Steve Lacy and The Kiss
It comes as no news that many people with an interest in jazz are looking for Big Names to cling to, and labels to attach to these names like "star", "creative", "leader". But Steve Lacy, who is cool and intense, skillful and gentle, pure too, does not fit such easy categorization. Lacy must be distinguished from even those musicians on the cutting edge of jazz. He is working out the consequences of adopting an utterly disciplined attitude to improvisation, and he continues to move ahead, far beyond the predictable and the customary.
Some innovative musicians primarily approach the problem of developing music by attacking the relation between the musician and the circumstances in which music is created & developed. Ellington and Monk were such innovative musicians. This group of musicians follow this way rather than primarily relying on the introduction of new musical factors (new instrumentation or new rhythms, for example) which would modify contemporary music only gradually (by changes in the vocabulary, standards, rhythms, harmonies, etc. of established musicians) while revealing part of the future development of music. Ellington thought out a new way to catalyze large ensemble music. Monk discovered a new way to place music in time. Steve Lacy respects both Monk and Ellington as masters, and has created himself a new way of placing music in space. Lacy has explored and expressed through his music a powerful new relation of player to musical instrument. For a long time his sax playing had been evaluated as secondary, but it must be noted that he was the only person to devote himself exclusively to the soprano saxophone. He posed the problem of exactitude and solved it by devoted study of embrochure: the mouth, the mouthpiece, the horn. Moreover, he took the difficulties and handicaps inherent in the instrument and turned them into his strong points. The key point for him was that embrochure, the holding of horn to lips, offers the opportunity to create a physical, sensual sound that ultimately comes from the mouth not only the fingering. It all begins with that sound. Of course, it is unnecessary to say that Lacy is not the only musician to emphasize this point. But he has been unusually faithful to his instrument and this shows his deep commitment to its sound. His sonority impresses each of his audiences and grips them directly at the heart. Nobody can avoid it. All of his musical potential, his character and uniqueness which have evolved over the years, are carved in that sonority. It can be sharp and keen as a razor. Or, when necessary, the pure sound becomes hazy and melts into silence. Laurent Goddet has described it something like this: "Lacy's music is extremely nostalgic, and almost turned in on itself. It is as though there is a human being whose breath is sealed in metal."
Another remarkable characteristic of Lacy's style is the perfect, modern structure of his solos. The contrasting use of minor and major, the economy of sound and the use of silence in his solos are fragile elements, but nonetheless they form the basis of the original swing that is characteristic of Lacy's performances. And this swing is related to the jump in rhythm which itself parallels swing. Because the way Lacy organizes sound and rhythm through his improvisations, the resulting music sometimes tears it up, sometimes just hangs in space, sometimes anxiously probes the theme; such is what he offers us.
Turning now from Lacy the improviser to Lacy the composer, we note that he reached at least one point in common with his teacher, Monk. As soon as we hear a theme by either of these composers, we immediately know who wrote the tune. We also sense that it was well thought out, not too little, not too much. Both musicians' compositions often are structured in a similar pattern: like a staircase.
And so, one point we face when we look closely at Lacy is that he has two faces which must both be recognized: composer and improviser. Yet when we listen to him play on a melodic theme, at the same time we can hear the structure of the composition and the improvisation changing it. Now moving, now caught in time, we see both faces, as in an action sketch of a person in motion. There is change akin to biological growth in his music. We hear melody mutually affirmed and denied as he improvises. There is no entity here, only change.
When we realize these factors in his music, we clearly see Lacy the musician as one of the few men who have something profound to say and who know precisely how to say it. As an improviser-composer his musical words are expansive and deep, his maturity considerable. He is a great technician, yet his technique goes beyond mastery of tone color and scales. He can divide, in his own way, time and space. It goes without saying that in order to understand his musical thinking we must go back to Monk. We must follow Monk's thinking about tempo, unpredictable accent and phrasing. And it is in Evidence, Epistrophy, Off Minor, and so on, where we can find the bud of Lacy's improvisations. Lacy caught "Monk's Thing" and he brought it to his own logical conclusion. He is a thinking person's improviser. He aims to make perfect statements and will settle for no less. Start and stop, breath and silence, all of this and more is woven into his style. The monologues of his soprano make wide the border line of possibility and push us beyond what we can see. In his improvisations we find short and lively conversations of breath and space. And these conversations can be humorous, for Lacy is filled with good humor. For example, he will play a common riff for a few bars and, in a later bar will suggest yet another riff (to make you think you know where he is going next) only to suddenly turn and draw a caricature of the original riff. Lacy loves phrasing and plays with phrases which almost tongue-tie him. But always in control, he makes himself twine' round any phrase he chooses. He likes to enter mazes. And when we listen to Lacy improvising and look for the exit, we join him in his quest. His maze-wandering is humorous as I have described it, but the humor in his playing is so much more than this. For example, his compositions like The Duck, The Blinks or Clichés contain humor which alternates from offensive to surprising. Yet they have something in them which sends a chill up your spine. In this humor there is little irony. Since Lacy plays with (such) an open mind and with utter frankness, he has no need to probe unknown darkness.
His high-pitched tone can cut through the densest ensemble passages. In his music there is always open-hearted expression. And there is a riddle held within his music's open-hearted distinctness it mirrors his spirit and we want to look within. We sense the clear, cool depths of Lacys sound and we are drawn to try to listen to the deepest depths of it, never to reach what we are drawn toward. And this is just the "Zen" in Steve Lacy's music, the Zen of Lacy.
Perhaps it can be said about Lacy's solo work that he can -in a single extended note-use tone, sound environment, silence, and echo as no one else can. The integration of these elements is the identity of his sound. But this is not to deny the fundamentally lyrical quality of his music. Perhaps the key to understanding the deeper message of Lacy's performances is that his playing is the same whether he performs solo, in his regular group, or in a specially organized band (such as the Togashi-Lacy-Cherry-Holland group). In any context, when he deals with a theme, he shows the discipline and control of a surgeon. All of the pieces he has composed are suitable for solo meditations, yet open to interpretation by small group and even orchestra. He makes complex arrangements with rich images for his band but always starts with a very simple theme, as when he kicks off a piece by fingering a simple phrase. As for his performances, they are rigorous, one pointed, determined. They seem to insist on a certain realization. It is loneliness of voice that insists and is insisted.
If Steve Lacy is right, his way is the path to his own room. This is a difficult teaching to accept. Among Lacy's compositions we find The Way, the center-piece of the series called Tao. Here 'Tao' is for (in Japanese) "Do" (also "michi" or path, in Japanese). It refers us to the philosophy of Taoism (or "Dokyo" in Japanese). It holds the principle that everything ("the ten thousand things in the Tao Te Ching) emerges from nothing, lives, changes, and returns to nothing. Lacy has said "I learned something from every player I have heard". All. these abundant influences serve Lacy by helping him to arrive once again in that private place. Richard Cook has said of Lacy: "The very openness and singularity of his playing create a world of hieroglyphics, a language that's there to be grasped but missing some vital key, you can almost hear it-it's like a duck calling your name". This concept is more than a little difficult to grasp. But it captures some things of great appeal in the music of Steve Lacy: the music is mysterious, complex, and puzzling.
In May of 1986 Lacy, Don Cherry, and Dave Holland were invited to Japan to play in Masahiko Togashi's 30-year Anniversary Concert. Lacy and Togashi organized the quartet for these concerts. And in these settings Lacy played without reserve, as if he were leading his own group. He also gave some solo and duo concerts in several Japanese cities following the overwhelming success of Togashi's concert series. On the 24th of May, he gave a solo recital at Hiroshima's Higashi Kumin Center, sponsored by the "Hiroshima Real Jazz Crowd". On the recital programs he played 17 tunes, 5 Monk tunes and 12 of his own original compositions. This album, The Kiss contains 7 tunes which were selected from the complete live recording of the Hiroshima solo concert.
In passing I'd like to say a few words about the Hiroshima Real Jazz Crowd. This group was organized in Hiroshima by a group of individuals devoted to creative jazz. It is a radical group, yet has quite a long tradition of concert organizing. However, they became dissatisfied to only listen to jazz, so they started an independent label, Lunatic Records, dedicated to presenting to a wider audience the live recordings of the concerts which they had organized. Their first album was Twilight Monologues (Lunatic 001) which gathered together solo works of 4 of the finest young Japanese pianists on a single disc. This album, The Kiss is their second album. Lacy remarked in this album's liner notes: "This was a solo recital, but also, a prayer for peace. In Hiroshima, history is inescapable: a special vibration that, perhaps, can only be captured and answered by music." Recently, the French philosopher Michel Serres, who attracted international attention with his reflections on theories of noise and violence, has asked himself: "Why did I become a philosopher ? Why am I a philosopher now ?" And he answered these questions with one surprising answer: "Because there is Hiroshima." Here he took a spiritual leap. Lacy's remark has something in common with Serres' answer.
On the night of the Hiroshima recital, Lacy appeared to be in great spirits and filled with a sense of well-being. The works on this album go a long way toward proving that each tune can stand individually with a rhythm, atmosphere, and power of its own. Also this album establishes his music as original, intellectual, completely free, yet altogether exacting. Lacy doesn't try to produce mere effect, and there is no harshness. Everything in his improvisations happens inevitably, but there is no fixed, thought-out, pre-arranged plan. Also there is nothing redundant here. Each sequence in his music is perfect. In other words, he is a musician who listens to himself attentively and who neither inflates his tone for effect nor caricatures his sound. His music is simple and it seems to overflow with the blessings of heaven. It is beautiful, because it is not embellished. It is refined and at the same time, difficult. If it were not both refined and difficult, it could not hold both beauty and simplicity.
Steve Lacy's instrument is a tool of the finest jeweler. He chisels a phrase, making it any shape he chooses. He repeats the epigram again and again. After that he taps it lightly, turns it over, and shakes it front and rear. Then he divides it into several pieces or he shatters it. Next he assembles all the pieces together, no matter how small. This is the basic form of Lacy's solos, something he learned from interpreting Monk's world. Innumerable transformations are born from this basic form. Here "interpreting" doesn't mean dramatizing, nor does it imply rearrangement. It means restoring to the original state, or placing into context. It recognizes that there are many ways to realize beauty.
In his performances, Monk paradoxically realized an organic unity of composition and improvisation by fragmenting his introductory theme (both composed and improvised) as he played. Thereby he developed his themes. Also he broke established conventions in jazz with dazzling clarity, by using starting-and-stopping, tension-and-release, and so on. Monk's presentation of themes was ordered so that the subsequent development in his musical performances always built on a solid foundation. His musical performances achieved this through his technical mastery of the piano. Monk's rugged, hard-edged touch (as we said of Lacy) was a chisel which could shape jewels or even, in Monk's case, granite. His were not hands molding clay. Lacy learned these elements of Monk's approach and gained a new, extremely individualistic vision. The first two tunes on The Kiss are Monk tunes, Monk's Dream and Misterioso. In these two solos we can hear Lacy's individual vision clearly emerge from Monk, the source. Lacy's own themes are many-sided, permit broad interpretation and allow development in a number of directions. They are structured around motifs. So, within one piece we often find his theme developing by little movements as when a living cell divides and multiplies. These movements sometimes appear to be economical or even lacking in substantiality. But once these movements are understood, we recognize them as holding a plethora of implications. This is inseparable from the saxophonist's wonderful technique. The Crust, Lacy's dedication to Rex Stewart, who was one of the most technically adept of Pre-Bop trumpeters, shows this point about Lacy's thematic "little movements" most effectively.
Lacy remarked about Coastline that "it is a musical picture of the Mediterranean coast of Italy, by a small town". At the beginning, Monk's manner of theme repetition is adopted to great effect. Continuously we hear the theme, yet hidden intermittently in the total sound. After that, little by little, we begin to glimpse the scenery and hear dialogue the place and its sounds are sketched by his instrument. But it is always dangerous to compare music with external phenomena. It's certain that Lacy's music is not mere programmatic stuff depicting literally the title's scene. Nevertheless, here is music which appeals to the powers of our imagination in a very suggestive way.
But then who could have composed and performed a boogie-woogie like Morning Joy? Only Lacy, who is a master of the art of nuance could! The Morning Joy theme is formed of a riff plus a melody line. After the second repetition, he plays a variation on the melody. After the fourth riff, he freely improvises. A partial but accurate paraphrase of the theme then is slipped in, and the larger context is set. With sudden alternating jumps from the low to the high register of the horn, Lacy reaches the climax of the music and he turns back to the theme again. The complexity of the process leading to this final moment of triumph is no less than thrilling. This piece is a body trembling with delight to live out the day which has just begun!
Blues for Aida is a blues composed to memorialize Aquirax Aida, who died in 1978 at thirty-two years of age. Lacy himself referred to him as the "Diaghelev of Jazz". There is perhaps no need to explain Diaghelev's fame not only as the leader of a Russian ballet company, but also as an art critic. Aida was a radical critic and at the same time, an exceptional producer and concert organizer. He was individually responsible for bringing to Japan for the first time: Lacy, Derek Bailey, and then Milford Graves. And he sponsored their recitals and concerts in many places throughout the country. He encouraged exchanges and interactions between them and Japanese creative musicians. He took a chance in promoting an avant-garde and true international spirit in Japanese jazz. Lacy composed this piece based on a poem from the Manyo-shu (a collection of ancient Japanese masterpieces of poetry), thereby showing the great breadth of his knowledge and his discernment. I don't know what poem (tanka) within the Manyo-shu he selected, but I think it is a sorrowful one, perhaps an elegy. The elegiac feeling and Lacy's deep sense of the blues seem to be as one in this piece. We clasp the theme full to the heart. Its dark lyricism impassions us. Lacy sometimes adheres to one sound and one phrase, repeating it persistently. Sometimes this sound finally becomes a music unto itself. In this piece it is just like that one sound, one music. But this is not merely the effect of repetition. All I can say for sure is that Lacy's best solo efforts relate directly to his use of theme-development and not only to the chords.
How is it that music as refined as Lacy's The Kiss can come into existence? How can such marvelous music come from such a peculiar theme, which, like a shriek rises rapidly from the saxophone's low register to the highest treble reaches of the horn? We need to pay attention to the unique winding lines that Lacy spins and the way the theme coheres. Here Lacy calls on an "intellect of the emotions." About this composition he has said: "This tune has something of Ravel's music in it". The fascination of this tune lies in its intensity and sensuality. It draws us up into it with its mysterious qualities; these grip us physically or even paralyze us with their magic, as do Bolero and most of Ravel's works. Also here is the unique Lacy humor: some sounds imitating kisses intrude and appear almost to cut off the lyrical line. This strikes us comic and ironic as well. But there is more to it than that. There is a touch of black humor about it, as when Boris Vian speaks of "the ascent of empty space". Also there is the impressive ending, which conveys the sense of jumping to the stratosphere, just like Monk's Misterioso.
One of the fascinating things about this album, which will probably come to occupy a special place in Lacy's discography, is the way the music always seems to show a new side each time we listen. And I feel that its mysterious themes, side by side with Lacy's open deconstructions, never fail to entice us with an image altogether similar to life itself. I often hear jazz fans these days complaining that "now there is no great master of jazz." But Lacy's musical personality and the fertility of his music should let them realize that there still is a great master of jazz. Many people can't see this fact because they impatiently seek a simplified and immediate understanding of the music they listen to. When people get hung up on diagrams and images that make things predigested for them, then they overlook the obvious. But Steve Lacy's music matches perfectly the atmosphere and the aesthetic of our age. It perfectly corresponds to our expectations about jazz. Lacy's music makes jazz an endless adventure.
TOSHIHIKO SHIMIZU (lp liner notes)
Translated by: Koichiro Suzuki/Masumi Nilson/Don Nilson
TOSHIHIKO SHIMIZU is one of Japan's finest music critics. He is especially well known among jazz fans for his collected essays, JAZZ NOTES (Tokyo: Shobunsha Books, 1981). He lives in Tokyo.