An interview with Steve Lacy and Irene Aebi

Hambone No. 14, Fall 1998

Hambone 14 For some thirty years, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy has been setting texts to music. A voracious reader, he has written several hundred songs that are unique in the jazz tradition, based on the work of a wide array of poets and writers. These songs were composed with his wife and longtime collaborator in mind, singer Irene Aebi. They have been performed around the world in jazz clubs, at poetry festivals and in other venues, in the context of his quintet and sextet of the 1970s and '80s, but also in larger and smaller ensembles. Their most recent project, which premiered in early 1997, is a "jam opera", The Cry, based on the poems of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin.

The following interview with Lacy and Aebi took place on October 27, 1993. It was conducted by Jason Weiss before an audience as part of "The Archaic Smile," a series of talks curated by Marshall Reese and Steve Clay, at Mr Clay's gallery in New York, Granary Books. Lacy and Aebi performed three songs that night: Art, based on a poem by Herman Melville, "To Hal", based on Jack Spicer's poem 1, and a new piece finished that day, setting to music the death announcement of a friend, Lawrence Lacina 2.

Weiss: Many people think of your music, Steve, as coming out of the tradition of Monk and certain other jazz masters and they seem to miss the essential quality of voice that is very central to your sound. Not just in the way you play but in the fact that you've been working regularly with Irene for nearly thirty years. How do you think Irene has made a difference in your work? How has she helped the music grow?

Lacy: In a way, she promulgated the songs, she invited the songs. All my life I've been interested in song and dance, words and music. However, without a great singer to work with I don't think I would have written all those things. I would have had to find someone else and I don't think I would have. So it was a question of, "Please." And, "Okay." In other words, life itself. The word is vital.

Weiss: Irene, you come from a very different place than Steve. You're Swiss. You were classically trained originally. How did entering the jazz world affect your approach to singing? Did improvisation pose any particular obstacles?

Aebi: No, the improvisation I liked very much, though I don't improvise with the voice. But I liked that I sing, and then there is improvisation, and then that makes me sing different. And my background-well, I was Swiss. The Swiss yodel and they have pretty strong voices, because we have valleys in between people, so we have this projection. And in jazz you have to know how to project. Though it took me a long time to project, because the songs weren't that easy and they, the group, were very loud.

Weiss: The first extended work that you engaged in was a piece called The Way, a six-song cycle based on Witter Bynner's translation of Lao Tzu. Steve, you wrote the first song in 1967 but it wasn't till 1979 that the quintet recorded the full version. On the record you noted that you first got turned on to the work in 1959, which therefore makes twenty years you were reading six poems. Can you describe the gestation of the work and how the circumstances of performance affected the result?

Lacy: Well, first it starts with words and then you mull them over. And it could take a number of years of mulling before it turns into music. The cycle is called Tao and the first piece I wrote was The Way, in '67. It took about eight years of mulling before I found the pitches that go with those words. And of course Irene had to be there; it was written for her. Then after I found the pitches for the words it took me years to find the foundation for the bass part. It was rewritten and rewritten many, many times before it was in place, before the underpinnings were there. And I'm still working on it, actually. But the other five pieces were written in the late '60s and then the whole cycle was in place. But it took quite a few years after that before we dared to do it with the words. The first version we did was on a record called Wordless, because there were no words. We did them instrumentally and sketched them out, in solo form, in different ways, and finally by 1979 we were performing them, the quintet, and we recorded it 3. Then after that we let the whole thing rest for years, and a few years ago I did a solo version 4 of it as it is now. And probably in the late '90s we'll take it up again in another version, with the words again. So it's an ongoing thing, it's a lifelong struggle really.


Jason Weiss (excerpt from Hambone 14, Fall 1998)

This interview has been published as the liner notes of The Joan Miro Foundation Concert album recorded in 1995 for Edicions Nova Era.

Notes [by Vincent Lainé]

[1] - Steve's composition is called Coda.

[2] - This piece, called Death Notice, can be heard in The Rendez-Vous.

[3] - The Way (Hat Hut, 1979).

[4] - Remains (Hat Hut, 1991).


Nathaniel Mackey
134 Hunolt Street
Santa Cruz, CA 95060 - U.S.A.