An American In Paris, Painting With a Saxophone

New York Times - 31/01/99


Steve Lacy, a soprano saxophonist and native New Yorker who has been living in Paris for 30 years, is an exception. Like the writer Paul Bowles, Mr. Lacy has been nourished by exile; he has made it his muse and, at times, his subject. He is an urban nomad ins search of routes rather than roots.

Being an expatriate has diminished Mr. Lacy's influence on young soprano players, who are more likely to invoque John Coltrane or Wayne Shorter. But it has also kept him a healthy remove from the rancorous disputes over the direction of jazz that have divided American musicians since the late 60's. At 64, he has amassed a remarkable body of work, and he shows no signs of slowing down, with two new albums: Sands, a solo recording released last summer, and The Cry, a two-CD song cycle.

To discuss music with Mr. Lacy is to invite a swirl of references to other artists, including Paul Klee and Duke Ellington, Bach and Merce Cunningham, Brion Gysin and Bob Thompson. It's his way to credit his sources, while also defining the context in which he feels his work ought to be appreciated. Mr. Lacys' outlook was formed by the New York bohemian scene of the late 50's. In his youth, jazz musicians, action painters and beat poets caroused at clubs like the Five Spot and saw one another's work as part as the same revolution of the imagination. If you didn't think that art could change the world, you had no business calling yourself an artist.

Mr. Lacy has remained true this heroic credo, which gives him and his music a sweetly nostalgic air. [...] Many of his tune - he has written several hundreds - are portraits of his favorite musicians, writers and painters (often personal friends), including Stravinsky, Max Roach, Jimi Hendix and Kenneth Noland. [...] It's tempting to see these homages as Mr. Lacy's effort to create an imaginary republic of like-minded artists - a home for an expatriate.

Mr. Lacy hopes to bring 'The Cry" to the Brooklyn Academy of Music or Merkin Concert Hall sometime next year. He and Ms Aebi are also considering moving to New York once their lease runs out in 2000. "Nothings happening in Paris except soccer," he grumbled. "Soccer is happening; soccer is solid. But that's it, baby." New York, meanwhile, is beginning to look more promising to Mr. Lacy. "Ten years ago, it looked like the giants were dead, and the midgets had taken over," he said. "Now I'm more optimistic. I admire what Dave Douglas is doing, and I've begun to play with Danilo Perez, who really understands my tunes."

Still, Mr. Lacy has no immediate plans to return home. "Everything I've done, I've done because I've heard the call," he said. [...] "So I'll know when it's time to go back." Until then, he said, he will remain "an unassimilated American in Paris."

Adam Shatz

More from this article about Sands or The Cry.