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Artist Profiles

Steve Lacy: 1934-2004

By Published: July 24, 2004
Quite simply he WAS the soprano saxophone; we all know that Trane got to the horn through Lacy (playing with Don Cherry according to Steve). For that alone his contribution was immense. But it was more than that in Steve's case. He was a true artist coming out of the Beat Generation where musicians like him, Mingus, Cecil Taylor and others commonly mixed with artists from other genres and tried to combine their forces for the betterment of humanity. Steve played everything and always maintained his distinct and strong musical personality, no matter whether it was with a Russian poet or playing Monk tunes. He was the prototype eclectic, categories meant nothing to him. His playing was so concentrated and understated that it drew you in on a level different from most players, much like Bley or Desmond or Lee Konitz.

As a person though I didn't spend a lot of time with him, it was apparent that he was brilliant and generous with his wisdom. He shared a conversational characteristic that I have seen in others from that period - understatement; the use of language like music to make a point in the most direct and economical way possible, always with a sly sense of humor and irony. Steve was one of the kings of the one line answer to a query that said it all. We shared a duo concert in Italy in the '80s and for the first part I played solo to be followed by him and then a duo portion. After I finished playing (in front of THE MASTER of solo performances!!), he said:"You're playing in the corners!!" I understood exactly what he meant - 'nuff said. His presence will be sorely missed in the integrity department for sure.


Steve Lacy started in my life as a hero, the At Newport record with CT (Cecil Taylor), the records with Gil Evans and then the early records for Prestige under his own name, especially Evidence (1961) were essential listening for anyone with an idea to play the soprano. I heard the School Days band with Roswell at the Phase Two coffee bar in the West Village and still remember Steve's announcement after the first set to remind the audience theat "the band is pleased to play requests - we'll play any tune by Thelonious Monk". I requested "Four in One" and it was duly played (beautifully). Next I came to hear of Steve having passed through London on his way to Rome when he first came to Europe to live. He came to the Little Theatre Club and heard AMM, maybe played with Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo. Quite soon after that came the South American adventure and Forest and the Zoo (1966) was the document. Still a hero but a little closer. Gradually we started to play on the same festivals, FMP in Berlin organised the first one I think. In 1974 Steve asked me to play on the concert in London that was issued on record as Saxophone Special, then we were in Globe Unity for a long tour together, later another tour with Company and a Kenny Wheeler larger group and in between every so often a duo concert. Steve had magically become a highly esteemed colleague and mentor. I studied his materials and still do. In the course of more than 30 years my hero, Steve became a friend. Life does not have much greater rewards.


I was very sorry to hear of Steve's demise, even though I know it comes to all of us eventually. Too soon in his case in my opinion. He was a true creative force in the music world. Still underrated I believe. He was the type of musician that I always aspired to be. Someone who followed his own muse irrespective of fashion. He always had plenty of new ideas, and I found his quote from years ago about "all these people trying to play like Coltrane gives me so much room to do my own thing", a real truth and inspiration. Not an exact quote, but the meaning was that.

I always found Steve to be intelligent, focused, good humoured and open to others. A true musicians' musician, and he will be missed hugely. I am pleased to have been associated with him if only briefly. I will carry the inspiration I gained from him with me always!


It's true that Coltrane got inspired to take up the soprano partly through Lacy, but it's important to appreciate that what each of them did with the soprano was totally different and unique. Lacy's intense focused brilliance is well displayed in his 1961 solo on Monk's "Evidence" with Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and bassist Carl Brown. His solo has such melodic richness (like some of Rollins' '60s work, but in Lacy's very own way). I'm listening to it in tribute to Lacy's passing - I can't get it out of my head!


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