A Fireside Chat With Steve Lacy

AAJ Staff By

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A collaboration like that is rare and very precious and flourishes. It is organic. It goes on and on and on until it can't go on anymore. Mal is a wonderful accompanist. He can make anybody sound good. I like to play with him because he made me sound good.
As one of the most recorded artists of our time, conventional wisdom would suggest that Steve Lacy material shouldn't age well. Conventional wisdom be damned because Lacy's records have stood the test of time and moreover, Lacy himself has actually gotten better as the years have passed. For example, his latest recordings on hatOLOGY with his Roswell Rudd quartet, School Days, and with the Steve Lacy 6, We See, are better than his Novus material from the Eighties. His initial recording for the Senators label is one of his finest live recordings. I guess Lacy and James Brown have made a pact with the devil. Lacy sat down with the Roadshow to talk about his return stateside, his new record, and the life and times of one who has defied convention, as always, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

STEVE LACY: I have always loved music and theater and dance and cinema and painting, all the arts. I was really into that all my life. But jazz, I got very interested in jazz from when I heard Duke Ellington at twelve years old. That is what started me into the jazz world. It was the hottest swinging, spicy music that I had every heard. I heard the records that he had made in 1929 and 1930, when he had the original Jungle band with Bubber Miley on trumpet and I bought those records as a kid without knowing what they were exactly. I was just intrigued by the way they looked on the shelf. I had some birthday money. I was twelve years old and I bought them without listening to them. I look them home and a flipped. That was the birth of my interest in jazz really. At sixteen years old, a few years later, I heard a record of Sidney Bechet playing a Duke Ellington piece actually and that combination was just magic for me.

FJ: The soprano saxophone was not a very popular instrument at the time.

SL: No, it was completely in limbo. Nobody was playing it. Bechet was in Europe and his only disciple, Bob Wilber was in New York playing pretty much like Bechet and there was nobody doing anything with the instrument. I didn't know that at the time. I found that out sooner than later (laughing).

FJ: Finding work couldn't have been easy.

SL: It was mixed, but I was into the traditional jazz world playing with the people from New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City, and playing traditional jazz. The reception was good there because I wasn't competing with anybody. There was already the trumpet, trombone, and the clarinet in those bands and I was playing the soprano saxophone. I wasn't taking anybody else's job away, so they just sort of added me on.

FJ: This lead to a couple of recording sessions for Prestige.

SL: My own first records, that's right. I recorded with Gil Evans in his first record for Prestige and as a result of that, the producer, Bob Weinstock offered me my own chance to record under my own name. So I made my first record. I used Wynton Kelly on piano and Dennis Charles on drums, Buell Niedlinger on bass and I did the best I could for a young beginner. I had some Ellington material, one piece of Monk, and a calypso piece.

FJ: Those sessions were a sign of things to come. You have almost been the standard bearer for the Thelonious Monk songbook.

SL: That's right. I fell in love with his music, really, Cecil Taylor, I was working with Cecil for six years in the Fifties and Cecil turned me onto Thelonious Monk. First, we were playing one of his pieces in Cecil's group and then I went with him to hear Monk in 1955 at a little club in downtown New York. And again, I flipped. Every time it is some great music that I hear for the first time, I flip. I flip again and again. I really fell for Monk's music and I started to learn it the best I could from his own records. I found to my delight and surprise that it was very good for the soprano saxophone. The range was ideal for me. It was like the right hand of the piano, which is the same range as the soprano saxophone. They fit me. Those pieces fit me and also, they were very full of challenges and problems. They were difficult to play and nobody else was playing them. Not even Monk was playing them. He wasn't working very much in those days. So it seems like that material was made for me in a way, or made for my instrument.

FJ: Are you familiar with the complete canon?

SL: By now, well back in those days, up until the early Sixties when I had the group with Roswell Rudd and we played exclusively Monk's music, at that time, Fred, we had fifty-five of his compositions under our belt. We were performing fifty-five pieces of his and now, a book recently came out and they have seventy pieces of his and some of which I didn't know at all. Anyway, I've gone through much of his book and it is all available now. Back then, Fred, there were no books at all.

FJ: You continued your collaborations with Roswell Rudd through the years.

SL: We were like a fellow researchers. We both love Ellington and the whole history of jazz, but especially we were very interested in Monk's music. We worked together on it to discover how it was made and what it consisted of. He helped me correct my mistakes and I helped him find good parts for him to play on the trombone, so we collaborated on that and the thing is, you have read the expression "Sunday painters." Well, we didn't want to be that. We wanted to play that every night and for a long enough time so that we got to the bottom of it and also, so that we could play it freely. If you only play something once in a while, you can't, you have to be very polite with the material. You can't take liberties with it. We felt that if we played this music long enough, we could find a freedom on the other side and sure enough, we were right. Of course, we couldn't make any money then. Back then, it was considered very weird to have a quartet with no piano, playing the music of Thelonious Monk in little cafes in New York. That was really underground.

FJ: Roswell has been a champion of the Herbie Nichols' songbook as well.

SL: Yeah, yeah, Roswell made me discover that. I met Herbie when he was alive, but I never heard him play his own things. I only heard him play so called Dixieland that he was playing to make a living at. I met him, but I had no idea about his own music until much later when I discovered it through Roswell Rudd and also through Misha Mengelberg. Now, I love it very well, but I didn't know it at the time when he was alive. The thing is, Fred, Herbie didn't live long enough to see his music excepted and developed really. Monk was lucky enough to have a wonderful wife, who helped him survive the lean years and he could do his own research and he lived to see his music accepted and flourishing. Ellington, of course, had his wonderful band and he had some great hits. He had some big hits that he wrote that helped him pay the members of his ban and keep his music and to be able to realize what he wanted to realize with success. But Herbie, Herbie didn't have a chance really. He died too young and he never lived to see the interest that people have in his stuff. It's very original music and very beautiful stuff and very varied and quite interesting now and more and more people are getting interested in playing it. I think Roswell has done the most to promote it than anybody.

FJ: Your reverence for piano players, Monk, Ellington, and Nichols is acknowledged, but you have had some heavy pianists in your own bands as well.

SL: That's right.

FJ: Bobby Few.

SL: Oh, Irene and I were living in Rome in '68,'69 and by the end of '69, I was writing a lot of music and we were working with amateurs in Rome and they couldn't play what I was writing. Then I played a festival in Belgium, outside of France and I heard all these wonderful musicians from Chicago and different places that were living in Paris. I heard Braxton and Leo Smith and Leroy Jenkins and Jarman and all the wonderful musicians, Frank Wright and I heard Bobby Few. And so that is what really decided me to want to move to Paris from Rome. I told Irene that there were some wonderful musicians in Paris and let's move to Paris. We could form a band. We went there and Bobby was one of the main reasons because he was the first pianist I heard after Cecil Taylor that had his own thing really well developed.

FJ: He is finally getting some appreciation stateside.

SL: Yeah, that's good. The thing is, at that time, we got there to Paris and I did form a band and the band lasted for over twenty years actually, but I couldn't hire Bobby Few for ten years because he was working with Frank Wright all that time. Then finally, in 1980, he was able to join our band and he played with us for fifteen years.

FJ: In the early Nineties, you recorded Spirit of Mingus with Eric Watson.

SL: Spirit of Mingus, yeah, Eric Watson, I liked that record too. I did a couple of other things under his name on small labels. I don't know that they are still in print. That was the most elaborate record that we made, the most developed.

FJ: And your most infamous collaborations have been with Mal Waldron.

SL: Mal Waldron, yeah. I've known Mal from the Fifties. We worked together back then. He was on my second record. We were accompanying the poets together at the old Five Spot. Then we met again later in Europe. We both moved to Europe around the same time in the mid-Sixties. Then finally, in the Seventies, I started to work with him and he started to work with me and then we started doing duos together and it just went on and on and on. A collaboration like that is rare and very precious and flourishes. It is organic. It goes on and on and on until it can't go on anymore. Mal is a wonderful accompanist. He can make anybody sound good. I like to play with him because he made me sound good.

FJ: Playing duos with Mal has a level of intimacy that you are accustomed to because you seem at ease playing solo.
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