Steve Lacy / Don Byron Quartet

17 October 1999
Knitting Factory, New York City

Suddenly, Steve Lacy's appearances in the USA during the past three years have become more numerous than in the previous ten. Most of these have been with his current trio (with bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel and drummer John Betsch), now admirably well documented on several albums, notably the double CD The Rent, recently released on Cavity Search (CRS 44), which offers a definitive statement of a well-oiled working band.

In the past few months alone -- much to the satisfaction of his fans, for sure -- Steve Lacy has been in the New York City area no less than four times : in trio at the Knitting Factory in April, at the Caramoor Jazz Festival in July, at the Iridium Club in early August (again in trio, plus Roswell Rudd on trombone), and at the Charlie Parker Festival in New York City in late August (in duo with pianist Danilo Perez).

Last night, for the fifth time this year (and it is not over yet, with the two concerts in Englewood and at Carnegie Hall in early November with pianist Kenny Barron!) the two gigs at the Knitting Factory showed another aspect of Mr. Lacy's numerous musical associations. However, this one left a definite impression of mismatch...

Steve Lacy, Billy Hart, Mark Helias, Don Byron - Photo © Gilles Laheurte

It is too bad. Initially, many had found the idea of bringing Steve Lacy and Don Byron together rather intriguing. Indeed, pairing on the same stage the Master of the soprano saxophone, totally dedicated to the instrument, with a "young" musician highly recognized on the Jazz scene, known for his interests in a very broad variety of musical styles, including Klezmer music, seemed quite an "interesting" set-up...

In addition, it had also been smart (but was it intentional on the producer's part?) to keep the announcement itself rather vague. Advertised as "The Steve Lacy / Don Byron Quartet", the gig undoubtedly kept many on their toes, since the members of the rhythm section remained a bit of a mystery until the last minute. If the drummer was sort of "confirmed" well in advance, it was only as the first set started that the bass player was officially announced...

The quartet thus assembled for a single night ended up being as follows: Steve Lacy, touring the USA once again, and three "New York City" musicians, Don Byron on clarinet only (no bass clarinet!), Billy Hart on drums and Mark Helias on acoustic bass.

Now, anyone familiar with jazz knows the many talents and versatility required of New York City musicians, and anyone reading this web site must know who Steve Lacy is... Individually, and in their respective familiar context, these musicians deserve immense respect and much greater recognition. However, something was disturbingly odd in the gathering of these four musicians... Yes, all in all, one cannot deny that there were quite a few great individual "moments". Yet, overall, the evening left many listeners -- long time fans and new ones alike -- with a strange feeling of disappointment. Despite their respective individual unquestionable musicianship, the chemistry needed between them to make "great music" just did not appear to be there.

From the first introductory notes, it was obvious that practice time between the four musicians had been too limited to barely a few hours just before the show. The first set started rather timidly, with a version of "Bone" which seemed difficult to pull out of the ground : there were obvious signs of self-consciousness in the rapport between the musicians, like a group of rhythmic gymnasts trying to find their proper place and balance in a delicate "one time only" floor exercise routine opportunity.

None of the tunes were announced, and each was thus a bit of a surprise. No one in the audience had any clue as to what to expect : was the next tune going to be a Don Byron tune? or a Lacy composition? or from Duke? or from Monk? or from another composer? It was a curious mix of seemingly familiar terrain and puzzled expectation... Pretty weird.

Gilles Laheurte, 18 October 1999 - revised 07 November 1999