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Artist Profiles

Steve Lacy and Japan

By Published: October 9, 2004

All the LPS / CDs produced 'over there' indicate without a doubt what a profound source of inspiration Japan was to him.

Pretty much like "Rosebud," Orson Welles' famous mysterious enigma in Citizen Kane, there was "something" about Japan in Steve Lacy's life, something that no one will ever fully understand. Call it karmic ties, call it subconscious bond, call it deep inner connection, there was "something" there, definitely. Ever since his first tour in 1975 (invited by Aquirax Aida, critic, producer, poet, fan, that Lacy considered as "The Diaghilev of Jazz"), Steve always talked about Japan with a certain inner glow and respect that revealed an undecipherable mystical personal link. What that link really was will most probably - as it should - always remain a mystery.

Mystery about the man, and the music itself... So much of it was created during Lacy's twelve Japan tours, the details of which - venues, musicians, artists — are still being researched by a dedicated Japanese librarian. As could be expected, some of these details are rather difficult to obtain and confirm after so many years. And the concrete musical output of these 12 tours still retains an aura of mystery, as Japanese LPs never reached many outside of Japan, the music remaining largely unknown outside serious Lacy fans circles. The first tour of June 1975 produced some of the most daring and rarest LPs in Lacy's discography ( Stalks, Solo at Mandara, Torments, The Wire, Distant Voices ); the last one in October 2000 is fortunately documented by the much praised solo performance Ten of Dukes + Six originals (a limited Edition of 1000 copies), still available in selected NYC and Tokyo music stores and through Steve Lacy's website, www.SenatorsRecords.com .

All the LPs / CDs produced "over there" indicate without a doubt what a profound source of inspiration Japan (= Japanese life, Japanese culture, Japanese landscapes, Japanese art, Japanese musicians, and even Japanese food) was to him. Indeed, a brief review of each tour - bringing out names such as Kent Carter, Mal Waldron, Don Cherry, Dave Holland, his celebrated Sextet (with Oliver Johnson, Irene Aebi and Steve Potts), his core Trio (with JJ/JB), Togashi and many other outstanding Japanese musicians, or simply playing alone - shows that some of his most astonishing recorded music (if regrettably not widely distributed) was created THERE. We all know that the music magazine "The Wire" was named after his composition / album of the same name. On a personal level, every time I had the opportunity to be alone with him - in Strasbourg, New York or Fukaya — he more than often suggested: "How about sushi?" Interestingly, the Austrian monthly "Jazzzeit" published in June 2003 an article about Steve entitled "der Sushimeister in der Mönchskutte" (the Sushi Master in the Monk's Cloak)... Rather revealing...

What was to be his 13th Japan tour - Tokyo, Nagoya, Saitama, Nagano and back to Tokyo, from 10 to 24 June — was abruptly stopped on Friday 04 June in Boston. And with it, the Steve Lacy Trio 2004 Japan Tour (with Jean-Jacques Avenel and John Betsch) will sadly remain just a dream, another unrealized project. Another unresolved mystery of what could have been.

Four years ago, during the week-long Egg Farm Festival with Masahiko Satoh, Haruna Miyake, Masahiko Togashi and Yuji Takahashi (review of all concerts are available on Steve's website under the section: memorable concerts) I was fortunate to have many informal private conversations with Steve. We talked a lot about Japan; About Buddhism; About the soprano saxophone; About art; About silence; About life. Humble, quite vulnerable, with an unusual outlook on life, he was a gentleman opening his heart and soul to me, either over Japanese breakfast, or over Japanese lunch or dinner, or over a drink, or during casual leisurely walks in the streets of Fukaya. And I found myself to be in a kind of total communion with him. Our conversations confirmed to me there are never any coincidences in life: we were meant to meet someday. We were both "expats," on each other's life path.

When he gave me his last copy of Hooky, with the dedication: "To Gilles, the greatest hooky player that I know" in acknowledgement of my cutting work in NY to attend the Egg Farm Festival, he told me there was always a reason for everything... And he was right, the reason for being there with him turned out to be the production of the Senators CD, as well as a better understanding of who Steven Norman Lackritz — the human being — was deep inside...

Last year, in April 2003, shortly before the Muscle Shoals gig in NYC with Douglas Dunn and Dancers, he sent me a postcard with these words: "It looks like the Egg Farm once more: flying 8 June to Japan until 18. Some gigs with Kosugi, Satoh, Trio JJ/JB in Tokyo 16 June Pit-Inn, etc... Why not come?" I told him I was ready to join and play hooky again. Unfortunately the 2003 tour was eventually cancelled for various reasons, but in the process his postcard revealed to me how eager he was to get back THERE again...

During the engagement of "The Beat Suite" at Iridium in August 2003 - barely a week after he had been diagnosed with liver cancer, coincidentally (?) just around his birthday — we talked again briefly about a possible tour in Japan. I reiterated my commitment to join him once again, no matter when, and no matter what, because "I like playing hooky, for you and your music." And I was not surprised when, at Zankel Hall in February 2004 (where he played with Danilo Perez), he confirmed his excitement about the June tour with John and Jean-Jacques.

We talked about Japan again at the Iridium during the Monksieland gig in mid-March (with Dave Douglas, Roswell Rudd, Jean-Jacques Avenel and John Betsch). Steve repeatedly stated he was so much looking / longing for this tour. Yet, he already looked so frail to me that it did not seem likely to happen. Sensing every moment with him was precious, on Sunday night I secured the permission of all five musicians to film the last two sets (who would have thought this was to be Steve Lacy's last filmed NYC club performance?). I also asked him privately backstage what he thought of my new Yanagisawa soprano saxophone, which he tried and liked a lot, saying: "I gotta get one of these in Japan."

But fate decided otherwise. On the last weekend of May, I had made plans to go out yet decided at the last minute to stay put and listen to music, taking advantage of my being home alone. My program: watch the only two music DVDs I own (not very many by today's standards), a third one lent just the night before by a friend. As I was about to watch my own copy of Monk's Dream @ Iridium: A Dream Come True , (Steve's quartet with Roswell + Jean-Jacques Avenel + John Betsch, produced by Senators Records in 2002), I was shocked to receive a phone call advising me that Steve had been taken to the emergency room at a nearby Boston hospital the day before, in critical condition due to a severe relapse of his liver ailment? Doctors predicted that he would not leave the hospital alive. It was just a question of days. The Japan tour was off.

I flew to Boston on Tuesday morning, and visited Steve in the hospital that afternoon. I was so blessed, so fortunate to have one last conscious contact, one last verbal exchange with him, while he remained - still — so focused on his art.

I told him I was going to Japan, whether the Tour was cancelled or not, and I was taking him along, as well as the soprano saxophone he had tried at Iridium; I would visit both Togashi and Mrs. Saito of the Egg Farm. He surprised me as I heard him ask me to play - when THERE - his Opus 1, The Way. He said: "Play it to the beat of time (60), not to the beat of the heart (72), and more importantly: Keep it in tempo." He added: "It all goes back to The Way," and sang its first few bars, moving his right arm so slowly to illustrate it... I was deeply moved. He finally said: "Please tell Togashi how much I enjoyed knowing him and playing with him. And tell Mrs. Saito I am so sorry I had to cancel the tour." I promised I would. That evening I wrote several pages about that unforgettable precious moment with him.

As we all know by now, he slipped into a coma the following morning, never regained consciousness and died on Friday, 04 June 2004, around noon.

I flew to Japan on 05 June, as planned, with my soprano... and my mandate. Over there, pretty much as Steve himself would have done with music, I improvised my journey, not knowing where / what the next day was going to bring me, since all hotel bookings had been cancelled. It was an intense spiritual retreat that took me to Tokyo, Kamakura, Togashi's own home (where we watched some of his personal videos of concerts with Steve), to the Pit-Inn Club in Shinjuku (for a special tribute to Steve organized by pianist Satoh Masahiko on 13 June, the night the Trio was supposed to play there). My improvisation then led me to Kyoto, a stunning "traditional" city with over two thousand temples and many awe inspiring Tea and Zen gardens... The kind of stuff Steve was very fond of: he loved Japanese trees (especially maples) and peaceful gardens.

At the end of the second week, I was beginning to panic, having no idea of where I would spend the third one — I still had to fulfill my promise to him! — when I "accidentally" (was it really an accident?) learned about a revered Buddhist pilgrimage town named Koya-san, located several hours South of Kyoto. Knowing Steve's deep affinity with Buddhism, I immediately felt this was the most appropriate place to pay (= play) my modest homage to him, as per his request. After a rather long 5-hour train journey that made me experience a magnificent forest landscape and a picturesque cable car ride to the top of the mountains, a local bus took me to one of the over 130 Buddhist temples of Koya-san, recently officially named as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. I spent three days there, the only gai-jin (foreigner) in town, meeting an English speaking monk — who turned out to be a fan of Art Pepper! — enjoying the turbulences of a very violent typhoon... The wind was like some of Steve's turbulent music (actually, it made me think of "The Precipitation Suite"). The day after the typhoon, I went out with my soprano, looking for the perfect place to pay my modest tribute to Steve.

Behind the main mausoleum (called Okuno-in), I discovered an unmarked path so narrow (about 2 feet wide) it was hardly noticeable. A few hundred yards in the forest, I stopped, listened to the silence, and played a short improvised tribute contemplating a beautifully peaceful little brook, but kept on feeling the call to go higher up the hill. Further up, I noticed a huge tree blocking the way (a hint to The Way ?), felled down by the storm on the preceding day. I took it as a sign that I HAD to go "to the other side."

I did. And barely 50 yards beyond, there was a small platform, with a small shrine adorned with a small bronze gong. I immediately knew this was THE place for my homage to Steve. Under still cloudy skies, I played four tunes there: Retreat, Twilight, The Way, and Life On Its Way. For a few minutes, the misty hills were filled with his music, and the present moment felt like eternity. As I finished in a kind of a daze, with the sense of having accomplished my mission, the sun suddenly became stronger, pierced through the trees, and made something glitter on the ground. I picked it up. It was a small broken three-leaf clover brooch, bearing three letters: J, G and S... To me, it meant Japan, Gilles and Steve. The thought gave me the goose bumps.

I felt that Steve was right there beside me. He had been watching, listening, making sure I was keeping the tempo... That glittering broken brooch had been waiting there just for me to notice it. To me, it was the evidence of Steve's spiritual presence there. Since that very moment, I have kept that brooch in my soprano saxophone case. I know Steve is happy. His spirit and his music live forever in Koya-san, in Japan and everywhere. And so do my Love for him as a human being and for his amazing music.

As I finish this writing, I just realize that today is the 23rd of July. It was to be Steve's 70th birthday. And my wish for Steve is that his deep inner connection with Japan will always remain his own private mystery.

Visit the Steve Lacy website at stevelacymusic.org .


Photo Credit
Gilles Laheurte

Related links
Steve Lacy: 1934-2004
Memories of Steve Lacy
A Fireside Chat with Steve Lacy
Steve Lacy: Straight from the Horn
Building a Jazz Library: Steve Lacy



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