Steve Lacy returned to Strasbourg for two days after a hiatus of several years. His venue consisted of two very different events: a Master-class and a concert with his current Trio.
A few "students" were already waiting outside the Salle Pôle Sud as early as 4 p.m. Soon, a total of seven young musicians patiently sat in the lobby for the timely arrival of Mr. Lacy, who headed straight (no Chaser?) to the stage and started the class without delay. He explained that he would first warm-up, listen to eventual questions and would then provide answers to these.
He started his basic warm-up with harmonics, going to the 4th and the 5th "jumps of the metallurgic chord", as he described, for each note. He stressed the fact that these "chords" were not always musically sound, but that each wanted to go its own way, and that "false notes of the chord give color to the tone of the harmonics". He indicated that he himself practices the chords in a sequence that needs to be "interesting and not boring", avoiding the "normal" sequence usually prescribed by conventional teachers: he thus recommended playing chords labelled on little pieces of paper dropped/mixed in a hat, which are then picked at random like in a lottery...
A few memorable quotes in answer to the question: "Est-ce que jouer un thème, c'est jouer un thème ?" ("Is playing a tune playing a tune?"), about playing "free":
- "the music is behind the chords, and remains always beyond";
- "the ear is here, even if the technique is not";
- "to play free, jump and flee";
and, almost as an afterthought: "try the unknown".
With regards to a question about how to practice rhythms, he recommended the rhythm method of drummer Kenny Clark, and Anton Webern's "floating pieces" (Mr. Lacy's own choice of words), as good books for windplayers to explore. Among his own compositions, the "Tao suite" was cited as his favorite, the one which he returns to regularly, each time with newly discovered additional rythmic and sonic possibilities.
He stressed the benefits of playing a small phrase, concentrating on it with all its possible variations, until it brings the mind into another world, on the verge of "hallucination".
The seven "students" (3 ss, 2 as, 1 ts and 1 cl) then each played short "samples" of their respective talents (I personally wondered whether these were spontaneously improvised or whether they were small phrases played and replayed till perfectly learned?), for which he provided the few following comments:
- "Ce sont les petites choses qui font garder l'intérêt" ("Little things are what keeps things interesting");
- "Il faut savoir quand et comment s'arrêter" ("One must know when and how to stop");
- "Si c'est vivant, c'est bon" ("If it's alive, it's good").
He then invited all musicians to play with him a short "ensemble improvised piece", which was followed by questions about "chemistry in musical partnerships". He compared this type of relationship to dancing with a girl, stressing that it is not a question of talent but rather a question of combination, that works, or does not. He used Duke Ellington's as the best example of a musician to have brought the best out of musicians not necessarily individually outstanding.
Suddenly, two hours had passed, and the class was over. As the "students" were packing their instruments, I reflected on my own fascination for the soprano saxophone, on my unfullfilled teenager's dream to see/ hear/ meet/ talk to John Coltrane back in the early sixties, and on my (obviously) fullfilled dream to meet Steve Lacy some day... And one question came up to my mind, and still lingers there: did these young musicians realize how privileged and lucky they were, to have just had the fantastic opportunity to be coached for two hours by one of the most important figure of 20th century improvised music, and by the uncontested father/ innovator of the modern soprano saxophone?
Gilles Laheurte, 02 June 1998