. It’s a fascinating display of personal skill and instant teamwork, and it’s worth a listen.