When soprano saxophonist/composer Steve Lacy died in 2004, the world of improvised music lost one of its most creative voices, and certainly a unique one. In anticipation of the twentieth anniversary of his death—and the ninetieth anniversary of his 1934 birth—Guillaume Tarche asked the simple question, “how do you listen to him?” to an international and broadly representative group of musicians and writers. The result is a trilingual (French, English, and Italian) collection of analytical essays from critics and musicologists, reminiscences and appreciations from people who knew him or heard him play, and anecdotes and accounts from those who played with him, not to mention discographies of Lacy’s releases as well as of releases featuring others’ interpretations of his compositions.
As the book’s many contributions demonstrate, Lacy’s art reflected his wide interests not only in jazz, Monk’s music most notably, but in modern composition, Beat poetry and haiku, some of which he set to music, and visual art. All of this manifested itself in his playing, whether in ensembles or solo: the sense of swing that traces back to his apprenticeship in traditional jazz, the particularly Modernist angularity of the shape of his phrases, the conciseness, and clarity of his themes. The title of Phillip Johnston’s analysis of Lacy’s 1978 composition Prospectus perhaps gives the best description of Lacy’s sui generis musical sensibility: “revolutionary conservatism.”
Choosing highlights from among the forty-five contributions in this thick book is difficult; everything here provides a worthwhile perspective on some aspect of Lacy’s work. Johnston’s highly detailed article is certainly noteworthy, as are the opening reflections by Irene Aebi, Lacy’s partner in life and in music; a long interview with Kent Carter, for many years Lacy’s double bassist; a recollection from harpist Suzanna Klintcharova, who played duets with Lacy; a loose-jointed dialogue between saxophonists Seymour Wright and Evan Parker; and an interview with Lacy by jazz journalist Bill Shoemaker. Saxophonist Gianni Mimmo, who was inspired to play only soprano after having heard Lacy in performance, provides sharp insight into Lacy’s use of harmonics and his conception of sound as something with an almost tactile solidity. In addition to Johnston’s piece, musical analyses include Frank Carlberg’s detailed breakdown of pitch organization in Lacy’s compositions, Jacques Ponzio’s consideration of Lacy in relation to Monk, and pieces on Lacy as a composer of art song by Vincent Lainé and Roberto Ottaviano.
But somehow the most perceptive observation of what it is that made Lacy’s music what it was comes from Alvin Curran with whose Musica Elettronica Viva project Lacy collaborated on and off for decades: “Steve Lacy never left the house without a book of poetry in his pocket.”