Steve Lacy with Don Cherry:
|Recorded in 1961|
|1/||The Mystery Song||Duke Ellington||5:30|
|3/||Let's Cool One||6:35|
|4/||San Francisco Holiday||5:15|
|5/||Something To Live For||Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn||5:50|
|6/||Who Knows||Thelonious Monk||5:20|
Recorded on November 1, 1961 in Englewood Cliffs, NJ (U.S.A.). Engineer: Rudy van Gelger.
Digital mastered at Fantasy Studios, Berkeley in 1990. Engineer: Phil De Lancie.
Cover photo & art: Don Schlitten.
For twelve years, 27-year-old Steve Lacy has been engaged in one of the most challenging assignments in jazz - the full-time mastery of the soprano saxophone, an instrument with unique problems of intonation but also a horn which can be vibrantly rewarding. Lacy has grown impressively, as can be attested by his having been recruited by Thelonious Monk for four months in 1960 and his occasional feature roles in Gil Evans' ensembleSteve Lacy, however, has become more than a virtuoso of the soprano sax. He is a musician with a rare capacity for brilliantly ordered improvisation of a continually imaginative level.
In this, his most intriguing album so far, Lacy has selected three sidemen who complemented him superbly. Don Cherry, best known for his work with Ornette Coleman, was chosen by Lacy because "of the chances he takes, and those chances pay off. He's not set in a mold. Don is full of surprises, and I expect he often surprises himself." Drummer Billy Higgins has worked with Teddy Edwards, Thelonious Monk, and Ornette Coleman. "Billy," says Lacy, "is a natural. He can play on an ash tray, on the top of a bar or on the floor, and it'll sound beautiful. He has besides a natural awareness of form, a real musicality, so that you can say of his work - unlike the playing of most drummers - that it's melodious. And he gets such a fine sound from anything he taps." Bassist Carl Brown, originally from the west coast, was in troduced to Lacy by Billy Higgins, and Steve has worked with Brown on the Greenwich Village coffee house circuit. "He's got a great, big sound," adds Lacy, ''plenty of swing, and he and Billy are real tight. That kind of rapport between a bassist and drummer is essential when you're not using a piano. It's essential even if you are.''
Four of the members in this set are by Steve's favorite composer, Thelonious Monk. The other two are, by Duke Ellington, although Something to Live For is primarily by Duke's mirror image, Billy Strayhorn. I've long wondered why younger jazzmen have not explored the remarkable reservoir of early Ellington tunes, and it's a particular pleasure to hear Steve's version of Mystery Song, which was first recorded by Ellington in 1932. This interpretation, incidentally, is slightly different from the recording because Steve learned it from the sheet music.
"Mystery Song," says Steve, "has a haunting melody. The way it's phrased is unusual as is its economy and the way it falls against the harmony, which is in itself extremely interesting." Worth nothing is the unique blend between Lacy and Don Cherry. "I've never heard anything like it," says Lacy. "I imagined what it might sound like, but it came out even wilder than I thought. Like on Mystery Song, it's elusive and yet it's plangent. It's stark and yet it's gentle. What also helped is that we're friends so that there's a certain chemistry you can't get any other way. That's one of the many things I learned playing with Monk. Friendship can be more important than anything else. If you can get along with the men you're playing with and establish a relationship, the music will reflect that chemistry."
Lacy regards Evidence as one of Thelonious Monk's masterpieces. "It's a supreme example of economy in jazz writing. There's an absolute minimum of notes and a maximum of quality in their choice. As with all Monk's work, it's rhythmically challenging. The intervals, moreover, are endlessly fascinating to contemplate - and activate. It's almost always played wrong because people don't really try to figure out everything that's going on within the tune. Another thing about Evidence is that it's a glorification of the way Monk comps. It came originally from what he did with Just You, Just Me, but it has an identity al I of its own now. "
Let's Cool One, another Monk piece, is described by Lacy as "a deceptively simple piece which rhythm sections especially like, because it's so easy to find a relaxed groove in it." Asked about additional in sights he had gained during his own stay with Monk, Lacy answered, "I learned to stick to the point. To not just play something for the sake of playing something. With Monk, you play something because it has meaning. I also learned to try to get more with the melody, to have what I play relate to the melody, to get inside a song. If what you do doesn't have any connection with the melody, why bother to play the tune in the first place? I had been working on this approach before I went with Monk, but he reinforced my conviction that this was the direc tion for me in jazz"
The third Monk composition on the album is San Francisco Holiday. ''When that first came out in a Monk album," Lacy explains, "it was called "Worry Later". But that's a wrong title, according to Monk. It's a very jolly song, and although it's in the regular 32-bar form, it has several intriguing elements. For one thing, it's a well-shaped two-part invention with a contrast between the repeated notes and the other line moving down against them in a very clever way." On this track, and throughout the album, Don Cherry, it seems to this listener, contributed some of his most confident work on records so far. I've had the impression in the past that there were times when Don was intimidated by Ornette Coleman, but in this new context, he appears to be fully and resourcefully at ease.
The choice of Something to Live For was the result of Lacy's long-term pleasure in the 1939 Ellington recording of the tune with Jean Eldridge's evocative voice. "She got inside that song, and it stayed in my mind because the melody came to mean a lot to me." Carl Brown has a resilient solo on the track, and as throughout the album, Billy Higgins' drumming is flawless in taste, accuracy, and sound.
The final Who Knows by Monk is yet another illustration, Lacy points out, of how carefully each Monk piece is structured. "It's a very intricate melody with the second eight differing from the first eight and going up to a really high point. And listen to the way the melody fits the chords. In Monk's pieces, that isn't a deliberate plan - making the melody fit the chords - but it is the way his tunes work out. They work out perfectly and naturally. I thought I was through with his tunes after studying them for a long time, but I keep going back because I always find new things in them. This man has a body of work - some fifty-two songs that have been recorded. Every single one is different and every one is good. And there's nothing arbitrary about any of his tunes. They're all logical and make perfect musical sense. By contrast, so much of jazz is arbitrary. As for Monk, however, the implications of his work are endless and he has certainly provided the best repertory in modern jazz for a small group."
It is this goal Lacy has set for himself - jazz that is both spontaneous and logically shaped, with nothing factitious in its structure or in its emotional overtones. Accordingly, he plays, as this set indicates, unusually lucid, unrhetorical, warmly personal music. And he does it on an instrument capable of a singular range and sensuous impact of colors. Like Monk, the man he admires so much, Steve Lacy has become an original.
Nat Hentoff (excerpt from liner notes)