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Steve Lacy

Steve Lacy was the first important artist to play soprano saxophone in the post-bebop era. He rescued the instrument from the ghetto of Dixieland revival and threw it so far ahead of the curve that it was considered the trickiest and most avant-garde of all saxophones for decades afterward. If it wasn’t for Steve Lacy, John Coltrane would’ve stayed on tenor his entire career, and so probably would have Wayne Shorter.

When Lacy and Roswell Rudd formed a quartet dedicated to interpreting Thelonious Monk’s compositions in the early ’60s, it was the first time any working group not led by Monk himself would channel so much effort, intellect and energy into that body of work. Lacy can be partially credited with moving the perception of Monk’s compositions from “Chinese music” that was “too hard to play” to their current status, where damn near every number is considered a standard.

Before joining Monk’s ensemble in the early ’60’s, Lacy worked with Cecil Taylor. With Monk, the emphasis was on rearranging and reinterpreting songs that were already decades old, rather than inventing new material from scratch. Cecil Taylor’s modus operandi was (and remains) constant, instant improvisation. Free jazz is the most demanding creative situation for any musician, and on the albums Jumpin’ Pumpkins and Jazz Advance, the incredible fruits of this high-risk operation can be heard on Taylor originals like “I Forgot,” “Rick Kick Shaw” and “Song.”

Had Lacy been merely a sideman to greats, he’d have never inspired Coltrane and Shorter to play soprano. It’s his unique voice, manifested in his solos and compositions, that argue most powerfully for his stature.

Last summer, I saw Lacy perform most of what will likely be his final album, The Beat Suite, at Antone’s in Austin, Texas. Recorded with his longtime Parisian quintet, consisting of his wife, vocalist and violinist Irène Aebi, bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel, drummer John Betsch and AACM trombonist George Lewis, it will probably always be my favorite Lacy album.

I brought my sketchbook, pens and pencils to the show. Looking back on the extremely vague sketches I made that night, I realize I was too entranced by the music to capture the show’s magic on paper. Lacy was a small guy, a bit peculiar looking, with an extremely high and long forehead, and comparatively small facial features, except for his big nose. He and his wife both had a tiny, elfin air about them, seeming delicate and otherworldly, an impression cemented by the thin, high tones of their respective instruments. With her precise enunciation and disdain of any hint of melisma or vibrato, Aebi’s approach suggested opera rather than jazz. They both peered owlishly down their noses through thick bifocals at their sheet music and lyrics, yielding some laughs when the next song was announced as “The Hoot.”

The Beat Suite is the greatest manifestation of one of the principle currents in Lacy’s work, setting the poetry of the Beats to music. Gregory Corso’s “The Mad Yak” is a lament in the voice of an animal being led to the slaughter, looking at his caretakers, noting the artifacts they wear that are made from his relatives, and pondering his own future after death – “They are waiting for me to die, they want to make buttons out of my bones. … And that beautiful tail! How many shoelaces will they make of that?” Aebi sang the text of the poem in unison with Lacy’s saxophone and Lewis’ trombone on the verses, set to a halting, dissonant and discomforting melody. I didn’t know then that Lacy was gravely ill, and thinking back on my experience at the concert last year, listening once again to the recording of the song fills me with guilt. In a review I wrote at the time, I complained of the short length of the show – I wanted a few more buttons and shoelaces. Hell, at least I was there. Sadly, Antone’s was almost empty. (It was the late second set on a weeknight, though, and the times I’d seen him previously in the much smaller Continental Club, he had packed the house.)

I didn’t feel shortchanged by the brevity of the performance. All the musicians played beautifully and soulfully, performing both new and classic pieces, originals by Lacy and of course Monk standards. In addition to “The Mad Yak,” two songs stand out in my memory. One is “Blinks” – a Lacy composition that I think may be fairly characterized as his theme song. He’s recorded it many times over the years, beginning in the mid-’70s, and performed it at every concert I’ve ever seen by him, regardless of what band he was playing with. “Blinks” is another unison piece, with the entire head — a staccato rising and falling series of one simple rhythmic four-note figure — played by all instruments together. Lacy announced the tune by blinking his own eyes at us in that same pattern before saying the title. You blink — the world is there, and then its gone, and then it reappears. Blink, and you miss it, but if you don’t blink your eyes dry out and you go blind. We blink from surprise; we blink at a bright light when we step out of the dark because it’s too much for our senses to stand. A one-night stand on a weeknight is inconvenient for most people. It’s a hard time to set aside to go out and try something expensive and risky, like seeing an obscure avant-garde jazz musician. You blinked. You missed it.

The final song of the night was the brand-new “Baghdad,” another meditation on death and its effects on the world. It is an instrumental, as if words would be insufficient to convey the sorrow and horror that he felt for the war that had then just been declared over — and yet continues to kill both Iraqis and Americans. It was huge in its dynamic range; the band started playing the middle-eastern modal melody very softly, but by the end, they were blowing as hard and as loud as they could. It began pretty and ended ugly and was both sad and frightening. Lacey and Lewis locked eyes at one point and were playing at one another, sending out spiky, howling phrases that each would finish for the other, but throwing it back like a grenade about to go off. “Baghdad” seemed to exhaust the band, and as soon as it was over they retreated to the green room and the lights came up. I gathered up my pencils and pads and left, simultaneously exhilarated and a little unsettled by what I’d seen and heard. I wanted to go backstage and show the band my sketches, but feared they’d be insulted by the poor quality of the work. I left without even trying to speak to any of them, or even thanking them beyond applause and a standing ovation, and I’ll never have the opportunity to do so again.