From the first note of The Holy La, you know you’re in the hands of a master. The tone is authoritative, and lower than the high hard sound of the soprano sax we associate with the Coltrane of “My Favorite Things.” The tune is from Monk, “Shuffle Boil,” and the trio, together in one combination or another for the better part of 30 years, demonstrates their affinity for off-kilter rhythms and infallible swing. The Holy La serves as something of a greatest hits package, as the band revisits and reinterprets several compositions from their long collective history.
The selections on the first half of the CD are all less than five minutes each, and the trio makes its statements tastefully and succinctly. The tone of the title track is yielding and Lacy plays in a relaxed fashion as the music sways, while the individual notes on “Flakes” fall like dry snow caught in the gentle throws of a breeze. The tracks get longer with “The Wane” as Jean-Jacques Avenel’s bass holds down the beat with resonant echoing notes and Lacy’s horn moans long and low like a dying siren.
“Clichés” features Avenel on the sanza, a.k.a. kalimba or thumb-piano. John Betsch’s jungle drums persist in the background and Lacy’s part is sinuous and snaky. Vocalist Irene Aebi (Lacy’s wife) guests on two tracks, the more successful of which is “Retreat,” where she sings in her native French and her vocalizing becomes a more natural component of the music. Avenel’s beautifully bowed solo takes off from the original melody and prompts a song-within-the-song, with Lacy’s horn turning almost flute-like. Betsch’s dramatic splash of cymbal ends the track with a flourish.
The Holy La is filled with nervous blues, contrasting textures, and emotional depth. It’s wonderfully recorded, with crisp highs and warm lows in a spacious and airy environment. The music is twisty, with serpentine melodies, its circular nature at times creating a feeling of claustrophobia. You’re not always sure the musicians are going to get out, but they do every time, and you begin to breathe a bit more confidently. The effect is tense, dramatic, and ultimately, very rewarding.
1. Shuffle Boil 5:32
2. The Holy La 4:13
3. Inside My Head 4:48
4. Blue Jay 3:43
5. Flakes 5:50
6. The Wane 8:58
Steve Lacy - Soprano Sax;
John Betsch - Drums;
Irene Aebi - Vocals;
Jean-Jacques Avenel - Bass.
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