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Artist Profiles

Steve Lacy: 1934-2004

By Published: July 24, 2004
I didn't know Steve Lacy well although I first met him in the early '50s at one of his initial rehearsals with Cecil Taylor and Buell Neidlinger when they were beginning to put together the music that resulted in Taylor's recording on the Transition label. Everyone was so young then. His love and devotion to the music was extraordinary and the oeuvre out of which he chose to matrix his creative work in composition and improvisation - dance, literature, poetry, painting and the theatre - was, while wide in range of breadth and scope, quite personal as he sought to present those things in the world of art that were both of interest and important to him. As a performer on the soprano saxophone instrument, he had no equal and his sound and inflection could immediately be detected and easily identified after the utterance of but a few notes. He was the consumate musician; the complete artist. His passing will make the world of art a smaller one, but the catalogue of recordings that house so many of his pure and unblemished [not touched by the gravitational pull of commercial constraints] compositions, should serve as a reminder that indeed he was here. The world of creative music will miss Steve Lacy.


After many years of admiring Steve Lacy, his music and wondering what it would be like for us to play together, a few years ago I got the opportunity during a week long European tour. The band featured Mal Waldron, Steve Lacy, Enrico Rava, Roswell Rudd, Reggie Workman and myself. Subsequently, on a following occasion honoring Mal Waldron's 72nd birthday in Antwerp, Belgium, I had another opportunity to play with Steve. It was not only the way he played the saxophone, his sound and musical sensitivity that were engaging - I found playing his uniquely brilliant compositions challenging, thrilling, inspirational and wonderful works of music.


Some people - children and adults alike - sometime have a period of picking their nose constantly without any demonstrable reason. Out of shyness, to think, to gain time. It seems more like a phobia than a necessity. Steve Lacy's repeated tinkering with the mouthpiece and reed of his saxophone, in the cloakroom as well as on stage, was comparable to this.

However, Steve had a very good reason for all this tinkering and twisting. He had to get the correct tone, practically perfect tuning, crystal clearness. Only then he could achieve that heavenly sound on his instrument. A musical colossus gone, never to be forgotten...


It was hearing Lacy that made me a soprano player, period. That sound he had in the '50s was so pure and clear. It was January 2004 that I got to meet and play with Steve for the first time. At McGill University in Montreal, Steve says, come on let's play a duet. I don't think he had ever heard me play a note until then. Standing next to Lacy with that sound in my right ear. Wow. Afterward, he told me how much he liked my music, my sound and my playing. When I told him it was kind of him to say that, he got a little angry. "Kindness has nothing to do with it. You don't know how rarely I get to say that about a soprano player." A month later I caught him at Iridium in NYC. After the set, I went over to say hello, as he was speaking to a group of about six people. He had a big smile on his face as I approached, put his arm around me and, pointing to me, said to the people around him:" Now, here's a real soprano player." And I responded: "Exactly how much money do I owe you, Steve?" The last time I saw his face, he was laughing at that. And I can still see that smiling face. That's what I'll remember. And his words: "We don't determine the music. The music determines us."


Steve Lacy will long be remembered as a great musician and an inspirational figure. While I mourn his passing, I celebrate it too. I heard him many times in Paris and New York and he was always very friendly, sharing observations and advice. Naturally he always sounded great and played soprano like no one else, which is of course the point. His melodic sense, his sound, time, intonation and use of space really set him apart. I treasure a postcard he sent to me after receiving several charts I sent him of transcriptions of Monk pieces for guitar. He complimented me on the charts, saying he wished he could play the guitar and "I have never seen better, but I've seen a lot worse". I still feel that the little 8-bar harmonized figure he plays with Monk on the version of "Evidence" from the Lincoln Center big band album is one of the hippest and fun things I've ever heard. Steve's beautiful spirit lives on.


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