Steve Lacy: Mr. Soprano
"The history of the soprano saxophone begins and ends with Steve Lacy. We owe it to him, him alone, with no help, struggling, white as snow, pure as crystal." ~ Marc-Edouard Nabe, Zigzags
This bold statement from the mid-1980s may have been dismissed, at the time, as hyperbole from an opinionated, devoted fan. But these simple, powerful words now shape a profound and poetic truth about someone we might call Mr. Soprano. Yes, we owe Steve Lacy for most of what the soprano saxophone is today.
He removed it from the Dixieland cage where it was locked in and took it to other spheres high up in the sky. Although he made some 300 records, he struggled financially all his life: "MacArthur [1992 "Genius award] notwithstanding, we are always running short, he wrote on a 1995 postcard. Yet his luminous music, laser-sharp in focus, elevated the soprano saxophone into an important, unique VOICE, thanks to the confident vision he had of the instrument and of himself. True, wherever he played, alone, in duo, with his famous sextet or with other groups, Steve Lacy always seemed to have not just one, but a hundred visions. But the vision he had of the soprano saxophonethis "hysterical woman," as he used to call it, or this "wild horse to be tamed," as he also once put itwas brilliantly made manifest when he brought it to its consecration.
Whatever he was doing, one thing always stood out: his sound. So unique, so pure, unmistakably his and his alone! Personally (like many fans), I have always been floored by his sound, from his early albums with Dick Sutton (The Jaguar sessions) through the singing, graceful and relaxed highlights poking through Gil Evans' lush arrangements, to the stratospheric notes of his most daring pieces of the '70s (Cloudy, Moon, The Wire) to the quiet incandescence of his final bars of Monk's music in March 2004 (Bye-Ya with Monksieland). No one but him could stroll with such aplomb on the treacherous terrain of those altissimo register notes, keeping the most perfect razor sharp pitch, making it sound so deceptively easy when these notes are so hard to find and bring out. When one hears Steve Lacy tiptoeing, growling, chirping or gliding through the total range of the instrument, it is often hard to believe one hears a soprano saxophone. Yet, it is the real soprano, what this beautifully jeweled piece of brass was meant to fully bring out of its conical section and its many magical timbre oddities. From this mechanical tool he extracted what became a hypnotic musical language, full of poetry, as precise as a diamond, purely "Lacyan.
In a conversation we had in 2000, talking about life, we naturally ended up talking about death, since the two are inseparable. I recall Steve sayingin his unforgettable gentle tone of voicethat at that moment, he would like to hear just one note. Not two, just one... because that one single note was a universe in itself! His words still haunt me, and I keep wondering what he heard when he parted. A note pure as crystal, for sure...
Yes, we owe Steve Lacy a lot. Not just the soprano's now permanent lease on life, but also some 600 brilliant compositions, and a true gentleman's vision of the world. So let's honor him and pay back what we owe him by just playing his luminous music. As he said it so well in his own poem, Saxovision: "Music speaks for itself, and needs no explanation: either it is alive, or it is not. This tribute at Merkin Hall serves as another proof that his music is more alive than ever. And I know Steve Lacy is content: I can see him smiling.