Steve Lacy Trio

New York City, 09-14 June 1998

Steve Lacy's engagement at Iridium was his first week-long appearance in New York since June 1995 (at the Village Vanguard, in duo with Mal Waldron). Featuring his current Trio, his venue was no small feast to those willing to tolerate the club's notorious rude attitude towards both customers and performers.

Steve Lacy at Iridium - Photo (c) Gilles Laheurte

"Steve Lacy at IRIDIUM? For a week?? Are you sure???"... That was the initial reaction of many jazz fans familiar with both Mr. Lacy's non-commercial music and Iridium's commercial reputation as a quite popular Restaurant and Jazz Club (in that order) near Lincoln Center. With such two antipodal visions of the music world, the announced gig somehow looked a little bit like an "Odd Couple" arrangement...

Yet, the engagement was for real, and the Trio (Steve Lacy, soprano saxophone, Jean-Jacques Avenel, bass and African thumb piano, and John Betsch, drums) played there for six nights as scheduled. A total of 14 sets. Some 15 hours of music. Of creative music. A lot of magical moments. A lot of $$$ for those attending several sets.

Also, regrettably, a series of little incidents with the staff, which only served to confirm that Iridium is clearly in business to cater to tourists and money people, not to the serious jazz fan.

Still, despite the club's obnoxious attitude, it turned out to be a wonderful musical event, extremely gratifying to those sensitive enough to understand and appreciate the music being created, tune after tune, set after set, night after night. As a whole, the event confirmed once again the greatness of this Trio and the top quality of its often restrained but imaginative music. Listen to one set, and you'll be pleased to have had a great evening; stay for a second set, you'll begin to realize how truly original the music is; stay for 14 sets, and you'll be full of admiration and respect. Talk about genuine improvisers. Talk about brilliant instant creators. These three musicians together have so many creative ideas that each tune could easily be the subject of an exhaustive dissertation on music theory and inventiveness ...

The current Steve Lacy Trio is a smoothly-oiled unit, each musician knowing precisely when and how to leave room for each other, thus creating both jointly and individually some of the freshest music around. Each musical phrase played is another surprise to the attentive listener and often a rediscovery of the theme's melodic and rhythmic potentials.

Take the Monk's tune Shuffle Boil, for example, which served as THE introduction piece to each night's performance. Yes, each time, the tune did follow the same sequence: the theme, solo by Lacy, solo by Avenel, a few featured solo lines by Betsch intertwined with Lacy's and Avenel's accompaniment, and return to the theme. Yes, it was an already familiar tune (to some people, at least). And yes, it was always unmistakingly swinging, in true Monk's fashion. Yet, each night, it was played very differently, nevertheless retaining the coherence and freshness of the original mid-50's composition. Had he been present, no doubt that Thelonious Monk himself would have liked it.

The first night, Lacy stretched out the tune in a long solo with sinuous, twisted phrases; the second night, he based his solo on a rather witty rephrasing of the theme; the third night brought out a crisp, abstract and restrained solo; the fourth night was a deliberately fragmented sonic exploration, with lots of harmonics; the solo on the fifth night was a straightforward, swinging, gentle roll, quoting briefly another Monk's tune, Evidence (as a "clin d'oeil" to Monk's spirit, watching?), while the closing night surprised everyone with a kind of growling treatment of the theme and an unusual solo played mostly in staccato lines. Quite an extraordinary remodelling, each time, of an apparently simple but tricky tune, for which Mr. Lacy -- who has been playing it for over 40 years -- admitted not knowing what its title really means...

Steve Lacy
Photo (c) Gilles Laheurte

Every night offered many expressions of genial improvisation, with the following (highly selective) examples standing out :

- Opening night : an etheral Esteem, with a slow, restrained and pensive solo by Lacy, leading to Avenel's colorful exploration of the bass' upper register (on the bow), while Betsch's mallets kept pounding carefully but insistently throughout the piece;

- a very somber but mesmerizing Longing (Thursday), with Lacy's use of long sustained notes, slow phrases and complex chords in the soprano's low register, followed by a magnificent true Bass solo (in "Spanish" key) by Avenel, so engrossing that some diners actually stopped eating to watch and listen in awe to his amazing virtuosity;

- an intelligently abstract interpretation of the gloomy composition, sort of beguine, The Wane (Thursday), a good vehicle for Mr. Lacy's spectacular demonstration of the soprano's full sonic range : extensive use of razor thin sharp high altissimo notes (above normal saxophone fingerings) and the contrastive muffling of the saxophone's bell to descend through the tricky sequence Bb-A-Ab-G (i.e. below normal fingerings), a definite Lacy trademark;

- a wild and crazy The Whammies to end up Thursday's second set, all three musicians obviously having fun, Avenel madly plucking his strings, and Betsch facetiously droppping and dragging his keys on the drums, singing/ yelling in his snare drum (removed from its stand), playing on the nearby wall with his drumsticks, grunting bits of incomprehensible words, all of it played loudly at a frantic "train d'enfer"...

- Friday's intensely introspective Retreat, with its slightly "Japanese scale" motif, featuring Lacy on an unusual use of slow vibrato and an obsessive repetition of the motif, reinforcing both the pensive mood and the very meaning of the piece, leading to another superb bass solo by Avenel;

- Friday's entire 3rd set, in particular the always exotic Cliches (Avenel on his Tanzanian thumb piano) conveying the feeling of a busy African market; a great drums solo on The Rent, loud, polyrhythmic and very colorful, Betsch thoroughly enjoying himself ... and a raging Bone as a sparkling finale, (featuring a fascinating bow solo introduction revealing some of Avenel's wild side!!!), going into some glittering fireworks to return to a sobering recitation by Lacy of the Lao-Tzu poem which inspired the tune's writing;

- and finally, both sets on Sunday night, where the musicians appeared relieved that the gig was over soon: completely relaxed, they gave the best of themselves, with no restraint : The Bath had a particularly beautiful dragging / muffled rendition, all so very slightly behind the beat, which gave that blues an even darker dimension; The Door demonstrated Lacy's mastery of warping notes by several tones without moving a finger from the saxophone keys (all in the lips control of the reed); driven by Betsch's urging/pushy beat, it was one of most captivating versions heard of that tune. Just after it, Lacy's continuing superb control of the reed and precise placement of his soprano (very close to the mike) brought out a voluminous tone, almost cavernous, to the low notes played, which gave Absence such an emotional power that no one in the audience dared make noise or applaud until after the music had stopped completely.

That night, when the applauses finally stopped, the musicians quickly packed-up their instruments and headed decidedly to the exit, giving warm hugs to close friends here and saying courteous good-bye to fans there. The gig was over.

Another rare Steve Lacy New York appearance already belonged to the past, leaving many memories engraved in the mind,

- some, quite exhilarating : the truly amazing music constantly created; the (by now) familiar tunes always so freshly re-examined, deconstructed and reconstructed; the sheer genius of Mr. Lacy's brilliant improvisations; and his partners' almost empathic interaction, in particular Mr. Avenel's riveting virtuoso playing and presence, which clearly provides the real foundation to the music;

- some, quite unpleasant : Iridium's despicable attitude, which was aimed every single night towards patrons ("repeat customers" felt definitely not welcome), and towards musicians, who reported having problems too but decided against going on strike and cancelling the engagement altogether... (Even waiters confided they disagreed with the club's policies...).

There was indeed a rather serious dispute between the band and the club, which came out clearly on Saturday, when tension could be felt openly : after the first set, tunes were not announced and the Trio played without complacency, especially since the "dreaded Saturday night crowd" demonstrated very little respect for the music....

Jean-Jacques Avenel
Photo (c) Gilles Laheurte

In this regard, having patronized the club every night for a week, a few blunt but honest personal remarks must be made here about Iridium, despite the great music it offered:
  • on its management:
    rude and openly arrogant, stunningly asking impertinent personal questions to patrons making a reservation, showing little respect for the musicians, not genuinely interested in the music but only in getting your dollars for it.

    With such aggressive money making approach, it would not be surprising to learn that the club might soon start charging an additional fee to use the bathroom... But seriously speaking, where else do waiters/ staff begin to remove everything from your table well before the music is finished, disturbing your rather pricey listening pleasure, and start stacking-up chairs and table barely seconds after the last applause, just to deliberately show you that they want you "outta here"! Want to complain about service? Want to recall that "the customer is always right'? Iridium's management impudent response was (quote): "this is the art of making money"... Who knows, maybe what we were trying to say was simply alien language to the tackily dressed Sunday night Manager....

  • on its audience:
    no matter what the club, there are always irreverent parties inattentive to the music, and bad noisy guys sitting next to you, we all know that. But, at Iridium, last week, this seemed particularly bad... Besides a few serious listeners (musicians, fans or simply music lovers) the crowd is mostly the "one-time customer" type, not coming to listen to music but to "go out and have a good time" (whatever that means...).

    Thursday's and Friday's audiences were the most attentive, and the music created those evenings clearly responded to their sustained attention. Saturday's audience was execrable... Even Mr. Lacy (during one of Avenel's engrossing solo), who had walked to the front of the stage to stare at particularly disruptive diners, had difficulties in getting their attention...

    Let's not even discuss plates crashing on the floor, glasses tinkling at the bar, or big-mouthed patrons loudly ordering to waiters... Simply awful.

  • on its decor:
    relatively sober and totally uninteresting, the space itself looks just about right for yuppies wanting to brag about "having been there", and for tourists in quest of a "New York by night" jazz experience. OK to some, maybe, but it just does not have a soul.

    All in all, Iridium is plainly a place of business, where music remains a far distant second to big bucks. So the "Odd Couple" deal is now over, and chances of another gig there are slim if not nil. As Jean-Jacques Avenel himself summed it up on Saturday night: "C'est la première fois qu'on joue ici, et c'est la dernière".

    He has a point : it was bad enough that the club did not feed the musicians that night, but why should Steve Lacy return to a jazz club where the Emcee can't even pronounce "soprano saxophone" correctly?

Gilles Laheurte, 15 June 1998

For those Lacy fans and/or readers interested in knowing more about the detailed sequence of tunes played during the 14 sets, here is the complete list, to satisfy their hungry appetites.