It is widely known that Steve Lacys profound interest in the music of Thelonious Monk eventually rightfully so earned him the praise of the composer himself for being the most correct interpreter of his engaging tunes. But Lacys fascination for words has always been and still remains his thing, almost a form of trademark.
Lets not forget that Lacys opus 1, The Way, based on a poem by Lao Tzu, was written as early as 1967; and later, from the mid-1970s well into the mid-1980s, poets such as Brion Gysin and Robert Creeley to only cite two who most influenced him at that time became a dominant element of Lacys creative sphere, resulting in celebrated albums such as Dreams, on Saravah, and Futurities, on hat Art.
Last nights program at the Knitting Factory appropriately focused on these primordial interests. Curiously, the context, the choice of material and the stage set-up gave the evening a certain feeling of déjà vu, being so similar to the one held in the Main Space some five years ago (in November 1995), which also featured a sculpture by Alain Kirili. On both occasions, the sculptures mere physical presence on stage and its radiating energy could be felt by audience and performers alike. On both occasions also, the first part of each set was dedicated to the music of Monk, played solo, while the second part celebrated songs from various contemporary poets, played in duo. The closest recorded example of a similar venue, available on disk, is the couples Joan Miro Foundation Concert held in Barcelona in 1995 (released on Nova Era NCM 10).
The liner notes from that album (which reprinted an interview conducted in 1993 by Jason Weiss, published in Hambone Magazine, Winter 1998), insightfully describe Lacys own vision of his art, and explains his extensive writing for his voice Irene Aebi. All my life, Ive been interested in song and dance, words and music. However, without a great singer to work with, I dont think I would have written all those things. As Vincent Lainé insisted strongly in a recent discussion:
Steve Lacy est, avant tout, un chansonnier
(Before anything else, Lacy is a songwriter of topical ballads).
And it seemed to be particularly so last night. Whether as the interpreter of Monks music or as the accompanist to Aebis voice, Lacy had his own way to sing and distill the beauty of the tunes he chose to play.
For the Monk pieces, all familiar / like second nature to Lacy, the simplicity and the directness of his deconstruction of each tune was not unlike a puzzle that he would deliberately take apart, for the simple pleasure of discovering what can be found in it, and then reconstruct it with great ease. At times the music thus created sounded very abstract, notes/phrases being like small pieces or elements that cant readily be identified with the larger puzzle, and as silence between notes took an enormous dimension. Yet it sounded like Monks quirky universe all right. The careful dialogue between sound and no sound made the audience all the more aware of his being solo on stage, totally absorbed in his continuing exploration of the sopranos sonic potentialities. At some point, he was inspired to gently push the Kirilis sculpture to make it rock back and forth on its metallic stand, using the rocking beat as a rhythmic accompaniment. Very effective! The sculpture which somehow had strange connotations of some kind of large-headed childlike genie -- had suddenly come alive, almost like there was another unreal musician on stage A sort of monkish world transposed to another level of abstract dimension.
The poems played in duo had a very different feeling, back down to earth and to a certain crude reality: Life does go by just like that Train Going By and, to quote Heaven (both poems by Robert Creeley) If it was happy / Day after day, What would happen / Anyway?. Quite powerful words which, despite their dark meaning, showed both musicians remain informally relaxed, totally secure with the unusual material, unusual as not many artists create works of such literary nature and perform them with such fresh originality. The choice and sequence of songs appeared to be more spontaneous than prepared, as the search for the right song in their thick repertoire book revealed. This incidentally only added to the perception of déjà vu (as this also happened during their 1995 show).
Singing literature put into songs is an extremely difficult artistic challenge. It is an unfortunate fact that, all too often, there is great misunderstanding and resistance to such different and original music. (Case in point: the recent review of Downbeats Monks Dream album, in which the insensitive reviewer made the ludicrous suggestion that the words of two poems would have sounded better if said by another artist Brrr!). The Lacy / Aebi duo repertoire is being listened to with such misunderstanding. It is still too different from the main path. It does not contain any standards, there is no scat, no Chabada. There is only Ms. Aebis very individual voice and her very personal rendition of the songs that Mr. Lacy has fashioned for her, with his own vision -- as composer and accompanist of powerful words put to music.
Ms. Aebi demonstrated great ease singing these difficult songs, her seemingly insouciant sprechstimme recitation of Buckminster Fullers The Sun and her poignant expression of the vulnerability of a woman in Judith Malinas Joy being particularly impressive. Also powerful and memorable was Particles based on a poem by Richard Feynman. Obviously inspired by his partners voice and by the meaning of the words, there was more lyricism, more warmth, more gentleness in Lacys playing, as well as more succinct improvisation of the themes respective melodies.
Steve Lacy and Irene Aebi have now been playing duos such as these since 1993. As their interaction has become so seemingly easy, the music flowed smoothly like some fine but potent concoction, in which the power of words could undeniably be felt. The audience was attentively captured. Now that their duo performances have become more frequent, now that several CDs of songs have been released (including Packet, from Poems of a Wandering Jewess by Judith Malina) and Puppies (from poems of Mary Frazee), and now that audiences and critics alike are reacting so positively to such original art form, one cannot but ask: when will Treize Regards, the cycle of songs inspired from thirteen poems by Russian dissident poet Tsvetaeva, featuring harpsichord, voice and soprano saxophone, be released at long last?