Steve Lacy, the great master of the soprano saxophone and one of the unacknowledged greatest improvisers ever, continues a long series of art songs and settings of poetry in this new 2-disc set from Soul Note, the always challenging Italian label. Stretching back to the Sixties Lacy and vocalist Irene Aebi have recorded songs by lyricists including Lacy himself, 19th-century American novelist Herman Melville, poet Robert Creeley, a group of modern Russian poets, and many more. The Cry is a setting of twelve poems by the Bengali renegade poetess Taslima Nasrin.
Nasrin's poetry has embroiled her in controversy and danger in her native land, and certainly her poetic voice is strong, clear, and riveting. Aebi's somewhat detached vocal style works well with this material, for Nasrin tosses off wrenching images of female subjugation ("So that if he wishes he can pull out my eyes") in outrageous proximity to declarations of adoring love ("So that loving him, I would melt like wax") - without a little detachment this would be unbearable.
The musicians are billed here as "Steve Lacy + 6," with only three holdovers from Lacy's long-lived and formidable sextet: Aebi, bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel, and Lacy himself. Whether or not Lacy looked for female performers to work with this material, they certainly are here in force: Tina Wrase on soprano and sopranino saxophones as well as bass clarinet; Petia Kaufman on harpsichord, and Cathrin Pfeifer on accordion. Percussionist Daniel "Topo" Gioia rounds out the group. The music here is well executed, but the group perhaps inevitably invites comparison with the sextet: Steve Potts' combustible reedwork, which interacted so spectacularly with Lacy's cooler approach, is certainly missed. Wrase is less a match for Lacy than a colorist (especially effective on bass clarinet) - albeit certainly a good one. Gioia, meanwhile, perhaps got the nod over the extraordinary John Betsch (with whom Lacy has been touring again this year in a trio with Avenel) for his Eastern proclivities, which help anchor the music to its poetic source.
The music is mostly mid-tempo, with Aebi singing through the poem and then giving way to instrumental sections, after the general fashion of Lacy's art songs. She sings through the songs a bit more here than in the past. Kaufman's harpsichord, alone and in conjunction with Pfeifer's accordion, brings an unusual lightness to the music that abets the strange detachment of the often horrifying lyrics. Among the best tracks is "Dark and Handsome," where the detachment fades and a plaintive melody beautifully draws out the infinite longing and sadness of the lyric. Many of the other tracks are hard to distinguish from one another, even after repeated listenings, for the melodies are strongly subordinated to the poetry and don't cut traces in the mind as powerfully as Lacy can. But that's not to say that there isn't fine playing throughout, especially the rocklike Avenel.
Of course, Lacy's playing is the best highlight of the disc. When everything drops away except the fragile, tensile beauty of his soprano, it is a fleeting chance to hear one of the greatest masters at work. And he is heard amply on this disc, both alone and fronting the other musicians. So if you haven't heard him, this one is well worth hearing. And if you have heard him, you'll know that this disc is essential.