Sunday, May 07, 2017

Listening to Prestige 257: Steve Lacy

In my last post, Paul Quinichette's Basie tribute, I talked about the 1950s in jazz as an era where the entire history of jazz coexisted, styles and eras side by side: New Orleans traditional, Kansas City blues, swing (both white and black), bebop, rhythm and blues, hard bop, cool, avant garde. And these styles overlapped and fed off each other. The break that begat bebop came from a Kansas City jump blues number: Charlie Parker's solo on Jay McShann's "Sepia Bounce." Rhythm and blues jumped out of the horn of Illinois Jacquet on Lionel Hampton's "Flying Home." Pop balladeer Billy Eckstine put together a big band that jumpstarted the careers of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

Benny Goodman integrated jazz first behind the scenes by hiring Fletcher Henderson as arranger, then out front with Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton. Gerry Mulligan took the ideas he had been working out with Miles Davis out to the West Coast and sparked a whole new geographically eponymous school. Veterans like Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz were developing an avant garde that would soon be taken over and pushed beyond boundaries by younger musicians like Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler.

The original beboppers came out of the swing era. Most of them had played in swing bands, and many, like Zoot Sims and Wardell Gray, carried a lot of the swing sensibility into their modern playing. That sort of progression was radical, but it was also incremental.

Steve Lacy was another story. Born in 1934, he had his first professional gig at age 16. That's 1950, when bebop had already passed its infancy and entered its mature phase, but Lacy didn't start with bebop, or even with swing. He went back to an earlier era, playing traditional New Orleans jazz with musicians like Henry "Red" Allen and Zutty Singleton. And then, in a quantum bounce, he leapfrogged over the dominant sounds of his generation and the previous generation, and landed foursquare (well, hardly square) in the avant garde, playing on Cecil Taylor's debut album, Jazz Advance, in 1956.

This Prestige session was Lacy's own debut as a leader, and it finds him somewhat more in tune with the times than the visionary work with Taylor would have suggested.  But he was playing his instrument of choice, the soprano saxophone, and that in itself set him apart. After John Coltrane took up the soprano sax, others started experimenting with it, but in 1957, it was pretty much Steve Lacy alone. So that sets him apart. He is working with the general structure of improvisation from a melody, but he's already heard the call of a muse in a different room.

If it's 1957, and you're going to be looking for new directions...well, of course, bebop was a new direction, which is why Charlie Parker was so important, and continues to be important today. In 1957, his innovations were still fresh, and people were still finding important things to say under the bebop umbrella, but there were other new directions too. And if you were searching for your own way, the path was likely to lead through Thelonious Monk, who had always been in bebop but not of it. Cecil Taylor had included a Monk tune, "Bemsha Swing," on Jazz Advance. Lacy included Monk's "Work," and it was the beginning of a long fascination with one of jazz's most original composers. He would later become the first jazz artist to record a whole album devoted to Monk's music, and would play briefly in Monk's band.

Wynton Kelly had made his Prestige debut with Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis on a couple of 78s in 1950, and had appeared on an Art Farmer album in 1954. By 1957 he was seriously in demand, appearing on a couple of dozen albums in that year alone, on virtually every significant jazz label. He would appear on a handful more Prestige albums in the ensuing years, but never a session as leader. Red Garland and Mal Waldron were the label's go-to piano guys.

Kelly was the straight-ahead side of Lacy's debut sound; Buell Neidlinger and Dennis Charles were the avant garde. Both had been on Jazz Advance, and both would have long-time associations with Taylor. Niedlinger would go deeper into the avant garde later, working with composers like John Cage and George Crumb.

Reflecting the uniqueness of Lacy's instrument, the album would be called Soprano Sax.

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