Steve Lacy: The Long Distance Runner

David Liebman BY

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The following is an excerpt from "Threads: Evocations & Echos" of Steve Lacy (Unfinished) by Guillaume Tarche (Editions Lenka lente, 2021).

I can't say that I knew Steve personally that well. We did one duo concert in Italy which was interesting to say the least, a story in itself. But of course, being the king of the soprano saxophone meant I had to be familiar with his music and artistic process. He predates Shorter and Trane on soprano... and made a commitment to stay exclusively with the "fish horn."

Steve was the epitome of the true artist... covering a lot of musical ground in a unique, personal way while being steadfast to one's convictions. The bottom line is holding one's ground against any encroachment of a person's aesthetic, usually honed over a substantial period of time. CONSISTENCY is the mantra. For those listeners who cared, Steve represented real creativity and true art as a life-long force for good, inspiring to all.

There was one aspect that stands out and unifies Steve's work over the years. That was his eclecticism concerning the material he chose to explore, something that not many of his peers were into during the '50s / '60s. Steve interacted with poets, singers and I imagine dancers and painters, et al. Then there are the Monk tunes that Steve truly loved, dedicating a good part of his time during the New York early years in a group that played only Monk. He made these very idiosyncratic songs part and parcel of his repertoire. Finally, in single-handed fashion, Lace popularized the art of a solo wind performance. He would come out on stage and somehow, playing only soprano, create an atmosphere that challenged the public to stay in the trenches with him, a voyage like none other, ON SOPRANO SAX ONLY!!

Musically speaking, no matter how diverse the musical material, Steve (like Miles to some degree) always sounded like himself. His what I call "thoughtful" approach, dry sound, use of the altissimo and other saxophone effects, with an inner logic and often slow meditative pace, made Lacy an important and truly unique figure in jazz improvisation for decades.

Steve and I were both Jews from New York, which is itself a discussion for another time. Dry humor was his secret weapon as it was for many of the '50s musicians who sustained a minimalist zen-like quality in their music; Giuffre, Konitz, Bley, etc. There were a lot of improvisational approaches during that time besides hard bop and the rise of Coltrane... but experimental ideas could co-exist with the tradition. Steve could play inside or outside... it was all music... period! (This was before "free jazz" became a style of playing and codified.) These masters were like scientists, handling their oeuvre with an almost formal/classical approach. Steve was that way about his art with no compromises.

In addition, his book Findings is one of the great music texts of all time beyond the soprano sax. Then there's the collection of interviews called Steve Lacy: Conversations which is a tome of knowledge... all imbued with his personal approach to music and life in general.

My solo soprano recording from 1986 was dedicated to Steve, titled The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner. He was the epitome of the runner artistically. The soprano sax is quite a challenge to master and Steve Lacy was THE man for decades on that instrument into the future... a true long-distance runner.

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