Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy is not only one of the few players since Sidney Bechet to specialize on the straight horn, he has become one of the most prolifically recorded musicians in jazz during a career that has spanned nearly fifty years. Though his early roots were in Dixieland, where he freely drew from Bechet's legacy, Lacy's major claims to fame have been as an avant-gardist and one of the premier interpreters of Thelonious Monk's music.
Lacy's first recording was the debut of Cecil Taylor, Jazz Advance! (1956, Transition); the following year saw Lacy's first session as a leader, Soprano Sax (1957, Contemporary). Since that time Lacy, who spent the major portion of his career in France, has humbly established himself as one of the definitive voices of the soprano (despite John Coltrane pretty much yanking the rug out from under him in 1960 with My Favorite Things ). In 2002 Lacy returned to the U.S. to serve on the faculty of the New England Conservatory, perhaps putting the Sextet behind him but continuing his heritage of musical excellence.
The best of Lacy's vast number of recordings tend to be solo dates, his duos with pianist Mal Waldron, or sessions with his loyal Sextet members. This short overview presents some of the most essential and recommended releases.
Cecil Taylor: Jazz Advance! (1956, Transition; reissued 1997, Blue Note)
Lacy's first appearance on record, though he only plays on two tracks of Taylor's debut album, "Charge 'Em Blues" and the simply titled "Song". In the good company of bassist Buell Neidlinger and drummer Denis Charles, Taylor and Lacy began to redirect the flow of jazz into territories unknown. The relative simplicity of Lacy's Dixieland-steeped style worked in his favor as Taylor and company chopped rhythms down to their bare bones.
Steve Lacy: Soprano Sax (1957, Contemporary; reissued by Original Jazz Classics)
Lacy's debut as a leader presents his first recorded assay of a Monk tune, "Work", along with his quirky but engaging interpretations of standards like "Alone Together", "Easy To Love" and Ellington's "Rockin' in Rhythm". A bit rudimentary, given the heights to which he eventually took the horn, but an enlightening look at how one of jazz' most estimable careers was kicked off.
Steve Lacy: Reflections - Plays Thelonious Monk (1958, Contemporary; reissued by Original Jazz Classics)
Lacy and Neidlinger extended their ambitions in a different direction after Cecil Taylor's group. As might be gathered from the title, this is an all-Monk set in which the slow, gentle "Ask Me Now" and "Reflections" contrast with the devilishly complex "Four In One", "Bye-Ya" and "Skippy", with other tunes taking up the middle ground. Pianist Mal Waldron and drummer Elvin Jones complete the exciting, open-eared rhythm section.
Steve Lacy: The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy (1960, Candid)
In the year that Coltrane brought the soprano sax into serious vogue, Lacy didn't seem all that bothered by the overshadowing. He cut this enduring set with baritone sax man Charles Davis, ex-Monk bassist John Ore and drummer Roy Haynes. The band interprets tunes by both Monk and Taylor, along with an unusual take on Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee".
Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd: School Days (rec. 1963; issued 1975, Emanem; reissued 1995, Hat Hut)
Like Lacy, trombonist Rudd came out of Dixieland and had a deep, abiding love for Monk's music. Their early-60s quartet, with Denis Charles and bassist Henry Grimes, played Monk's music exclusively and became one of the most important interpretive groups of the day. Sadly, the band went unrecorded except for these private tapes. The set once again includes some of Monk's more obscure and/or difficult material: "Brilliant Corners", "Monk's Dream", "Monk's Mood", "Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are", "Skippy", "Bye-Ya" and "Pannonica" (Grimes, running late, is absent on those last two cuts).
Steve Lacy Sextet: The Condor (1985, Soul Note)
We fast forward through the 1970s, a period in which Lacy was quite active but which is not as well represented on CD today. This 1985 date is special for its emphasis on poetry: each composition is inspired by a particular poem, a recurring theme in Lacy's later work. The classic sextet of Lacy, fellow saxman Steve Potts, Irene Aebi (Lacy's wife) on violin and voice, pianist Bobby Few, bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel, and drummer Oliver Johnson.
Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron: Sempre Amore (1986, Soul Note)
Lacy and Waldron renewed their partnership off and on throughout the pianist's life, each time deepening their empathic response to each other's moods a bit further. This is an all-time classic, a rapt duo session with no Monk in sight; the honorees this time are Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. The set includes "Prelude to a Kiss" and "Azure", "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing", and other less familiar but surprisingly endearing tunes.
Steve Lacy Quartet: Morning Joy: Live at Sunset Paris (1986, Hat Art)
At times Lacy trimmed down the ensemble to suit the needs of the moment. On this bright set, Aebi and Potts are out so that Lacy can work alone with the rhythm section. Some of these tunes became, or had already become, staples of the sopranist's repertoire but receive their definitive renditions here: "Morning Joy", "Prospectus", "As Usual", "Wickets", and Monk's "Epistrophy" and "In Walked Bud".
Steve Lacy Octet: Vespers (1993, Soul Note)
Tenor man Ricky Ford and French hornist Tom Varner joined the sextet for this unusual (even by Lacy's standards) but gripping setting for poems by Bulgarian writer Blaga Dimitrova. Alhough the session is largely dominated by Aebi's vocals, which people tend to either love or hate, and Lacy only gets one really extended solo, the band's interaction is nothing short of stunning.
Lol Coxhill, Steve Lacy and Evan Parker: 3 Blokes (rec. 1988; issued 1994, FMP)
Lacy at his most "outside", duetting (and, on one track, trioing) with two of Britain's greatest free improvisers. The gentlemen's styles on the soprano couldn't be different, which makes for some exciting confrontations. Coxhill takes an almost music-hall approach at times, while Parker employs his signature "Snake" technique and Lacy waxes about as melodic as always. The only real quibble is that the trio cut is much too short.
Steve Lacy: Findings: My Experience with the Soprano Saxophone (1994, CMAP Paris; book and 2 CDs)
A fascinating collection of Lacy's musings, experiences and reminiscences about the soprano saxophone and his career. The book reveals much about Lacy's approach to music and improvisation, and his philosophy about his art, and the accompanying CDs help to shed more light on his observations and lessons. Findings is not cheap but well worth the investment for serious saxophonists. It can be purchased through Cadence/North Country and a few other online sources.
Steve Lacy Quartet: Revenue (1995, Soul Note)
A different quartet format, with Steve Potts in for Bobby Few and drummer John Betsch permanently replacing Oliver Johnson. This is more essential Lacy, with the band plying regular features like "The Rent" and "I Do Not Believe" (from Vespers ) to the ultimate flexibility. Tributes to Robert Creeley, Johnny Hodges and Jimi Hendrix illustrates Lacy's huge palette of influences.
Steve Lacy: Actuality (1996, Cavity Search)
Lacy's solo experiments tend to be just as essential as his group work, but there is so much to choose from that "caveat emptor" is a consistent mantra. This ranks among the best of the best, a set recorded mostly in Portland, Oregon's Old Church with the delicious resonance accentuating Lacy's brusque tone. Outstanding versions of "Gospel", "This Is It", "The Door", "Revolutionary Suicide" (dedicated to Huey Newton) and more.
Steve Lacy: The Cry (1999, Soul Note)
Lacy's poetic inspirations take another turn, this time to Bangladesh where he draws from the works of Taslima Nasrin. Besides Aebi, who is once again in the forefront, there are a few cast changes at hand: percussionist Daniel Gioia and reeds player Tina Wrase contribute to the exotic drive of one of Lacy's least typical but most impressive outings to date.
Steve Lacy: 10 of Duke's + 6 Originals (2002, Senators)
Inaugurating a new French label, this release presents Lacy's updated solo takes on the Duke Ellington repertoire. The live set includes "The Mooche", "Koko", "Prelude to a Kiss", "In A Mellow Tone", and other Duke favorites and obscurities, along with Lacy originals like "The Breath" and "Gospel". Proof positive that the best just keeps on getting better.
For more recommendations, see the AAJ "Building a Jazz Library" home page .