A couple of years ago a musician I know said that Steve Lacy was a genius and anything he had to say musically or otherwise was worth listening to. Given Lacy's living legend status and growing role as jazz elder statesman, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who would disagree.
That Lacy, who has been playing in jazz circles for 50 years can inspire such awe from the likes of a decidedly modern 36-year-old guitarist speaks of his well-earned stature and continuous innovation as player, composer and interpreter. The stalwart soprano saxophonist has maintained a remarkable and consistent artistic growth curve throughout his career. He is largely responsible for introducing the soprano saxophone to modern jazz (John Coltrane was inspired by Lacy to try the horn), and has been the most dedicated of all musicians toward Monk's compositions, recording an album of the composer's music (Reflections) as early in 1958. Lacy's career mirrors the broad span of jazz itself, and is constantly on the move. He started logically enough, studying the more traditional roots of jazz in the styles Dixieland, Chicago, St Louis and Kansas City; made an abrupt left turn into the explorations of free jazz; veered back slightly toward the centre for a heavy dose of Monk's modernist structures; and then flew off to bask for the last 30 years in heady, vast European influences where his composing was inspired by poetry, literature, and visual art. Now, it seems, Lacy's come practically full circle with the release of Monk's Dream, and a return to working with his longtime collaborator, the flamboyant trombonist Roswell Rudd. In the early sixties, Lacy and Rudd were the anchors of a quartet that eventually came to play only Monk's tunes. Until now, just one recording (School Days) existed featuring the two Monk fanatics covering and being inspired by their musical hero.
But calling Lacy and Rudd's return to Monk full circle doesn't quite cover it. Everything that happened musically and otherwise before and since the Monk obsession took hold, has had the chance to permeate and influence the music of these two very different musicians who are a nearly perfect example of opposite attracting. (Even their careers have taken their divergent paths to the extreme: Lacy recording as leader and sideman dozens and dozens of times over the year, constantly creating new projects and touring, while Rudd all but disappeared, quietly teaching, working as an ethnomusicologist and even a nurse.) The sum of all those wonderful, awful and everything-in-between experiences is, if we're lucky, what we get to hear in a musician's playing. And lucky we are with the regrouping of Rudd with Lacy, plus the latter's longtime bandmates, bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel and drummer John Betsch.
The liner notes of Monk's Dream echo Lacy's philosophy, which he has faithfulIy applied during his 50-year-career: "Jazz is about research, invention, history (tradition) and above all collaboration and play. When you work on interesting material, with the same talented people over a long period of time, something organic takes place, and you have the possibility to create a certain spontaneous magic together."
IT'S NO SURPRISE, once you've heard this Lacy/Rudd Quartet, to learn that Lacy has worked with Avenel for 25 years and Betsch for 10. What Lacy's association with Rudd lacks in time together is more than made up for by the intense depth their relationship quickly realized through the shared rite of passage of their initial intense combustion over Monk in the early '60s. Anyone witness to their March Vancouver, BC concert would attest to the fact that neither the calm gentleman nor everybody's favourite wacky uncle has lost their joint enthusiasm for the (now classic) Monk.
And anyone who'd gone to that concert expecting a nice, Sunday evening recital lead by a couple of 60-something jazzers had another thing coming. A reading of the music on paper would've revealed traditional elements like the prominent current of Dixieland swing carrying along a structural simplicity a la Monk. Realized live, those roots that the two of them share enabled them to lay down a foundation to go all and way out, off the page and headfirst into the expressive free jazzisms that helped bring them together in the first place.
While the duo has a similar devotion to Monk's music, their very different styles and manners of expressing it is the essence of what allows them to work together, and do it so well. It almost seems too easy to say that these two extremes complement each other, and forced to describe them as body parts, Lacy would be the head and Rudd the heart. And although it might seem possible at a surface listen, the Buddha-like calm, determined grace that Lacy projects in both presence and playing is never really threatened by Rudd's out right exuberance, which has the potential to overrun the proceedings at times. Instead of attempting to reign Rudd in (which he easily could if he were a younger, less-confident player) Lacy happily leaves Rudd to his own unrestrained devices, occasionally even following along down that wide-open road.
Rudd's full-on, larger-than-life style featuring astonishingly constant blaring, brassy runs and frequent growling through his horn is fascinatingly exhausting for both listener and (eventually) musician. He is certainly one of the wonders of the jazz world, and his enthusiasm and passion are clearly what propel this mid-'60s live wire along at such a breakneck speed for extended time periods. He is even a frequent source of awe for his bandmates, eliciting amazed head-shaking, smiles and laughter from on the bandstand.
At the Performance Works concert in Vancouver, Rudd's buoyancy and complete lack of anything resembling a self censoring mechanism was blatantly apparent from the outset.
He was quoting Red Red Robin and The Flintstones and Looney Tunes TV show themes, and anything else that popped into his head at any given moment. He's an oft-hilarious, spontaneous foil to Lacy's more methodic, plotting straight guy. After his first solo of the evening, Rudd quite pleased with the proceedings and realizing it was going to be a good night emitted a little 'Ha ha!' followed by a wave to the audience, like, 'Hey, did you hear that?! We're gonna have some fun here tonight!'
And watching Rudd act as a conduit for the music, becoming the physical embodiment of all he was feeling is very entertaining in itself. The moments he wasn't playing, he was shuffling or stomping his feet, waving his arms around in some kind of interpretive hand dance, throwing his entire upper body back to get the benefit of volume such a thrust would provide, motioning for applause after the others' solos, clapping, yelling into the small mic attached to his horn whatever. Rudd seemed to always have to be 'in' the music, to be part of each moment, even if his horn wasn't required. There's only room for one guy like that in a group, so it's probably a good thing that Lacy, Avenel and Betsch are the laid-back, supportive guys they are ( or appear to be in this context). Not that they each didn't amply display their individuality and exercise a little passion of their own.
Bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel laid down several solos with the quiet ferocity of a lion sneaking up on its prey. One in particular, during Esteem, a 1970s penned original Lacy said they hadn't played "in a long time", went about seven minutes. Avenel's precise bowing frantically sawing low-then-high to produce resonating echoes, then tapping quick hits to bring it back up nailed the ominous tone of it to the back of the listener's throat. Finishing off what Avenel started, Lacy's high, screeching wails, Rudd's long, controlled blasts, and Betsch's carefully chosen dynamic accents came on the attack all at once, leaving the listener thrillingly gasping for air. It's in the space of a song like this that what is perhaps Rudd's true gift is revealed in his childlike openness and fearlessness to be a clown. To have fun with music that is often expected to be very serious can pick up everyqone within earshot and take them along for the ride or send them packing; that kind of boisterous enthusiasm will either attract or repel, but it will never leave the listener indifferent. Combine, Rudd's wild spirit that strikes with the predictability of lightning, with Lacy's quick witted, expressive lyrical beauty, and you come up with a lot more territory to explore.
Funny how the oft-quoted (by Lacy) words of Monk apply more and more: "You go your own way, and eventually people will catch up to you." Considering that Lacy and Rudd were among Monk's earliest (and few) devotees, it seems more than appropriate that they'd eventually revisit what brought them together in the first place, and at a time when it seems the world just might be catching up to them. Nice they're around to be appreciated.
Josephine Ochej (Coda - July 2000)