Tips: Steve Lacy and Irene Aebi

interviewed by
Ed Hazell

Steve Lacy + Irene Aebi, Ghent 2003
Steve Lacy + Irene Aebi, Ghent 2003                                                                           Gérard Rouy©2010

This interview took place on a cold Sunday afternoon in January, 2004, at Steve Lacy and Irene Aebi’s modest home in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. The house faced the Fenway section of the Emerald Necklace, a long, narrow park system that winds its way through the heart of Boston and out into the suburbs. Irene especially was enchanted by how quiet and secluded the wooded park made the neighborhood seem. She showed me photographs she’d taken of snow clinging to the branches of the pines across the street from the house. The house was comfortable, but sparsely furnished. We sat around their dining room table and during the interview drank a couple pots of hot tea to take away the chill of the winter day.

Lacy had moved to Boston to teach at New England Conservatory in the fall of 2002. Boston was where he lived and went to his job; performances in the area were relatively rare. For one thing, he wasn’t a known quantity to most of presenters in the area. As fate would have it, there wasn’t enough time for him to develop working relationships with the local arts community, the kind of relationships needed to produce ambitious, large scale or new projects. He still did his important new work in Europe while he lived in Boston.

Like any city of its size, however, Boston has a jazz community, and some of the clubs, galleries, universities, and nonprofit music organizations did present his music. I was director of one such nonprofit, the Boston Creative Music Alliance, and produced two concerts featuring Lacy. In March 2003, he and Irene appeared with the Jazz Composer’s Alliance Orchestra, a Boston-based composer’s collective in a program that featured Lacy’s Precipitation Suite and four other pieces, plus works by the JCA’s resident composers. A year later, on March 12 and 13, 2004, the BCMA presented the Beat Suite quintet. At that point, Lacy wasn’t strong enough to do two shows in one night, so we held concerts on two consecutive evenings. The night before the quintet opened the BCMA concerts at the Institute of Contemporary Art, MIT organized a performance with Steve, Irene, and poet Robert Creeley, who was teaching at Brown University in nearby Providence, Rhode Island. In May 2003, Lacy and Danilo Perez performed at the Regattabar in Cambridge, Mass., where Lacy had played on several previous occasions before he moved back to the U.S.

Lacy performed at NEC as well. His faculty recital with Irene in the spring of 2003, just after he arrived, was one of the most memorable performances he gave in the city. He led a faculty ensemble in a version of “Baghdad” in Ocbober 2003 during a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Jordan Hall, the school’s acoustically superb concert hall. In the final months of his life, he was generous in playing with student ensembles in some of the small community gallery spaces in the area. I’m sure I don’t remember all those gigs, but I believe his last public performance was in a trio with bassist Dmitri Ishenko and guitarist Geoff Miller on April 22, 2004, at the Zeitgeist Gallery in Inman Square, Cambridge. He played beautifully, but when he wasn’t soloing, he had to sit down. Several times he ducked behind a partition at the back of the room, where he labored to catch his breath. He was slated to play with another student group in May over at the Artists At Large gallery in Hyde Park, but he was too sick to make it.

After his death, NEC held a memorial concert on October 12, 2004. It featured students and faculty performing Steve’s music. On December 6, Irene, who taught briefly at the conservatory after Steve passed, led a student ensemble with four other singers in a full performance of Futurities. It is the only time the entire work has been performed in America.


(Note: Tape rolled a few minutes into the conversation.)

IA: Actually, “Dreams” was written by an Italian Dadaist or Surrealist named Busoni. And Steve went to Brion (Gysin) to put that in English. He made up a new poem. And we’re going on this American tour, we gave 30 concerts in 32 days, and we were 6 people together, played in prisons, and coffee shops, and churches, and garages, incredible places; maybe one or two festivals. So I said to him can you make a song about coming from Paris and going to America, so he wrote “Gay Paree Bop.” I was singing it in a prison in L.A., we didn’t know what it was because it was called an Institute for Men, and we thought it was an engineering school or something; but it was a prison, a serious prison! And I did that song and I sang “I’m freeeeee,” you know, and everybody cracked up. It was a good audience.

SL: Yeah, they were good.

EH: You said before that many of the poets in San Francisco were angry. I actually think much of the poetry in The Cry is very angry, too.

SL: Oh yes, yeah.

EH: So I’m wondering after a lot of angry men, how you reacted to an angry woman poet.

IA: Well, that’s a really angry woman, because people were almost ready to kill her for her poems.

SL: Not almost, they were ready to kill her. What happened was, I saw the poem in The New Yorker, and I was shocked to the bottom of my shoes. My hair stood on end. Wow, it knocked me over. And I showed it to Irene and it knocked her out, too. She said, can you set that to music, and I said no, no way. It’s too violent, it’s too strong; it’s too bold. I could never deal with words like that. However, it started to sink in and it started to work itself out. And within a week or two, I was at the piano, writing the damn thing. The whole opera grew around that.

IA: That’s a beautiful piece.

SL: When we were in Berlin in residence there in 96, we found ourselves in the same apartment as Taslima. She was upstairs under the same program as us. She came and heard us perform “Happy Marriage” song.

IA: In duo, yeah.

SL: And everything started from there.

IA: We became friends and we said, let’s make an opera. Well, it’s not only angry; there are some very beautiful love poems in it. There are two.

SL: The beginning is more happy and then it gets more grim.

IA: That’s what she writes about because her relationship with men was grim. She talks about her sex life in a very fresh and naïve and nice way.

SL: We changed the ending so we have one of her songs at the end, and it’s quite an optimistic piece.

IA: We’re going to crush the oppressors. Well, it’s not optimistic, but it talks about the oppressor’s blood.

SL: Yeah, but it’s not like… down.

EH: How do you know when you’ve got a finished work? The right number of poems and the right sequence?

SL: Well, it takes some time. It’s a lot of mulling over to do. The 13 Regards, that took me several years to put together. And once I had them written, it took me almost a year to figure out the order. Also there’s a lot of research to be done beforehand, about the best translations to use and the different possibilities of putting them together. And they’re cyclical for the most part, so they make a circle, but they’re detachable also. And, you know, they were written for Irene.

IA: But Steve is very mysterious. I think there’s a direct line to his subconscious. It just pours out. I remember once just sitting around and I asked him, “what are you doing,” and he turned it into a song, “Wasted,” it’s called; one of the few he wrote lyrics to: “You always sit around and there’s no place for me to go.”

SL: it’s on Troubles. You know that album?

EH: You started with The Way

SL: And the Buckminster Fuller piece also. They were both written around the same time. In fact, we went back to Europe with a sextet, with Enrico Rava, Karl Berger, Paul Motian, Kent Carter, Irene, and myself and we had a suite [The Examples Suite]. One the things was “The Way,” and the Buckminster Fuller piece, “The Sun,” and there was a thing called “The Thing,” and another one, “The Gap.” They were conceptual, graphic pieces. That was a great band, but we only did a few gigs in Europe and then it collapsed. That’s when Irene and I went to Rome.

EH: So the song cycle grew

SL: From ’67, and I’m still working on it. We’re going to do it with an ensemble at the school. The whole thing, with five voices and rhythm section and a horn player.

IA: That is part of the idea also, to give some of the things away; it would be nice, because we’re getting older.

SL: And the students like them.

IA: Why shouldn’t they be able to do them also? The lyrics are beautiful and instead of singing, da da de, and scatting all over the place, they will have beautiful words. Steve wants to teach a course on jazz and literature, maybe next year. I think it’s very important, because standards are done so well already. They have been done by certain people so fantastically. It’s like people asking me why I won’t sing Kurt Weill. After Lotte Lenya? I think I will not touch that material! Let it be. Everybody does Weill after Lotte Lenya ruins it. Nobody can do it as well.

SL: And the stuff was written for her

IA: Yes, and they were politically engaged and it’s an interesting story. They inspired me very much, of course.

SL: Me too.

IA: But for me, when Cecil Taylor asks me who my preferred singer is, he always knows it’s Lotte Lenya. It can not be Lena Horn, because I’m not American, I’m not from here. I don’t know, Ella Fitzgerald is a great, great singer, but I’m European.

EH: Were you trained as a singer or an instrumentalist?

IA: An instrumentalist. I came late to singing. He pushed me to singing. It’s dangerous to be singing. I wanted myself not to be called a singer. When you say you are a singer, people have no idea what you do. It’s a dangerous thing to do. In fact, I’ve been put down, by all the critics for many, many years,

SL: Not all the critics, by some.

IA: Most of them. That’s what they said first thing in the Boston Globe, “critics are divided about her,” that bullshit. They present you in such a negative way that people say, oh my god. Oh they say she should be in cabaret, and in the cabaret they say she should be in the concert hall. Whatever you do is wrong. And you don’t look right, either. There’s something wrong.

You know I’ve been working with a teacher and a coach, and I really worked hard on my voice. And his stuff is difficult to sing. It’s difficult and suddenly there’s something that pops out. It drives you crazy the big intervals. And oh my god, what voice can do that. Especially in the beginning I felt that way.

EH: I always felt sorry for you on that song, “Cuckoo.”

IA: Oh, one and a half octaves, and people say untrained.

SL: You know that’s been remastered, Rushes. There is a Russian engineer in Toronto who loves that record and he remastered it and it is incredible now, you can hear the piano and the voice just impeccable. We’re trying to find some one to put it out. I would like it to come out again.

IA: People really loved it when we did it in concert. We did it in Germany, Italy. It wasn’t very good in Italy – that was early. But it also grew; it became better and better, and very dramatic. I always start very shy and then it grows and then I can scream and be theatrical. But I can’t right away unpop and grab the lyrics. Maybe that was what people didn’t like; they didn’t think it was strong enough.

SL: Either it was too strong or not strong enough.

IA: Yes, but from my point of view, in my judgment, I cannot work differently, I must work very carefully, and then bop, it comes out. If you let me, if you give me enough work. I cannot do it at home. You can train and train, but when you go out there, it’s completely different. And you really have to be a good actor, too, when you sing those things. You are talking about somebody else, like Akmentova, Mandelstam. So I’m not talking about myself, I’m talking about these people who died in Siberia. And you cannot fake that. It has to grow. First you sing the melody and you’re cool, but then maybe you, like my teacher said, you don’t have to work on emotion, you have too much emotion, let’s work on the technique. She’s a very good teacher; we’ve worked together for 25 years.

EH: Do you and Steve work on the songs together?

SL: Yes, oh yeah, sure. Just the two of us, we work together a lot.

AI: Just to go through the music because that’s the way the flow comes. We’ve been doing that more and more.

SL: The Beat Suite, we were able to perform it a few times before we recorded it.

EH: On The Beat Suite, you two play every melody in unison.

SL: It’s against the rules.

EH: Your sounds blend together really well.

SL: Well that took a lot of time. It’s great to play with George, he’s really an inspiration.

AI: He’s on Futurities, too, when he was much younger.

SL: Yeah, it’s these long-term associations; that’s what’s happening. The same story with the unison. When I worked with Monk, Charlie Rouse was the other horn. And Monk would only let us play unisons and octaves. He said that’s the hardest stuff in the world to do, if you can do that, you can do anything. And so, after a few weeks, we got that going really good. And Monk put in the other notes at the piano. It was beautiful.

AI: At first, I remember people would say: Why are you playing in unison?

SL: That’s right; a critic once asked me at a conversation in public why we do unison. I didn’t know what to say. Now I know. It’s a positive thing that we’ve developed, and it gives her a sense of security and also for listeners, too. And sometimes it’s even nice with the piano playing the melody also with us in unison.

AI: And the harpsichord also. Sometimes Rzewski on those two CDs plays unison with us.

SL: Unison is one of the great secrets of music. Certain unisons are very powerful. Doubling is not so interesting, but unison & octaves.

EH: Because there’s a wonderful instrumental quality to Irene’s voice and a vocal quality to your soprano, there’s a mirroring.

SL: You hit the right note there, that’s correct, that’s absolutely correct.

EH: Your voice is unlike anyone’s. Can you talk about influences? Were you singing when you met Steve?

SL: Yes, she was. Sang Neapolitan songs.

IA: I never ever considered myself a jazz singer. That was my difficulty. (She does a Sarah Vaughn, jazz singer vibrato). My nature is not like that. I hit the notes.

SL: When I met Irene, she had a few records. And one of them was Louis Armstrong singing Gospels. One Paul Robeson. Some Italian music and that’s all.

IA: I didn’t know about jazz.

SL: She found out soon enough.

EH: From 1968 until mid 70s, you didn’t sing.

SL: No she played the cello. I was begging her to sing and all, but she wasn’t ready.

IA: It was scary to be the singer in that band. And then I was always the singer who was fiddling or playing the cello in the band. Because I wasn’t into being up front and doing all the things that singers do. I wasn’t pushing. It was a hard school. The rest of the band didn’t want to hear the words. Nobody knew the words; nobody in the band had any idea of what I was singing. Just the title. Maybe the piano player. It was almost a John Cageian situation, you know. They were very independent. They weren’t really gallant to me, I must say. I didn’t expect it, either. So to say that you didn’t hear me sing much… The producers weren’t very gallant, either.

SL: You weren’t on any record until 74 maybe.

EH: I think it’s Scraps.

IA: But I did sing with the band. There was one that was the words of a singing telegram.

SL: That’s true. That one goes back to 1969. Where she did a singing telegram. “Note,” that’s on the record Moon. We did “Chinese Food,” too.

EH: I’ve never heard “Chinese Food.” Do you sing on it or played cello.

SL: No, no. It was all improvised, but she declaimed. There was synthesizer, saxophone, and she declaimed the lyrics of Lao Tzu having to do with politics and war. It was a protest we did against the Vietnam War in 67. (To Irene) Why are you looking at me like that?

IA: I was just thinking about the past. It was not so easy. It was extremely hard.

SL: I’ll tell you a funny thing, that group was modeled on Jimmy Noone. Have you ever heard the Apex Orchestra, with the clarinet and alto together with Earl Hines in the rhythm section? It was his standard band for quite a few years. It was the sound of the clarinet and the alto together with Hines on the piano that was one of my models.

EH: The rhythms in the songs come out of the words, don’t they? So you’ve got to bridge the speech cadence with swing.

SL: Well you know, what I learned from Cecil Taylor is about language structure and poetry is language structure already. It’s already a language structure. So to transplant that into a jazz setting and to make a new language structure out of it is a process. It’s like a transmutation, like alchemy. Of course, the rhythms, and the form, and even the number of measures, everything comes out of the words. All the changing time signatures and all that, come right out of the words. I don’t change any word ever. I respect the original scansion, the original prosody how it’s on the page and how it’s supposed to sound. I try to question the author, even if the author’s dead, I have to have a dialog with him: William – is this okay?

EH: Sometimes the music seems directly programmatic.

SL: Oh yeah, absolutely. You know the stuff we did at the ICA last year? That was all programmatic. The sun, the rain, clouds, the whole shebang.

EH: Someone in the band said that when you rehearsed the band you used imagery; you didn’t talk about notes.

SL: That’s right. We didn’t want music, we wanted rain. And if they really made rain, that would be the music.

IA: When we did the Zen poems recently in Holland there was lots of snow imagery, snow in the mountains; echo, snow falling lightly. Of course we always read the stories about the poet, to find out how he lived, he was charming, he liked a little plum wine, he went begging, playing with the children in the village. His poems are mostly haiku. All this Japanese imagery that you see in paintings, that’s in the music. It’s painting and images and the story of this person, and then his poems, that’s his voice. And then the instruments, you don’t want somebody singing all the time, that’s what I like with Steve, voice shouldn’t be so present, because then the flute or the saxophone can start snowing or the flute was playing some really beautiful stuff in the third haiku, when the wind came in and the three string players were the snow. The final concert was really good.

SL: The game is really about being able to do it enough times so that it grows to become like itself. That’s the most difficult thing of all. In other words, gigs.

EH: You’ve brought this up a couple times now, so I’d like more of your thoughts on it. You said you don’t like your voice so in front.

IA: I can’t stand it in front. I like it as part of the mix, as part of the group, that’s what I like.

EH: So it’s an instrumental mix for voice.

SL: I was very happy with the way The Beat Suite was mixed. And also Packet was very good.

EH: Rushes has some great imagery. “Song of Woods.” There are woodland silences in the song.

IA: Actually, Nicholas Isherwood did it much better than me; he’s a bass singer. When he sings it – ahhh. It’s a terribly difficult song.

SL: And the way Rzewski does the echoes on the piano, incredible. Knocking on it.

IA: I’m sure I could do it better now. I always think I can do it better now. I can’t stand listening to the records. I leave the house when he puts them on. It’s very hard for me to listen to myself.

EH: Steve, you’ve talked about this before. You’ve got a song and you’ve got a group that improvises and you’ve got to get from the song to the improvisation, but you don’t have chord changes, which would link them. What are the ways you’ve been able to merge them?

SL: The introduction. Very very often, most often, we use a form where the introduction sets up the piece; after the song, it returns to the introduction. I got that from Duke Ellington in the first place. Whatever we do, Ellington did it first or suggested it, including all the stuff about superior lyrics. One of my inspirations for writing songs was Ellington. Ellington suggested these formal transitions between a four bar introduction and a 32 bar tune and then a recapitulation and a solo. He put those things together in a superior way. But actually it’s based on experience over the years. One of my jobs was to turn the soloists on. To have the material turn them on. And so they could make sense out of the material so that they could improvise something that had to do with the material. That’s something that I learned playing Monk, really. There’s got to be some kind of cohesion. Otherwise you just play what you wanted and take a solo and it makes no sense at all.

EH: Should the musicians understand the words, too?

SL: Well, that would be nice. She’s right though, that in certain periods, they just weren’t interested in what she was talking about. They just wanted to get on with it. Whatever she sings is fine, I’ll play my part. However, when we work with some one like Rzewski or [harpsichordist] Petia [Kaufmann], they know the words. Because they’re really into that. And by now, Jean-Jacques, he really wants to know the words. Betsch and George Lewis want to know the words.

IA: And besides Steve is reciting the words now, which is really nice.

SL: Very often, I read them before we perform them. In a club or something like that people don’t have to rustle with their paper.

IA: It honors the words in a way. It also makes it very interesting for me to sing them afterwards, when he recites them. Sometimes it’s easier for me to sing.

SL: And it’s easier for the audience to hear it too. It’s an unknown genre, really.

IA: And in an evening, I don’t sing all the time. There are instrumental numbers, too.

SL: It’s very delicate operation to balance and deploy the forces, that’s my job really. My job is not to bore the musicians or her or me or the public.

EH: I keep coming back to the trio recordings you made with Rzewski because they are good models of what you do. The orchestrations, the arrangements are quite varied.

SL: I doubled the obbligatos on some of those too. She always wants me to do the unisons with her, but sometimes I went back in and put in a second voice. That opens it up a bit.

EH: In Futurities, you talked about the instrumentation coming out of the poems. I wonder if that’s true of Vespers or The Cry.

SL: Yes, that’s true of all of them, really. For instance in The Cry, I wanted to get this sound, this Indian sound. First of all we were working with Petia; that was one of the first choices. Then, the Bengali rhythms and the Indian mood of the thing, I wanted the accordion to get that sound, instead of a harmonium. Then we were working with this other saxophonist and clarinetist, Tina Wrase

IA: She passed away.

SL: And the accordionist [Cathrin Pfeifer] was working with this Brazilian percussionist [Daniel Gioia], so we all came together like that with Jean-Jacques on bass. But I wanted that Indian flavor, not with a tabla and tambura and like that, but with Western sound that was like it.

Vespers was designed to be played in churches. And somehow I heard this French horn in it.

IA: It was time to go to church, we decided. I had my revolt from all those tours, and I decided I was only going to sing in churches. I loved churches in America.

SL: We almost never played it in Europe.

IA: But we did it in America and Canada.

SL: Montana, Vancouver, a couple of other places. That never really continued, unfortunately. I wanted to do it in England, a tour of English churches.

IA: Such a beautiful piece. Especially the last one with the line, “thank you on my knees”  It’s not ironic. Blaga Dimitrova is the Bulgarian Vice President. A good friend of [Václav] Havel. All the people know her; she must be in her 80s now.

SL: She’s very famous in Bulgaria. She heard it and liked what we did. She gave us her approval. It’s very important to get that approval.

IA: Steve met her, I didn’t.

SL: That’s a big part of it; not only the rights to do it, but the blessing.

The song cycles always grow out of one song. In the case of Creeley [Futurities], it was a song called “The Rhythm.” He came to my house, introduced by another poet in Paris, who asked me to do a radio show with Creeley, where he would read and I would play the saxophone. And the poem he was reading was “The Rhythm.” He sent me more of his stuff and it started to write itself. I wrote 20 songs in less than year, the orchestration took another year. That was also cyclical; it starts in early morning and goes to the night; that’s one cycle. There’s having to do with being young and getting older, it’s the life of a couple. I chose them to represent the life of a couple. The dancers were a couple, too. And we had this magnificent alter piece of Noland’s which was made in fluorescent paint so that when the light hits it, it changes from black to green. So for two hours, you watched this amazing painting changing colors.

But the orchestration. See there was one song in it, “Heaven,” now there are harps in heaven, I wanted a harp. We had our sextet – all these things were based around the group – to expand or diminish the group, whatever. The sextet was a part of this, but I wanted the trombone to fatten it out and I wanted the harp to go to heaven and then we needed to mesh all that with the bass and piano, so the guitar. There was no doubling in the parts, either. The bass played one part, the guitar another, harp, and all that, and that was all meshed together to support the three horns and the voice. That was a choice by ear taste, appetite. I knew a little bit about the harp, but I learned about the harp from doing that, really. From working with Gyde [Knebusch], a German classical harp player.

Once the songs started to be written and we had a cycle in hand and we knew we were going to make a theater work out of it, it was about a couple, really, so the choice was who’s in the couple. We were working with Douglas Dunn and Elsa Wolliston and Irene had the idea of putting them together.

IA: Elsa was a big African woman and Douglas is very thin, I always remember them meeting in our kitchen they were so thrilled.

SL: Now that’s an American show, but we never got to do it in America. We have the décor here in the basement.

EH (incredulous): You have the painting here in your basement?

SL: These things are out of the mainstream of jazz, in a way. And that’s been our struggle for years and it still is. I work with an agency now, and it’s very good for gigs, but stuff like that it’s hard. We like to do gigs in clubs, but we work with painters, photos, with dancers. We played in Wittgenstein’s house with a painter. Many painters ask us.

IA: We have one an album at the Miro Foundation and they’re all painters, Schwitters, Dali, Picabia, Mario Merz, Kandinsky. We went to museums, and saw that many painters also write. Braque. We did a whole record of Braque aphorisms. It nice to do in French schools. Here, you couldn’t do it. It’s all good advice to painters. It ends with a song that says: With time, with age, art and life are one. And ends with a high note.

SL: That was called Tips.

EH: Some of those songs are part of “Touchstones” on the Saravah recordings.

SL: Yeah, that’s right. The Dali, the Picabia, and Dr. Ozawa, the macrobiotics doctor. The way she sounds on that Dr. Ozawa song, “Lesson,” that’s what I heard first from her, that mountain voice, that yodel and she actually does yodel on that sound. That was the sound that turned me on in the first place when we met in 66.

Ed Hazell©2010

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