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Steve Lacy: The Holy Ia

Dan McClenaghan By

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The The Holy Ia opens – fittingly, for a Steve Lacy set – with a Thelonious Monk tune, "Shuffle Boil." In the sixties, soprano saxophonist Lacy teamed with trombonist Roswell Rudd in a quartet that performed Monk tunes exclusively; and the "straight horn" man is still one of the premier interpreters of the offbeat but supremely logical sounds from the pen of Monk.

Lacy, rooted in Dixieland and influenced by the music of Sidney Bechet, stuck with the soprano saxophone that went out of favor with the emergence of bop, before its renaissance when John Coltrane recorded "My Favorite Things" in 1960. Lacy has never enjoyed a high profile, due in part to an extended expatriate period in Europe – from the early sixties until just last year – and an output of recordings that, while excellent, appeared almost exclusively on small labels.

On The Holy la (for A, the pitch musicians almost alway tune to), Lacy has his sound pared down to a trio with bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel and drummer John Betch. After opening with the lesser-known Monk tune, Lacy and team offer up eight Lacy originals, plus a Robert Creeley poem ("Inside My Head") with a Lacy melody; Irene Aebi sings, in her singular style, the lyrics. Lacy's wife of thirty-plus years has long collaborated on his recordings, and her rather free-flung delivery and rich flugelhorn/clarinet-ish tone is a perfect contrast to Lacy's soprano tang.

Lacy is phenominal here, as always. I can't think of a musician – other than the late Louis Armstrong – who has a more complete command of his instrument, a seemingly effortless control that feels in no way stultifying; that doesn't hamper at all the very fluid and sinuous and free feel of the set.

Steve Lacy is a giant, though still underappreciated. His indie label output – pre-internet and online availability – was difficult to track down. Hopefully the presence of much of his work on the net will bring him the higher profile he deserves.

And check out "Clichés" on this disc. Jean-Jacques Avenel plays the kalimba/sanza (thumb piano) on this one, and the chiming percussion mixed with the keening soprano yields an unusually beautiful sound.

Visit www.sunnysiderecords.com .

Track Listing: Shuffle Boil, The Holy la, Inside My Head, Blue Jay, Flakes, The Wane, Cliches, Retreat, The Door

Personnel: Steve Lacy: soprano saxophone; Jean-Jacques Avenel: bass, sanza; John Betsch: drums; Irene Aebi: vocals on "Inside My Head" and "Retreat."

Title: The Holy Ia | Year Released: 2003 | Record Label: Sunnyside Records

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