This may or may not be the last album Steve Lacy participated in before his deathit is certainly amongst the last, recorded as it was in December '03, only a few months before he diedbut in any event it has another timely significance. In a month when the octogenerian US bandleader Gerald Wilson, fast becoming a national treasure after decades of neglect, has been a featured artist in the London Jazz Festival, the release of London Ear brings the good news that orchestral jazz continues to thrive, with quirkiness and relatively youthful passion, in the UK. (Hans Koller's more recent ten-piece collaboration with Evan Parker, a numerically smaller affair than this aerodynamically designed nineteen-piece juggernaut, but a band which has punched well above its weight in live performance, is also due for release shortly.)
Conceived by Koller, in the main, as a big band showcase for Lacy's offensive and on the brink improvising (to use the saxophonist's own descriptions of his work), Lacy is the featured soloist on seven of the eleven tracks. The tunes themselves are by no means the usual suspects, nor, with the exception of Lacy's own "Blinks," ones you would immediately call out if asked to select material for a Lacy big band project. Four are composed by Koller, with Miles Davis, Ray Noble anddefinitely out of the left field this oneWarne Marsh contributing one apiece (respectively, "Filles De Kilimanjaro," "The Touch Of Your Lips," and "Marshmallow," the latter given some very un-Tristano School assault and battery by honorary Londoner Gene Calderazzo).
"Filles De Kilimanjaro," presented here in two versions, one lasting nearly ten minutes, the other about seven, takes up a good chunk of the 69-minute playing time, and barely a second is wasted. Despite the comparatively gargantuan size of his ensemble, Koller retains the essential structure and spirit of Davis' original quintet recordingthe egg-on-the-boil, bubbling ostinato shared by bass and drums, the tentative top line, the bipolar vibe of vulnerability and strengthand Lacy and guitarist Phil Robson contribute stonkingly good solos to each version. On the first versionits additional playing time taken up by an inventive four-minute orchestral dissection of the themeboth players stay pretty much inside the score, with Robson sounding at times like Wes Montgomery filtered through Sonny Sharrock. On the second version, each hits a more acerbic and atonal groove. Both approaches are winners.
The two "Kilimanjaro" tracks bookend the album, after Koller's brief, overture-like curtain raiser "London Ear," its blowsy French horn and trombones brass quartet reminiscent of a Shaftesbury Avenue pit band (although not at all jaded). There are strong solos from players other than Lacy and RobsonJulian Siegel's elegantly saturnine tenor on "The Touch Of Your Lips," Henry Lowther's fleet and eager "Marshmallow"but Koller, happily, allows the ceaselessly creative and unpredictable Lacy to take most of the solo spotlight. How much he is missed today.
Personnel: Steve Lacy: soprano saxophone; Claus Stotter: trumpet and flugelhorn; Phil Robson: guitar; Hans Koller: fender rhodes; Gene Calderazzo: drums; Dave Whitford: double bass; Melinda Maxwell: english horn; Mike Williams: alto saxophone and flute; Julian Siegel: tenor saxophone and clarinet; Mark Hanslip: tenor saxophone; Dave Blackmore: baritone saxophone and bass clarinet; Tom Rees-Roberts: trumpet and flugelhorn; Henry Lowther: trumpet and flugelhorn; Dave Priseman: trumpet and flugelhorn; Alex Bonney: trumpet and flugelhorn; Jim Rattigan: french horn; Jeremy Price: trombone; Mark Bassey: trombone; Sarah Williams: bass trombone.