Steve Lacy: With Mal Waldron and the Beats

Clifford Allen By

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Steve Lacy/Mal Waldron
Live at Dreher Paris 1981

According to Steve Lacy, playing Monk's music offered the improviser a way to see what was on “the other side,” not just of an individual tune's possibilities, but to a certain sort of harmonic and rhythmic freedom available to the player in any environment. For a time, this led to Lacy's dropping the tunes altogether. It is quite natural then that Lacy and Waldron would have seen the opportunities available in engaging the other side together as a unit. In 1981, hatART captured live their first known duo meeting, released as Snake-Out and reissued here in a much-expanded four CD package.

The pairing of saxophone and piano might not, in lesser hands, be something that would garner great interest; yet Waldron and Lacy have such distinctive styles and voices, ultimately rooted in investigating similar problems, that the meeting is perfect. And what would such a highly personal duo be without, in theory at least, some areas of clash? After all, Lacy often chooses the higher realms of the soprano's timbre, while Waldron roils about in the lower depth of the keyboard, producing rhythmically insistent yet incredibly dense tone clusters. Yet the players need one another; Lacy gives Waldron's hands a bit of needed levity, while Waldron enhances Lacy's sinewy lines with polemical gravity.

The choice of tunes is split three ways between the Monk book, Lacy's compositions, and Waldron's. "Round Midnight" is given three treatments here, each progressively more personal to the Waldron-Lacy stylistic stamp (and each, therefore, a more interesting listen). But the Monk pieces are only a starting point for the sound-world inhabited by the two players. Each composer has isolated central elements of Monk's style, and run with them – Lacy the simplicity and playfulness, Waldron the rhythmic intensity. Waldron's solos are of particular interest; in "Snake Out" one can hear the blueprint for European free pianists like Francois Tusques, whose style hinges on anthemic repetition, and in "The Seagulls of Kristiansund" he evokes the romanticism of minimal pianist-composers like Charlemagne Palestine and Philip Glass.

Granted, as with any box set, there is a lot of music to be approached in one sitting, but the playing is so seamless it is hardly noticeable. Through this set, one can see that the innovations of Monk, Herbie Nichols, Cecil Taylor and their ilk did not go unrecognized, though the freedom attained was not an unbridled “collective call” but that of understanding the complexity of the obvious.

Steve Lacy
The Beat Suite

The fusion of jazz with poetry, even Beat poetry, is nothing new. LeRoi Jones read alongside the music of the New York Art Quartet and the Albert Ayler-Sunny Murray juggernaut in the mid '60s, and lesser known reciters have graced classic sides by Murray, Muhal Richard Abrams and others. But Steve Lacy's setting of poems by William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Spicer and others is of a decidedly different ilk, for rather than providing free-time backing for recitations, Lacy and his band attempt integrated settings for these poems as lyrics in a unique classical vocal-jazz hybrid.

On the surface, The Beat Suite appears similar to the moody tone poetry of such albums as The Way (hatHUT, 1980), with two horns, voice, and rhythm. Lacy is joined here by trombonist George Lewis, bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel and drummer John Betsch. Irene Aebi sticks to vocals, rather than adding her cello or violin to the mix. Unlike previous works, Aebi's vocals are strictly limited to thematic bookends; the poems are the heads of the tunes (the music matching the lyrical cadences) and the improvisations follow without vocal contribution.

Though the pieces are themselves rather concise, in a way this creates a less integrated performance. Despite the unity of the lyrics and music in the themes, their separateness from the improvisation at hand makes them too disparate to even qualify as mini-suites, and the cadences are often too fast (or Aebi's voice too indecipherable) for the words to have much impact of their own. Of course, some of these meetings work better than others; Lew Welch's "A Ring of Bone" and Robert Creeley's "Jack's Blues" are given particularly appropriate treatments, the former's cyclical thematic material hitting on the mark the Taoist implications of the poem (and much Beat poetry). However, Lacy's music by nature doesn't really approach the despair inherent in the work of Ginsberg et al. The alienation expressed by these writers as part of the postwar, McCarthyist milieu doesn't necessarily jibe with the bright, quirky affairs that mark Lacy's style.

The Beat Suite is, despite shortcomings, another notch in Lacy's cap. Although Avenel and Betsch sometimes sound a bit leaden, the Lacy bounce comes through all of it, and Lewis' playing is a revelation. Also, one's appreciation for classical vocals in general will probably dictate how much interest Aebi garners here. The album itself is not entirely failed or successful; the music is well-executed and refined, but the way in which the poems are set, though interesting in concept, is not quite up to other efforts.


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