What's New?
The PoD Roundtable
moderated by Bill Shoemaker

What’s New? is an email roundtable that draws together persons of diverse backgrounds to discuss the issues shaping jazz and constituent experimental musics in the early 21st Century.

The panelists for this roundtable include:

Allan Chase Allan Chase, the chair of the Contemporary Improvisation Department and Acting Chair of the Liberal Arts Department at New England Conservatory, where he also teaches Jazz Studies and Music History and Musicology. A former member of Your Neighborhood Saxophone Quartet, Chase has also recorded with, among others, Rashied Ali’s Prima Materia, Dominique Eade and John Zorn, as well as leading two albums, Dark Clouds with Silver Linings (1996; Accurate) and Phoenix (2000; Jazz Project). For more information, consult: http://www.newenglandconservatory.edu/faculty/chaseA.html.

Benoit Delbecq Benoit Delbecq, a Paris-based pianist and keyboardist who is a leading exponent of prepared piano in improvised music. Delbecq has led or co-led numerous ensembles including The Recyclers, Kartet and Delbecq 5. Delbecq’s recent recordings include: Kartet’s The Bay Window (Songlines); La Lumière de Pierres (Psi), a collaboration with clarinetist François Houle and saxophonist Evan Parker; and Way Beneath the Surface (Songlines), the debut of Poolplayers, a quartet with trumpeter/electronicist Arve Henriksen, drummer Lars Juul and signal processor Steve Argüelles. Information about Delbecq in English can be found at: http://www.delbecq.net/.

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Bill Shoemaker: There are so many points of entry into Steve Lacy's work -- his relationship to the jazz tradition; his use of literature; his harmonic conception; etc. Which of them has allowed you to gain insight into his art?

Benoit Delbecq: All of them go together as one. I was introduced to Steve’s work in the most direct way so to speak: at the age of 14 or 15 when I saw him perform together with his sextet (Irène, Oliver, Bobby, Jean-Jacques and Steve P) at Marly le roi Culture House (MJC), a venue near to where I was living in the west suburbs of Paris. I was already playing some jazz myself, totally into Monk through my Dad’s records, and this sextet performance totally mesmerized me. I then bought my first record of his, a quartet with JF Jenny-Clark, Michel Grailler and Aldo Romano (Steve Lacy plays Monk on Affinity/BYG), and I couldn’t believe what I then read on the cover: the producer of this session was Jean (Georgea) Karakos, now… he was the father of Stéphane, one of my school mates since baby-school! As a kid I used to sometimes go play at their house in Bougival – reading this record cover I immediately had a flash-back, the precise image of the Karakos living-room floor being covered with vinyl discs… Of course the next morning at high-school I asked Stéphane about his father and he said he had since founded Celluloid in the US, etc. I couldn’t believe it; really, it had to be somehow that I was going to cross Steve’s road.

I realize today that it very strangely never occurred to me to tell Steve about Karakos  (who has an dark business reputation I must admit) when I got to know him some years later.

Mal Waldron and Steve Lacy, 1980
Mal Waldron + Steve Lacy, 1980                                                                             Gérard Rouy©2008

Three or four years later, in 1983 I think, I attended a lovely duo gig of Steve and Mal Waldron at “La Sphère”, which was the small club above the IACP (Institute for Artistic and Cultural Perception), the improv school Alan Silva had founded in Paris in 1979. (I had become a student in this school in 1983 and I approached Mal at the break so to ask him study with him. From then, Mal and I started a wonderful mentor-student that remained until his death, just like I had with Steve, who died a few years later).

I then bought many discs by Steve, and of course, as he was living in Paris I wouldn’t miss a single live performance. Those included solos (Monk, and Hocus-Pocus sets), duo with Mal, an incredible sextet with Mal, George Lewis, Irène, Ed Blackwell, and Jean-Jacques at the New Morning in Paris… the quartet for nights and nights at Sunset Club. Also, his duets with dancer Shiro Daimon were another approach to his work – and I remember very well a performance of them two where Shiro Daimon was painting the black walls of that space with fresh white chalk, having a brush fixed on his head and writing Japanese ideograms on the walls whilst dancing, when Lacy was improvising freely. I then read about Lacy, found out he had been playing with Monk, Cecil, and that literature and painting was a daily passion and inspiration for him. I got to know he had been close to the beat generation and I started to read those poets and writers. (I can say it has made me lean towards poetry (painting I was already into) and it still goes on.)

The first time I feverishly got to Steve and Irène’s flat in Rue du Temple, Paris, was November 1986. I had an appointment with him, and I was hoping he would write me a recommendation to participate to the Banff Jazz Workshop the next summer. Steve did so very gently after listening in silence to my cassette, (and because of him and Mal I was accepted to participate to this workshop led by Dave Holland, where Muhal Richard Abrams, Steve Coleman, Kenny Wheeler, George Russell and many others where teaching. I will eternally grateful to Steve to have let me enter this workshop. He had said to me “you’ll be in good hands if you make it to Banff”). Now, back to Steve, when I had entered his flat, I had noticed a wooden music stand right in the middle of the room where an art book had been placed open– I’m not sure but it might have been Sam Francis’. Also there where some of his music scores on top his piano (its black keys were red!) and I notice that, printed on the scores themselves, were photos of artists whom the works where dedicated to. I was very impressed by this vibe that felt totally linked with all arts, and it felt very calm, very inspiring.

Later in 1992, I had made the transcription of “Flakes” (from the disc The Window, on Black Saint), I had called Steve so to show him the say 20 pages score, and I got to his place once again, and this time it was a Mark Rothko book, wide open on the stand. He told me about “Flakes” as being a reference to little spots (or stains) of paint that, put together, could lead into a very complex yet magical textures… of course we spoke about impressionists painters and “tachistes” and so on. We had a long discussion on painting, on sculpture also (Henry Moore maybe; I remember elements of discussion about shapes and volumes).  It yet confirmed to me that Steve was a not only a major and influential artist, but also that his vision was going very much further than music itself. Then we listened together to the “Flakes” cut, following the score of my transcription of it, and, at some point, I asked him about notation “here… do you think you were thinking C sharp or D flat?” He took several seconds before answering, and he said in a smile… “Benoît, I think I’m glad I don’t know.” The focus was not the name of the note – it was the whole feel of the phrase that seemed to count for him. Steve’s solo on this track – and Jean-Jacques’s; Steve raved about JJ’s outstanding solo – continues to leave me breathless, and I understood a lot (which means maybe 0.1%) of his melodic/harmonic thinking on that very day and of course doing the transcription. I told Steve this concert in Marly le Roi had been a major turn in my life. The mystery of his playing, such specific compositions, the sound of the collective... He said that, in his case, he had felt “the call” (that was his word) attending a Duke Ellington concert, that it had to be he’d become a musician.  Also I remember he said Ellington’s works remained a major influence on him.

On a harmonic approach, it is obvious to me that Steve was very organized in his writing and practice routine. It is easy to trace this if you consider his book Findings. A large part of what I heard from his practice routine was based on some intervallic increments that produce specific shapes. On that same day, we spoke about Slominsky’s Thesaurus of scales, and looked at it together. He said Slominsky, a friend of his, was in his 90s and that he had been a determinant thinker of music. (I knew the Thesaurus of scales and how it worked, the way the division of octaves and intervallic replication, palimpsest-like processes of intervallic organization). He even lent me a biography of Slominsky, which is a bible of 20th century music and arts history.

I think Steve’s harmonic “ear altitude/attitude” I call it is a consequence of his very delicate intervallic thinking, definitely an arithmetical organization of pitches and accents in motion (Monk is in this term probably the most influential on Steve’s work) – some musicologists could do a compared approach of his compositions with Anthony Braxton’s and/or Wayne Shorter’s for example, they have something in common on this aspect of work, proportions in intervals, note “secretly” shifting functions… scales that are developing within more than an octave repetition… “Hocus Pocus” is for instance a treasure island not only for the music but also for the craftsmanship of it. It could be studied in any analysis class around the world no problem. It should.

Steve represents an example of a major artist who found his own way using his passion for different approaches of art, and not only music. He is one of the most unique voices in jazz history, I place him at the same icon level as John Coltrane for instance and I was extremely fortunate to approach and speak to him so many times in Paris. What is so specific about his playing is his accents, how they link to the attacks of the mouthpiece and the details of his articulations, an incredibly detailed craft of micro-melodic elements that, once assembled in a momentum, makes it a very unique momentum, with a certain idea of pace or inner pulse, some very subtle incremental motives, and fugit-fast inserts that always left me breathless. So far from the mainstream copy/paste process. He was always upset about the mainstream players and presenters of the times “C’est la merde” was one of his rare phrases in French I ever heard, very angry at it I remember. He was an undocile artist, a true undocile. Also, his genial mastery of dramatic high tones was part of his craftsmanship, and witnessing him warm up before a gig was at each time an incredible musical experience for me. His melodic pace is something very particular, I think it is close from the flow of spoken language – actually I’m quite sure. You can guess that on those songs he wrote for the Sextet for instance, also for this record of Russian songs with Frederic Rzewski and Irène, a wonderful disc. On “Evidence” the older disc with Don Cherry, you may remark his flow on those Ellington and Monk tunes, his solos are stating just everything he has developed throughout his life. I hear it as if it was all there already, which I believe to be true, the intuition of his own voice was already full on.

It is strange how only a small part of younger jazz players from North America actually know his playing, his music, his records. I’m sure it’ll come. Those things take some time. In France or Holland or Germany, the process is definitely on and the Lacy gospel is on as it started of course before he passed away.

The last time I saw Steve, sadly I didn’t know it was the last time but that’s when he was going to move to the US, he was playing with Mal, JJ and John (Betsch), for his “goodbye” series of concerts at the Sunset, Paris, spring 2002 I think. I told him (and Mal !) once again how much his work had been so much determining my own works, just like I had written to him several times as he generously helped me so much to enter the scene. Early he had told me I was going to have enemies with the music I wanted to play, that I had to be careful and stone-solid– and this warning has been very protective ever since for me to hold my direction.

That night at the break, I told him one key thing for me was that guy, I don’t remember who nor his face, I may even have dreamt about it who knows, who told me that, back in the early 60s, Steve used to read some poetry, and record his reading voice on a tape recorder, and, playing the tape he would improvise on the very shapes of the phrases, with his own way to pronounce and speak, and focus on every detail of the language. This information about Steve’s experiments had immediately turned me focus deeply on linguistics and on the rhythm of languages, like improvising on poetry or novels I put on the piano music stand. I told him I got into that very intensely, that I found a lot of paces and ideas doing that… Steve was listening carefully, and at some point, he interrupted me with one of his large smile. He said “Benoît, it’s a great idea to do this, but let me now tell you something: I never improvised on top of my own recorded voice. I just never did that. I wish I had though, as it is such a great idea.” For me, it was evident that he sounded like he had done it intensely… Seconds after he said this, we started nodding in repetitive smiles/laughs, staring at each other laughing! (Might be the last image I have from him alive).

I haven’t heard Steve perform that much 100% free-improv music– except with dancer Shiro Daimon maybe, a wonderful show in the mid-eighties I recall, but even then, it felt he was always quoting fragments of compositions. Same thing with the quartet, or in duo with Mal. Music could shortly dive into totally free and magical collective empathy, it felt it was so natural; nevertheless he was always playing tunes to open and to close the sequence. I’m thinking about his relation with Evan Parker – I never spoke to Evan yet about it, I think I will when I see him next (listen to his Threnody for Steve Lacy, an amazing track he recorded on his major Tzadik solo disc!). I remember listening to a duo disc of them two, which was incredible. But it seems to me that, in his late years, he got back to tunes more and more. Maybe I’m wrong. I believe tunes were giving him a territory to expand his musical vision from a “grounded” basis, and therefore he took again the path he had come from, that kind of circle. I remember we had a brief discussion about it –he said he actually did play a lot of “no-tune” tune in Roma with Don Cherry (“we tried so many different things it was such a creative period”) and other players, and that he slowly got back to the tune format, also through his work on Monk’s tunes, and that you could feel very free playing a tune, no matter if there were a chordal sequence or an open improv wish.

Allan Chase: I think what first attracted me to Steve Lacy’s playing and writing was the melodic and rhythmic clarity and rigor of his music. I liked his sound, the rhythmic feeling, the space around ideas, and the lack of embellishment. As I got to know him better in the last few years of his life when he was teaching at New England Conservatory, I started to get a clearer sense that this wasn’t just an aesthetic stance and the result of an intellectual process. I felt it was deeply, physically rooted in his experience playing traditional jazz with older musicians as a teenager, and later learning and playing Monk’s music. The melodic continuity and story-telling quality in traditional New Orleans and Chicago styles of jazz, and the way its players make so much out of restricted pitch material, seem connected to Steve’s later compositions and playing. And I think Monk’s extreme focus on small bits of material worked together with this and gave Steve a model for abstracting and extending this traditional idea and feeling into his own music. I think Steve’s time feel and rhythmic language had a lot to do with those sources, too.

Steve talked about Bechet, Cecil Scott, and Monk a lot — for example, in the Lift the Bandstand film and in Fresh Air interviews, and things (re)published in the book Steve Lacy: Conversations — but until I was around him and watched him interact with students, I didn’t realize how visceral and essential his connection to those traditions was. When I visited his home near Boston on a couple of occasions; he was listening to Bessie Smith and had no modern recordings around. He was concerned that our students hadn’t heard enough blues, and most of the anecdotes he told in his teaching were about his pre-1964 experiences.

Shoemaker: I think a central factor in Steve’s evolution was that he was never a bebopper, per se. Except for Monk’s, Steve recorded very few bebop tunes; in later years, he tended towards mid-tempo tunes and ballads like  “Hot House” and “I’ll Keep Loving You.”  You have to go back to “Donna Lee” on The Straight Horn to find Steve playing a flag waver primarily associated with Bird. It’s that Bird-derived practice of improvising on changes that has become the core of mainstream jazz, which is now, arguably, music signifying conformity instead of liberation. Steve always emphasized improvising on the thematic material with Monk; he did the same when he started to play Herbie Nichols’ tunes with Roswell Rudd. This allowed him to bring his bead on traditional jazz to the table. What other aspects of his music suggest to you choices that Steve made that separated from the pack of jazz players or free improvisers, for that matter?

Chase: I always thought of Steve as one of the few players who skipped bebop and went straight from traditional jazz to the avant garde. That’s the way Steve told the story, with his encounter with Cecil Taylor being the turning point. The fact that there were no real models for bebop soprano must have had something to do with it – or maybe that’s reversing cause and effect. Was he attracted to the soprano partly because it was outside the present-day norms? (Not to diminish the attraction of Bechet’s sound and Steve’s simple love for that music.)

But when Steve was teaching at NEC, he told some stories about playing in New York from the later 50s through the early 60s that suggested he did a lot more bebop and post-bop playing than I had thought. For example, he said it was essential to know all the famous Benny Golson tunes in order to participate in jam sessions, and so he learned them. I had never imagined Steve playing “Stablemates” and “Whisper Not,” but apparently he did.

Steve volunteered to participate in a conservatory festival dedicated to Charlie Parker, and chose to play “Confirmation” with Cecil McBee and Bob Moses (Jordan Hall, March 9, 2003). He played it pretty straightforwardly, clearly playing on the changes and form, although he sounded as fresh and original as ever. It made a big impression on a lot of us who heard it. It was probably the best bebop in the festival.

A story about his “audition” for Miles Davis seems relevant to this. The last time I saw him was in the hospital six days before he died. He had asked me and Ken Schaphorst (composer and chair of Jazz Studies at NEC) to come see him to talk about musical plans for the following school year – the instrumentation for “The Cry,” ideas for master classes, etc. Sick as he was, his love of telling jazz stories was still there.

He told us that during the post-Coltrane, pre-Wayne Shorter period, Gil Evans told him Miles had heard him on a record and wanted him to sit in with the quintet. Steve went to the club (Birdland?), was invited onstage, and Miles kicked off a blazingly fast “Rhythm” changes tune. Steve said he played a solo, trying to deal with the tempo and energy level, but felt it was obvious he wasn’t up to the task, and sat down after the one tune and put his horn away. He returned to the club another night during the same engagement, just to listen. Miles asked if he had his horn, and he said no; Miles looked at him disgustedly and said “Shit.” It was a funny and instructive story (about styles, recognizing ones strengths and weaknesses, fear and confidence, the whole mystery of jazz), but it was also clear that there was something unresolved for him. It seemed it was no coincidence that we were hearing this for the first time near the end of his life. What if he had stayed on the bandstand and played another tune or two? Is it imaginable that Steve would have been in Miles’ band, even briefly? Did he do the right thing or make a huge mistake?

In the same conversation, he insisted that Ken and I check out the newly released Lennie Tristano solo concert on DVD, and talked animatedly about Lennie’s playing on it. (He had recommended Lenny Popkin as one of the possible substitute teachers for his lessons and ensembles when he was too sick to teach one semester in the previous year.)

So Steve wasn’t quite as remote from the jazz mainstream, bebop, and post-bebop as I once thought. (And even if he had only recorded his great solo on “Just One of Those Things” with Gil Evans, he would be remembered.)

I’m also certain that Steve wasn’t ready to cede the radical meaning of bebop and its offshoots to those he called “re-boppers” and compared to the Dixieland revival. I may be projecting my own ideas onto him a bit, but it seemed to me he saw the whole jazz tradition as a living, available continuum, and was only angry when mediocre, weak-spirited, unimaginative, limiting, or conformist ideas and music were celebrated as the new standard.

More than most players (now, anyway), he was focused on melody and its structure, and the composition seemed to be in his mind throughout an improvisation. I know second-hand from students that he taught some specific techniques for playing changes that were based closely on Monk’s playing and writing – note combinations and exercises for using them on certain chords. I got the impression he had worked very hard on chords for a time, that mastery of jazz harmony was something that didn’t come very easily to him and had to be built up with patience and effort. To learn harmony that way, by ear and on the horn, but then to transcend the often-resulting obsession with articulating that harmony in improvisations, is rare. Steve said Monk told him that he didn’t have to play the piano part – Monk had it covered. I think he took that advice to heart.

Steve is one of the special few who could construct a solo in which everything is melodically and rhythmically related and meaningful, almost nothing is habitual or wasted, and yet the rhythmic momentum and feeling of adventure and presence in the moment aren’t sacrificed at all; they may even be enhanced by the clarity of the ideas. The same approach worked equally well on jazz tunes, his own compositions, free improvisations, and solo saxophone pieces.

I think Steve’s way of playing was very much like his way of conversing, which was fortunately captured pretty well. It sounded spontaneous but already edited, which seems impossible but apparently isn’t.

Delbecq: I remember Steve was upset at how mainstream the scene always was, and I think that contributed to his evolution. I think his shift from Dixieland to Cecil was quite significant in this regard; he jumped over bebop into free improv, one with a more structural approach, so to speak. I believe he was definitely involved in playing changes, but even then it was more about intervals. I think he shunned the kind of cliché-like fast playing that is/was sometimes required on the bop scene. I think on that topic he was close to Monk, whose momentum was way slower than that of the be-bop line flag waver. Back to intervals: I think this is a key point in his approach. The way he organized intervals and developed them in his improvisations were crafted on elastic patterns that did not match those of the bebop idiom. This is something I actually always liked in the way he was leading his bands, how he would “destroy” the harmonic forms of his tunes and let them blossom in free-form improv. Nevertheless, it was different with Monk or Nichols’s music for sure – it is not a coincidence that he often played Monk’s compositions without a piano. He wanted to explore harmonic extensions that wouldn’t fit with the circular chord patterns that mainstream pianists use. I think his approach was parallel with Ornette’s, particularly in his relation with bass and drums, and also with another horn player. I suggest those are fundamental aspects of his work, I think he always wished to leave a door open for experimentation, for a collective research. I think this desire to experiment is why the influence on contemporary dance on his work is strong.  Choreographers like Cunningham or Daimon gave him other approaches to time and movement, as did the many poets whose texts he set to music.

Shoemaker: The late Jack Sohmer is best known as a critic who mainly wrote about the mainstream jazz of the ‘30s through the ‘50s. He was also a tenor player on the New York scene during the ‘50s – Steve remembered him being a good player. Jack was exposed to Steve’s playing regularly then, and thought at the time that Steve was a little bit like a chameleon, in that one month Steve’s playing was straight out of Benny Carter, and then the next month Steve would be playing a lot of Lester Young. When I asked Steve about this, he said it probably was a reflection of what he was listening to at the time – one of his day jobs during those years was at a record store, and he was able to hear everything as it came out. So, the choices Steve made during these years were based not only on his knowledge of the jazz tradition but his ability to play in many styles. Steve was the not stereotypical avant-gardist who only played what he could play. His choices, even back in the ‘50s, were made with a well-informed discernment. His entire career can be seen as a series of choices: Cecil; Paris; art songs; etc. In your experience of him as a mentor and/or an educator, how did Steve discuss or demonstrate the issue of making artistic choices?

Chase: This is a tough question. Most of what surprised me in Steve’s teaching at NEC, as I heard about it from him and students and occasionally observed it, was his emphasis on traditional skills, knowledge, and lore, applied either to repertoire like Monk’s or to his own original compositions. I think the students (those who gathered around him) struck him as being in too much of a hurry to put swing and bebop behind them and go into conceptual, experimental music. So in a way he was putting the brakes on some students’ urges to define their own artistic choices and directions, probably because they were getting ahead of themselves by excluding things they hadn’t really mastered beyond a level of superficial competence. I also suspect that his return to the U.S. and close, constant contact with young musicians surprised him in a couple of ways. Some may have seen him as an avant-gardist without understanding the nuances of his stance, at first. I think being back in the U.S., maybe Boston particularly, brought back his own early experiences and made him want to pass on what he learned to people too young to play alongside Rex Stewart, Sam Woodyard, or Monk, or hear Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker live.

As a teacher, Steve’s choices and their clarity made a big impression. For students, he exemplified the mature artist who has built his strengths and passionate, long-term interests into an honest, uncontrived style. I think students who worked with him got a clear sense of what it takes to be a complete, continuously creative, sincere, original composer and improviser. There are a few other teachers around our conservatory who are able to teach that — Ran Blake comes to mind — but, Steve was a huge presence for those two years and I think it was life-changing for a bunch of students.

During those last few years, he seemed to have become even more focused on his own artistic choices. In repertoire, it was the art songs (poem and text settings), his own instrumental “classics,” and always Monk’s music. His playing was purer than ever, it seemed to me.

In teaching and clinics, he spoke fairly negatively about the kind of free improvisation that doesn’t have clearly stated, shared constraints on form or material. He talked about free playing autobiographically as a period of research in the past that was of its time (mid- to late 1960s, Italy and Argentina, The Forest and the Zoo) and yielded some useful results, but was over and done with. He explained that it was useful in that it helped him try out material, weed out unwanted things, and it led to his own much more structured compositions with guided improvisation.

He seemed to have very strong guidelines in mind about improvisation, even ostensibly free, open-ended improvisation. When I played in his Precipitation Suite with him and the Boston-based Jazz Composers Alliance he was very definite about what he wanted me to do in an improvised duet, and gave similar instructions for larger group improvisations. And the few other times I got to perform with him, we played 12-bar blues (“Misterioso”, or “Baghdad Blues” with a short, conducted, programmatic group sound improvisation).

These glimpses of working with Steve matched stories I heard from Lee Konitz about their playing “free” together, and about his interactions with Third Person (Tom Cora and Samm Bennett) and perhaps ROVA. Steve seemed to prefer working with his own material, or with pretty strictly controlled structures for improvisation, in his later years. When he performed in off-campus clubs or galleries with students while teaching in Boston, they played largely Monk tunes, sticking to the forms and changes, or (much less often) his songs.

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