By Francis Lo Kee
The great Steve Lacy, recently departed, made many records, but this one captures a great ensemble at the peak of its creative powers. It's a two-CD set from one concert in Basel in 1979, and it's hard to believe that so much great music was played in one sitting.
"Stamps has Lacy's signature angular, repeated (almost minimalist, à la Terry Riley or Steve Reich) phrases that function in the role of the traditional jazz head. Drummer Oliver Johnson plays through the repeated motives with waves of drums and cymbals that subsequently provide a bridge into improvisations that start over an A and D drone. They are both sensitive and bold, modern yet linked to an ancient inner human voice. The band falls back into the repeated motives naturally, ends, and after a very brief pause launches into "Blinks. Here Kent Carter's perfectly calibrated bass playing propels altoist Steve Potts through a gratifying solo. Then Lacy himself takes center stage and delivers a solo with sophisticated lines, growling effects, and minimalist motives building to a roar and then subsiding to a whisper, dovetailing perfectly into Irene Aebi's cello solo.
In "Troubles, we get the rare treat of hearing Steve Lacy's singing voice. Irene Aebi plays the role of the "straight voice against Lacy, who purposely alters each melodic phrase while they both sing the same words. Johnson and Carter provide a broad swing beat for intense, swirling improvisations. "Dreams sets up an impressionistic soundscape, complete with sensitive sound effects. Brion Gysin's words end the piece in a touching, concise way.
Disc two is where the suite "The Way begins. The music, inspired by the text to the "Tao Te Ching, is incredible. "Existence becomes a swinging, chromatically rising bass figure that never fails in energy or inspiration. Irene Aebi may have her detractors, but her vocal performances throughout the suite are really powerful. Indeed, the entire band is incredibly focused and we get to hear more nuance and depth from everyone in a way that we don't experience on the first CD. "Bone starts with a kind of cartoon conga-line rhythm. Again the collective improvisation is breathtaking, but always with the overview of the form in mind.
The final section of the suite, "Life On Its Way, starts with a very sensitive drum solo that segues into the two soprano saxophones playing "off stage and the violin evoking the Chinese erhu. "Life On it's Way draws the listener in as perhaps the most dramatic and narrative piece of the suite, and it ends with what seems like appropriate thoughtfulness. The audience reaction swells, almost as if people quickly realized the incredible journey the suite took them on, and the rhythmic clapping brings on "Swiss Duck, the encore.
The last vocal line from this version of "Bone is "...vitality clings to the marrow, leaving death behind. Lacy's music lives on, leaving death behind. The Way is an easy contender for best reissue of 2005.
Personnel: Irene Aebi: Violin, Cello, Vocals; Kent Carter: Double Bass; Oliver Johnson: Drums; Steve
Lacy: Soprano Sax, Vocals; Steve Potts: Alto, Soprano Sax.