Steve Lacy once said that his gradual engagement with free improvisation, "dropping the tunes" as he put it, was a mode in which he (or any musician) could get to that indescribable "thing" on the other side. It is also likely that his intense study of the songbooks of Monk, Nichols and Ellington in the '50s and early '60s not only led to freedom, but also to the unique compositional style that came from free playing. In a sense, each piece in Lacy's songbook is certainly a tightrope walk down both sides of the structure-freedom continuum (or the void lying in between both, if you will), each one revisiting a new leap into the unknown. In Lacy's Taoist-inspired song cycle The Way
, nowhere is the path of the saxophonist-composer's art more evenly symbolized.
Though first brought to light in the late '60s as a vehicle for Lacy's vocalist wife Irene Aebi, the Taoist suite has gone through a number of recorded runs. Fragments of the cycle appeared on Wordless (Futura, 1971, with Ambrose Jackson and Jerome Cooper) and the "augmented solo" date Lapis (Saravah, also 1971) with significantly different results. However, it was not until this 1979 Basel concert recording for Hat Hut that the cycle was brought to its most fully realized version. Featuring usual suspects Aebi (heard on violin and cello as well as voice), altoist Steve Potts, bassist Kent Carter and drummer Oliver Johnson, the complete concert is heard here for the first time, including the Taoist suite in addition to six "staples" (pun intended) from the Lacy sing-songbook.
The playful, off-kilter melodies that Lacy has a penchant for, deceptively simple repetitions of phrase and eloquent austerity, belie a Buddhist wit, and the way in which Lacy plays with composition and improvisation as though they were riddles for one another fits right into the jazz musician's koan. Yet, depending on one's proclivities toward Taoist and fluxus (in the case of Brion Gysin's lyrics to "Dreams") poetry sung in Alpine lieder fashion, the presence of Aebi's vocals on this session could be of interest or a distraction. Unlike the recent Beat Suite, the vocals serve brief melodic roles, segueing into lengthy and involved solo and group improvisations that are prime examples of this particular quintet in very fine form. However, unlike other Lacy records from the period, the vocal pieces take up a significant portion of the repertoire (on the LP version, in fact, only the suite is present).
Nevertheless, whether this writer's ears are getting progressively more open or not, the lieder on this session seem more tasteful than in other cases and less of a distraction. For those who like their Lacy completely uncut, there are intense and wholly instrumental versions of "Stamps," "Blinks," a funky "Raps," and "Swiss Duck."
Of course, the point of the koan of finding what lies on the other side of Monk and free playing is that the other side is itself a process. The most fully realized version of the Taoist cycle is a highly exploratory improvised suite linked more texturally than lyrically or thematically. In many ways, this is the ethereal embodiment of jazz, improvisation, and art: a mere snapshot that only gives an inkling of the Way.
Personnel: Steve Lacy (ss, voc), Steve Potts (as, ss), Irene Aebi (vln, cel, voc), Kent Carter (b), Oliver Johnson (d).