There’s a famous adage in jazz that soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy (1934-2004) thought Thelonious Monk’s music was a “door to the other side,” which meant, for him, a transition from Dixieland into free improvisation by the mid-60s, later introducing a range of his own idiosyncratic compositional devices. In a sense, Lacy developed a sound world that his compatriots and followers have had to work through in much the same way as he did with Monk. And while Lacy was incredibly prolific during his lifetime, the last several years have uncovered a tremendous amount of previously unheard (or at least very rare) recordings. This year has already seen four important discs’ worth of Lacy’s music – in addition to the two on UK label Emanem I’ll discuss here, there’s a pair of great reissues on Portuguese imprint Clean Feed (Esthilaços, 1972) and Unseen Worlds (agitprop chanteuse Maria Monti’s Il Bestario, 1975).
Emanem started in 1972 with an LP of Lacy’s first solo concert at the Théâtre du Chene Noir in Avignon, released as Steve Lacy Solo with (in my opinion) one of the most beautiful-looking album covers in jazz. It was reissued once before as Weal and Woe with quintet material added (The Woe); the all-solo Avignon and After vol. 1 consists of selections from the Avignon concert and five tracks from a 1974 Berlin performance. Not all solo saxophone concerts capture the feel of improvising without a net in the way that these Lacy documents do, presenting the saxophonist in full chirp-and-quack mode, in a struggle to create both compelling tunes and an involving, reflective environment from sonic kernels and referential phrases. What’s immediately surprising from the first moments of “The Breath” is that, unaccompanied, Lacy’s kinetic force is just as remarkable as his tone and improvisational choices. He takes a singsong, folksy melody and tears into it with resources that alternately express the “quaintness” of the theme and go well beyond it (a la Albert Ayler). The chance piece “Stations” finds Lacy improvising along with a radio tuned to some sort of lieder; rather than background, an intense dialogic push-pull is the result. The pretty “Josephine” begins with a spare clamber, moving to almost inaudible puckering noises and then an easy swing. While less cleanly recorded than the Avignon concert, the Berlin pieces are just as rugged (if not moreso by dint of their “rawness”), including particularly choice readings of “The Owl” and “Torments.” There’s a lot of solo Lacy available, but this set is indispensable.
The Sun is a compilation based around Lacy’s anti-Vietnam War music, created with his longtime partner, Swiss-born vocalist Irene Aebi. Some of the material here was issued before – four parts of The Woe and a short set of improvisations on The Way, with electronic artist Richard Teitelbaum – though much of it is rare and archival. “Chinese Food” is the most storied of the pieces here; it was recorded in New York in 1967 and finds Aebi reading (and hurling) anti-war texts from Lao Tzu against Teitelbaum’s unhinged, patchwork live electronics and Lacy’s screams and sideways twirls. Buckminster Fuller’s texts are used as the springboard for the title piece, recorded in 1968 with Aebi, Lacy, trumpeter Enrico Rava, vibraphonist Karl Berger, drummer Aldo Romano, and bassist Kent Carter (all favored collaborators from 1965 onward). Tart horn lines move in a gooey orbit with free percussive chatter and Berger’s ringing, monolithic chords. Aebi is often described as an acquired taste – indeed, her approach to reciting/singing is a cross between lieder and a distinctly European declamation – but in the context of weighty, far-out protest music, she is a perfectly-applied element. The four parts of The Woe are a prime example of Lacy’s working group of the mid-70s with Aebi, Carter, saxophonist Steve Potts, and drummer Oliver Johnson. On “The Wage,” live cassette recordings of artillery fire are thrown into the mix as well as the ensemble’s vocal shouts, driving an already potent hardcore free-jazz unit into a timely stratosphere. While protest art can be hard to unravel from its immediate context, the state of perpetual strife we live in serves as a regular enough background to this music that its political impact isn’t lessened.