Ezz-thetics

a column by
Stuart Broomer

It’s the tenth anniversary of the death of Steve Lacy, and the 80th of his birth, though the convenient intervals don’t make it any easier to sum up his contributions. His playing style would seem almost too distinctive, too idiosyncratic to be copied, but those wry, oblique, sometimes truncated compositions have proven inspiration for several bands devoted to his repertoire and named by it – Ideal Bread, The Whammies and The Rent – though there’s something in the sly detachment of his line that persists in the saxophonists of the latter two – Jorrit Dijkstra and Kyle Brenders.

The tributes are particularly fitting, for Lacy was himself the first exponent of such a band, the first to record an LP devoted to the music of Thelonious Monk other than Monk himself (Reflections on Prestige in 1958), and the first, with Roswell Rudd, to co-lead a band devoted to that music. Lacy liked to explore Ellington’s lesser-known tunes, as well, but it’s his devotion to Monk that most strongly marked his early career and it would persist to the end. At his final solo concert, released as November (on Intakt), he played “Reflections” as an encore. That enthusiasm for Monk’s music somehow dovetails with Lacy’s fondness for setting poems to music and his interest in paintings, something about iconic phrases and emblems.

There have been numerous releases lately that emphasize the Monk connection. Hatology has reissued Morning Joy...Paris Live, a 1986 performance by the Steve Lacy Four that includes performances of Monk’s “Epistrophy,” “In Walked Bud” and “Work,” the last the first Monk tune Lacy had recorded on his first LP, Soprano Sax, 29 years before. Soul Note has just released The Complete Remastered Recordings Volume 2 which includes Regeneration (1982) and Dutch Masters (1987), encounters with Lacy’s fellow Monkophile Misha Mengelberg that include Monk material. The earlier Soul Note set Solos Duos Trios already included the two solo collections of Monk material, Only Monk (1985) and More Monk (1989).

None, though, quite possess the special significance for Lacy’s relationship to Monk of School Days (1960-63) (Emanem 5016), the live 1963 recording of the Lacy-Rudd Quartet with Denis Charles and Henry Grimes, just reissued on Emanem, the copyright issue prompting it to be pulled from the market in 2011 having been resolved. It comes with a wonderful bonus: two pieces from Lacy’s 16-week sojourn in Monk’s band in 1960 (previously released on a compilation called Monk in Philadelphia [RLR 88623] in 2006).

School Days first appeared as an Emanem LP in 1975 and since then it’s been released on QED, HatHut and Hatology. It’s an amateur recording with good sound, recorded in a coffee house called Phase Two by Vashkar Nandi and Paul Haines, friends of the band, with a single microphone borrowed for the occasion from Jimmy Giuffre. The provisional character of the recording is even emphasized by the new release, which follows the order of performance for the first time, placing the incomplete recording of “Pannonica” (the latter half) second in the play list and giving us two tracks before Henry Grimes arrives.

None of that matters. While the band apparently recorded for two major labels, the resulting material has never appeared: this is the only extant recording of what may well be the most important interpretation of Monk’s music without Monk, even acknowledging such varied highlights as Gil Evans’ arrangement of “Round Midnight” for Miles Davis with John Coltrane; George Russell’s arrangement of the same tune for his sextet with Eric Dolphy; Cowws Quintet’s bizarre version of “Misterioso” with Rudiger Carl, Irène Schweizer and text and voice by Mayo Thompson; and Alex von Schlippenbach’s Monk’s Casino. The latter’s rendering of the entire Monk oeuvre is something that Lacy-Rudd and Co. might have accomplished (missing only a few unwritten tunes from the late Columbia recordings); unfortunately, despite their command of 53 Monk tunes some 40 years earlier, they had no recording opportunities.

Lacy, especially, but Rudd as well, was uniquely placed in jazz to bring a valuable, multi-directional perspective to Monk’s music. Born in 1934, Lacy had entered jazz through Sidney Bechet and the music of the 1920s. Dragged into the modern from Greenwich Village Dixieland bands by Cecil Taylor, with whom he would play “Bemsha Swing,” Lacy would effectively skip bebop except for his special allegiance to Monk’s music, and to a lesser degree, Herbie Nichols. Rudd is largely responsible for Nichols’ posthumous resurgence over the past thirty years; he played with the misplaced modernist in trad bands, accumulated lead sheets of Nichols and convened Regeneration, the ‘82 Soul Note date with Lacy, Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink that ignited renewed interest in Nichols’ music. Whether playing Monk or Nichols, the combination of Lacy’s high reed and Rudd’s low brass was itself contrary to the dominant timbres of modern jazz, but cut to the quick of both composers’ music.

In an unattributed Down Beat interview in 1963, Lacy “says that the body of Monk’s music is a portrait of New York City in its various aspects.” Sonic aspects of Monk’s youth that arise in School Days include the stride rhythms of Fats Waller and James P. Johnson built into his compositions along with the explosive rhythmic counterpoint, polyphonic collective and melodic improvisation and sonorities of the New Orleans Feetwarmers, a New York band with Sidney Bechet and Tommy Ladnier that Lacy would readily number among his own sources. If Lacy’s sound is radically different fom Bechet’s it still falls within the purview of early jazz; likewise Rudd’s radical bluster, the first new take on the trombone heard in jazz after the arrival of J.J. Johnson and the bop era.

The ensemble playing of the School Days band, evidenced most notably on “Ba-Lue-Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are,” restores the tumbling give-and-take of the ‘20s. In a sense, the radical application of their traditional jazz apprenticeships to the music of Monk prefigures the later appearance of the Anachronic Jazz Band and dovetails nicely with Monk’s contemporaneous appearance at Newport with Pee Wee Russell, the traditional jazz outlier with whom Lacy had played a decade before. Most significantly, though, it highlights Monk’s own interest in voicings and moving lines within his chords.

The approach, though, comes every bit as much from the burgeoning avant-garde. To a man, every member of the School Days band had already recorded with Cecil Taylor, and Lacy’s angular, pecking melodies and Rudd’s cascading vocalics were already part of a new sonic vocabulary, in effect pushing Monk’s music further into a rising jazz radicalism more in accord with Monk’s general preference for thematic improvisation than harmonic paraphrase. The recording favored Monk’s more radical work, in this set taking three pieces from his Brilliant Corners LP, including the daunting title piece that’s rarely heard other than in the spliced-together original. With the School Days band, Lacy had gathered musicians as dedicated to the repertoire as himself (at least with Rudd and Charles, the band apparently went through 28 bass players in its history: they were lucky to record with Grimes). It was a working band, for a couple of years, even if working meant constantly creating gigs for little pay in restaurants and coffee houses rather than the mainstream jazz clubs. While Lacy’s earlier records had featured pick-up bands (Reflections had assayed Monk with Mal Waldron, Elvin Jones and the familiar Buell Neidlinger substituted for the planned Wilbur Wale; The Straight Horn had the Monk rhythm section of the day: John Ore and Roy Haynes; Evidence had Don Cherry and Billy Higgins), School Days represented a new and unified conception.

The performances of Monk’s quintet in Philadelphia come from the 16-week period in 1960 when Monk added Lacy to the band. The rest of the group consisted of Charlie Rouse, Ore and Haynes, longstanding associates of Monk. It was clearly a good fit for Lacy: Monk was still a towering creative presence, and Rouse’s conception, particularly attuned to developing Monk’s materials, resembled Lacy’s own. Lacy sparkles drily on “Evidence” and “Straight No Chaser,” a melodic-rhythmic improviser as preoccupied as Monk with subtle displacements and a sculptural sense of melodic identity.

In a sense, when Lacy moved to Europe in the mid-60s he was making the move at the same time as Monk’s music. The tendency in America has been largely to treat Monk’s music normatively, as if it represented such a radical edge that it had to be rendered conventional to be appreciated, witness the piano duets of Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris in the documentary film Straight No Chaser, or Sphere, the tribute band with Rouse and Kenny Barron that flourished in the ‘80s between Monk’s death and Rouse’s own, or Jimmy Owens’ Monk Project of 2011. In Europe, where Lacy’s titanic output would include numerous Monk projects (hear the multiphonic squawk that makes “Little Rootie Tootie” possible on the solo Only Monk), Monk has represented a source and touchstone for dissonance, rhythmic acuity, a general sense of freedom and sheer exuberant individuality, celebrated in the styles of Mengelberg, Schlippenbach, Schweizer and Aki Takase, among many.

Stuart Broomer©2014

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