The Book Cooks
Excerpt from

Steve Lacy (Unfinished)
Edited by Guillaume Tarche
(Lenka Lente; Nantes, France)

The revolutionary conservatism of Steve Lacy’s “Prospectus”
Phillip Johnston

Steve Lacy Sextet: postcard included with Prospectus (hatART) © Horace

There is still plenty of good music to be written in C major.
Schoenberg to his advanced composition class at UCLA, circa 1940.

Lacy’s Lines

Steve Lacy’s tunes form one of the most unique bodies of work in jazz, and in contemporary music. Very clearly influenced by Thelonious Monk’s tunes, Lacy’s have a unique and immediately recognizable sound. Like Monk’s, they are angular, chromatic, strongly motivic and reflect a wry sense of humor. However, unlike Monk’s tunes, which still maintain roots in the language of bebop (no matter how tenuous) and follow song-like harmonic structures (often using blues and rhythm changes, but also featuring notable departures featuring strings of obscurely-related dominant seventh chords), Lacy’s tunes seem to be almost more closely derived from Monk’s solos, often taking a specific motivic idea and deeply, almost obsessively, examining it, turning it this way and that in the light, to examine particular melodic, harmonic and rhythmic facets.

One element that he was particularly fascinated by was intervals. It may be that periodic long periods of unemployment made Lacy a world-class practicer, and he often used the word practitioner rather than musician to describe his role. One sometimes inadvertent result of sustained practicing is that the beauty of scales, arpeggios and long tones is revealed, and systematic patterns of intervals become melodies in themselves. Lacy made the creation of unpredictable patterns of intervals into a compositional (and improvising) language. Listen to bars 5-9 of his second solo chorus on Cole Porter’s “Easy To Love” on his Prestige recording Soprano Sax, one of his earliest recordings as a leader, and you can already see ‘evidence’ of his fascination with small changes in intervals and patterns.

Fig. 1 bars 5-9 of the second chorus of Lacy’s solo on “Easy To Love”[1]

Chromaticism in jazz

Early jazz was largely diatonic, the most chromatic element being the injection of the blues scale over dominant seventh chords, with diatonic harmony favoured.[2] The voice-leading of the ‘Great American Songbook’, with its succession of ii V I chord sequences, built upon and expanded it, and the bebop era ear offered much more chromatic lines, featuring notes drawn from the upper extensions of the harmony (-9, +9, +11s etc.), over mostly standard harmonic structures. Later developments of post-bop, Wayne Shorter, modalism, brought both simpler and more complex harmony, and the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and late John Coltrane eventually abandoned the repetition of harmonic structures as a formal device. Like classical music, the history of jazz can be traced as a journey from simpler melodic, harmonic and rhythmic conventions, to ever-more complex ones, to the abandonment of these rules, to aleatory or improvised music worlds. Of course, this death march from tonality to atonality finished decades ago, and where to from there? Much of the subsequent forward motion has involved going back and more closely examining previously neglected side-paths or juxtapositions, and in a 1980 interview with Lee Jeske in Downbeat[3], Lacy referred to his music as ‘post-free’ or ‘poly-free’. Which brings us to “Prospectus.”


“Prospectus” was composed in 1978 in Paris and was first published in a collection of scores of the same name by Gunther Schuller’s Margun Music in 1987. While not mentioned in the published score, in Lacy’s hand-written chart it is dedicated to McCoy Tyner.[4] Like many of Lacy’s ‘songs’ it has a lyric, that was often sung by his creative and life partner Irene Aebi, based on a poem by French modernist poet Blaise Cendrars. Lacy explains in the introduction to the Margun edition (‘About The Music’) that, “The poet, Blaise Cendrars, found this text in a travel brochure in the ‘20s, gave it shape, and called it a poem. Years later I set it to music and now it’s a song ... the whole piece should be light and gay, off the ground.”[5]

In Steve Futterman’s liner notes for the 1992 Novus recording Live at Sweet Basil, he says that the tune had been the band’s opening number for about 14 years. He quotes Lacy as saying, “It’s an invitation to a voyage, that’s why we start with it. It’s also a tune in C major, every note in it. It’s good for opening up, for tuning up, for breaking the ice, for letting the public hear our sound.”[6] The tune was played often by Lacy throughout his career in multitudinous formations: solo, various duos, quintet, sextet, both with and without the lyric. It was clearly a favorite.

Prelude to the analysis

The tune consists of a 36-bar melody, with an 8-bar introduction which is also played after the out-chorus as a coda. (There is a one-bar drum break separating the introduction from the in-chorus). The tune itself has no formal structural divisions, such as a 12-bar blues does, or a 32-bar AABA form common in jazz. There are rehearsal marks in the original Margun Music score, dividing the tune into five sections of 6, 5, 8, 8, and 9 bars respectively, and these are quite logical divisions based on the melodic development of the tune. However, none of them repeat, and this structure is not used as a form for improvisation. The end result is that “Prospectus” is a 36-bar jazz tune in which no single bar is ever repeated. And at no point in the tune does it even once depart from the diatonic key of C: that is to say, it can be played entirely on the white keys of the piano.

However, there are a number of other ways in which the tune itself is both accessible and inviting. As mentioned, it is in a major key; it begins and ends on the tonic. While there are no chord changes per se, horizontally there are many moments of pretty conventional harmony implied, including ii V I’s, and I IV V’s. That is to say it is not ‘modal’ per se (though technically it is in the Ionic mode), which implies the lack of, or diminished (no pun intended) importance of, functional harmony–particularly the dominant/tonic cadence. Rhythmically, it is a straight-ahead swinger, and the improvisation generally continues as such. Finally, the lyrics, being based on a ’found’ text from a travel brochure, are quite cheerful and charming, despite one slightly peevish moment: ‘This little country is certainly too little known in Europe, it merits a bit more attention.” It has a cheerful calypso-like melody: along with Lacy’s “Blue Baboon,” it is one of his most ‘commercial’ tunes.[7]

The text reads as follows:


Visitez notre île
C’est l’île la plus au sud des possessions japonaises
Notre pays est certainement trop peu connu en Europe
Il mérite d’attirer l’attention
La faune et la flore sont très variées et n’ont guère été étudiées jusqu’ici
Enfin vous trouverez partout de pittoresques points de vue
Et dans l’intérieur
Des ruines de temples bouddhiques qui sont dans leur genre de pures merveilles[8]




Come and see our own isle.
It’s all the way down south – in the Japanese possessions
This little Country is certainly too little known in Europe,
it merits a bit more attention.
The fauna and the flora have great variety, and hardly have been studied until now.
And then you’ll find everywhere you look a picturesque point of view
And in the interior
Some ruins of buddhist temples, which are in their genre pure marvels.[9]




The tune has a couple of other peculiarities that I’d like to mention before I begin my formal analysis.

I) When I say that the tune “Prospectus” is entirely diatonic, I am excluding the 8 bars which frame any performance / recording, just outside the head / improvisation / head structure. This single repeated phrase, which consists of three (almost) identical chromatic sequences moving up in minor thirds (followed by a button at the end) which is repeated four times, seems to bear little in common with the tune itself–except that it does. With its flats and sharps and angular shape it appears to be a classic Lacy / Monk-style jazz riff, emphasizing the Lacy-esque arithmetical exploration of transposition: the only similarity to the main tune is the use of parallel phrase shapes. But its very existence throws out the challenge: here is the type of music I write: let’s see what happens if I take away all of the accidentals: will it still retain its essential character?

II) Letter E, the final nine-bar section, consists of a series of identically-shaped phrases, moving through a pattern of fourths, in the form of a half note followed by two quarter notes. However, despite the fact that this is one of Lacy’s most oft-performed tunes, he has never once played this section in the rhythm as notated by himself. Instead, he favours a sequence of two dotted quarter notes followed by a quarter (or a series of three half note triplets, depending upon your interpretation). Yet, when questioned about this discrepancy by singing students in his class at New England Conservatory of Music, Lacy insisted the notated rhythm was the correct one.[10] I leave this enigma for the reader to ponder.

III) Lacy is fond, in his notation of his tunes, of writing the accompaniment in the bass clef of the grand staff as a series of tone clusters. He does this in the case of “Prospectus,” the only difference from a traditional Henry Cowell-style tone cluster being that they utilise only notes from the diatonic key of C, tones mostly separated by a major second, for example, a cluster chord consisting of C, D, F & G. Like the relationship between intro and the tune, it’s as though you took a more conventional tone cluster and sucked all the chromaticism out of it. However, in practice, this part is rarely played. Instead, pianist Bobby Few accompanies it freely with a combination of McCoy Tyner-esque modal comping and playing snatches of the melody, always with tasteful inventiveness and imagination. I mention these three details as an ‘intro’ to this article because my analysis does not have the satisfying directionality of a tonic / dominant resolution. My only wish is to take “Prospectus,” examine its details, and turn it this way and that in the sun, (to ‘mull’ it over).





1. Structure

As mentioned earlier, the tune itself is constructed in 5 sections, as designated by rehearsal marks by Lacy, which I would further subdivide into 4 + 1. The tune as a whole is 36 bars long, in 4/4, consisting of sections of 6, 5, 8, 8 and 9 bars. Each of the first 4 sections can be divided into about 3 phrases, which can then be subject to further subdivision. The fifth and final section is sui generis, only in the fact that it consists of a single idea, which summarizes the content of the preceding four. Conventional jazz and popular tunes are usually structured in groups of 2, 4, and 8 bars. But the groups in “Prospectus” are casual, with phrases of different lengths, with each group separated from the next group by a short ‘rest’ or break of about a bar or so.

Fig. 2 bars 1-6 of the main tune of “Prospectus”

Usually in music a second phrase will be a response to a first, and then another two are introduced, often those two responding to the first two. But here there is a phrase, a reply, and then a reply to the reply. And then another group of three that repeat the process with another take on the same idea or group of ideas. This process is repeated four times, ending with the fifth section which can be viewed either as a climax or a denouement, in that it is simultaneously more focused (simplified) and yet more relentless in its arithmetical resolve.

Fig. 3 bars 28-36 of “Prospectus”

Once the improvising begins, though, unlike the mainstream approach of blowing over the form of the tune suggested by the melodic quality of the tune, the form is abandoned. The blowing consists of a series of solos, like most of Lacy’s band arrangements, which he indicates should be ‘in C major’ but it is clear that this is merely a suggestion.[11] However, the tune itself provides a rich lode of motifs with which to launch an improvisation.

2. Melodic Phrasing

The tune is composed of a series of phrases: like a bop tune, it consists of a series of riff-like motifs, as opposed to a longer ‘melody’ like one would find in the popular tunes from the ‘30s and ‘40s that jazz musicians like to improvise on. However, with only a few exceptions, unlike a bop tune, it mostly eschews the tortuous twists and turns in direction (its diatonicism precludes that, with two exceptions); it mostly consists of rising and falling sequences of scales, or thirds and fourths (arpeggios). These are juxtaposed like a series of gestures, in comparison or contrast, most often as a repetition one diatonic step up or down.

Of the first four sections, each section begins on the tonic or third of the key and all end on the perfect fifth (implied dominant) which leads us on to the next section. While there is no written harmonic accompaniment or structure, sequences of notes in arpeggios can imply harmony, and arpeggios abound, favouring Is, IVs and Vs, with jazz’s favorite devices, the circle of fifths and the ii V I, often to be found or implied. Oddly enough, the one exception to major and minor triads allowed in modal harmony, the vii diminished chord, is never to be found. This is quite surprising, given the favour that the tritone enjoys in the Lacy / Monk musical vocabulary.

3. Harmony

Although there are no explicit chord changes written, the accompaniment being a series of the aforementioned clusters that have virtually no sense of functional harmonic progression, the melody implies harmony through its horizontal movement through a series of arpeggios and leading tones. In fact, it never stays still.

Fig. 4 bars 21-25 of “Prospectus”

As stated, each section (rehearsal mark) begins on the tonic chord (the tonic or the third) and ends on the fifth (dominant), which leaves us expecting the next episode. The one exception is the final section, which begins on the (implied) ii, leading us through a sequence that eventually ends with single note leading tones, resoundingly stating ii V I, an almost comically satisfying resolution (if an imperfect authentic cadence). However, it is modal harmony, though not what we normally think of as modal, being in the major rather than the minor key.

Fig. 5 bars 28-36 of “Prospectus”
Note that the implied quartal harmony here is inherently post-functional (see 5).[12]

4. Directionality / Melodic Contours

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of bebop – that separate it from the popular songs whose harmony is used to create contrafacts[13] – is its tortuously labyrinthian melodic lines, with chromaticism run riot. “Prospectus” contains none of these... almost. Instead it focuses on two directions: up and down. Almost every phrase in the tune travels uninterruptedly in one direction or the other, often responding to the previous phrase with affirmation or dissent.

Fig. 6 bars 16-18 of “Prospectus”

Fig. 7 bars 8-9 of “Prospectus”

At only two moments (at bars 7 and 10) does the melody make the kind of mixed turns, to the extent permitted by its modal constraint, that we expect of a bebop tune.

Fig. 8 bar 7 of “Prospectus”

Fig. 9 bar 10 of “Prospectus”

These are in a sense the dramatic high points of the tune, especially the second one. (Although note that they do not occur at the Golden Mean, unless you are reading the tune backwards). But like the murder of the heroine in Hitchcock’s Psycho, they occur surprisingly early in the structure. And like Psycho, “Prospectus” ends with a lengthy denouement (section E).

What’s interesting about these up and down moves, usually either an arpeggio or a part of a scale, is how often they reoccur, but always recontextualised. As the essence of the tune is the limitation to a very small area, Lacy examines this melodic device with a microscope, like he examines the mode / scale.

Compare this uninterrupted diatonicism and directionality to the shapes and chromaticism of bebop tunes like “Groovin’ High”[14] (Gillespie, 1945) or “Donna Lee”[15] (Parker, 1947),[16] Monk’s “Skippy”,[17] or, the most chromatic of all, Lacy’s “The Dumps” (1972).[18] These tunes feature repeated changes of direction within a phrase, chromatic notes outside of the home key and non-chordal passing tones. None of these ever appear in the body of “Prospectus”.

Fig. 10 bars 1-6 of the main tune of “Prospectus”

“Groovin’ High

Fig. 11 bars 7-9 of “Groovin’ High”

“Donna Lee”

Fig. 12 bars 1-3 (plus pick-up) of “Donna Lee”


Fig. 13 bars 1-3 of “Skippy”

“The Dumps”

Fig. 14 bars 1-3 of “The Dumps”

Since the time of Bach, functional harmony has been a journey away from the tonic to the furthest distance (the dominant) and then a return to the tonic, usually after going through a series of sequences, a la “Groovin’ High”. In jazz, that often means riffs repeated / transposed through a series of ii V progressions (examples are countless). “Prospectus” does involve adventures which end up back at the tonic, but instead of literal transpositions, they use a series of gestures, limited to a very small area. The entire tune consists almost completely of ascending or descending arpeggios, or descending series of sequential scale runs of 3, 4 or 5 notes.

Rising arpeggios: Bars 1, 17, 18, 21.
Descending arpeggios: Bars 3, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14, 15, 23
Rising diatonic scales: 4-5, 5-6, 23, 26

5. Gestures / Motifs and Mirroring

One of the main routines is the immediate repetition of gestures, beginning in bar 1. After that, see bars 4–5, 8–9, bar 10 (triplets subjected to rhythmic diminution), 12/13–14/15, 18–19, 23–26. And rehearsal mark E, which I am calling a denouement, consists entirely of repetitions of a single gesture, moving, as almost all of these do, by one single diatonic step from the previous iteration, until the final, almost comical, statement of functional harmony: two, FIVE, ONE! (In case you were wondering...).

The device of repetition / reflection / mirroring is at the very center of this meditation on intervals / pitch / rhythm. It happens in mirrors within mirrors. The first level is succeeding phrases, which we see from the first to the last (see fig. 14). From bar 1, to the end of bar 4 into bar 5, to bars 8 & 9, to bar 10, to bars 12 and 13, to bars 17 and 18, to the second half of bar 23 to bar 26, and it finally reaches its culmination in bars 28-32. The second is in phrases that recur later, such as 4/5 reflected in 23/26, or 8/9 reflected in 28-32. The third level is in the structure, wherein sections A, C and D are each a distorted mirror image of each other, structurally. Each contains three phrases, each of which is an answer to the previous one and each forming a whole, an exploration / development of a slightly different idea. (I see bar 18 in C as a little koan, both harmonically and structurally: what is it? an afterthought? a tag? a comment? It may or may not be included in C, but it doesn’t break the mold). Each of the phrases in A, C and D is a reinvention of the others, both within their section and of the others. The B and E sections are more singular, with B containing the two anomalous phrases (bars 7 & 10), and both focussing on the downward phrase. Yet their phrases as well are ‘reflections’ of all the others. Admittedly, B could be divided up in a similar way to A, C and D, supporting the analysis of A B C D + E, but, to quote Bartleby the Scrivener, I would prefer not to.

If one takes a step back from the mirror, one can see a funhouse of endless permutations of a single musical phrase. Then it disappears.

Fig. 15 bars 1-36 of “Prospectus”

*All functional harmony here is imagined, not part of any actual chord changes for the tune.
**Letter E’s harmonic analysis is admittedly questionable, due to the tetrachords: but hopefully you will concede my point.

Fig. 16 p. 3 of Lacy’s hand-written score for “Prospectus”


First of all, what then is the meaning of the disconnect between the introduction and tune? I think the intro is a succinct summation of the Lacy musical world: rhythmic, chromatic, pattern-loving. He states it at the beginning, and then says, “OK, now that we’ve got that established, now we’re going to explore just one very small aspect of all this, discarding many of the aspects and focussing microscopically on one area.” Then at the end, once he’s finished, we come back to Lacy World at the end.

And what is the prospectus? What is it a prospectus for? (When did you ever listen to a lecture on a topic that didn’t begin with the speaker reciting the dictionary definition of the topic at hand, today quickly Googled before the event?) Well, the Merriam-Webster has two definitions of ‘prospectus’:

I) “a preliminary printed statement that describes an enterprise (such as a business or publication) and that is distributed to prospective buyers, investors, or participants.” The tune describes the enterprise of the major scale. And, II) “something (such as a statement or situation) that forecasts the course or nature of something.” The first bar of the tune forecasts the course / nature of everything that is to follow, just as the opening of Ludwig van’s Fifth forecasts everything that is to follow (and it opens with two phrases, one presenting a motif – antecedent – and the second repeating it one diatonic step down – consequent).

Or perhaps the title “Prospectus” refers only to the contents of the travel brochure that inspired Cendrars’ poem. Lacy has long loved to take the structure of written words that are not written to be song lyrics and to build a tune around them, because of the unpredictable form that results. In his introduction to the book Prospectus, he says, “This collection is offered in the spirit of, “Here, take this, and see what you can do with it.” Perhaps he took Cendrars’ poem in the same spirit, expressed, explored and transmuted it, and passed it on to us with the same intent.


Acknowledgements: thanks to Allan Chase, Joe Fiedler, Mike Hashim, Henry Bean, Hilary Bell, Ivy Johnston, Jason Weiss and Guillaume Tarche for advice and interesting discussion.



1. Steve Lacy’s solo on “Easy To Love” (Porter, 1934) on Soprano Sax (Prestige 7125, 1957), transcribed by Remi Bolduc. Interestingly, this pattern-variation device appears in the same place in the second 16 bars of his first chorus, and then several more times later in the solo over the same four bars. But the first occurrence bears a spooky resemblance to the last strain of the tune he would write 20 years later.
2. This generalization puts aside the modernism of composers like Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and Don Redman for the purpose of discussion here.
3. Lee Jeske, “Prolific Steve Lacy and His Poly-Free Bag”, in Down Beat, 47/5 (May 1980), p. 20-23.
4. Lacy’s original hand-written scores / parts for his tunes, including the songs, invariably feature a dedication and a small xeroxed picture of the dedicatee pasted in. The connections between the dedicatee and the author of the text of the songs is often obscure to the casual observer.
5. Steve Lacy, Prospectus, Margun Music, Newton Centre, MA 1987.
6. Steve Futterman, liner notes for Live at Sweet Basil (RCA Novus, 1992).
7. Lacy’s tune “Bone” is also completely diatonic (similarly excepting the intro/outro).
8. Kodak (Documentaire), Stock, 1924.
9. The translation is from the Margun Music edition. The capitalization and punctuation reflects this translation, which is uncredited.
10. In a conversation with Allan Chase, who was central to bringing Lacy to NEC in the last two years of his life.
11. Lacy begins his introduction to the Margun Music score with the instruction: “This collection is offered in the spirit of ‘Here, take this, and see what you can do with it.’ Performers should feel free to arrange and adapt these pieces to their abilities and needs. There are many ways other than those indicated here of performing these tunes... This music was made to play with–like all jazz.”
12. Allan Chase has jokingly suggested that perhaps this is what Tyner’s comping in Coltrane’s classic quartet sounded like to Lacy, or that it was an homage of sorts. The fact that Coltrane’s tune “Impressions” is mostly in the Dorian mode in D (all the white keys) would support that conjecture... PS, See Prelude to analysis, III, in re Bobby Few.
13. In this a context, a contrafact is a new melody written over pre-existing chord changes, most often that of a jazz standard or popular tune.
14. Dizzy Gillespie (1948, Universal Publishing Group).
15. “Donna Lee” was copyrighted by Charlie Parker in 1947 (renewed 1978, Atlantic Music Corporation.) but is attributed by some to Miles Davis, including by Miles himself in his autobiography.
16. Both of these are contrafacts, by the way: “Groovin’ High” on “Whispering” (Schonberger/Coburn/Rose, 1920) and “Donna Lee” on “Back Home Again in Indiana” (Hanley/Macdonald, 1917).
17. Thelonious Monk (1962, renewed 1990, Thelonious Music Corporation).
18. Steve Lacy (1972), score also in the Margun Music book. Both “Prospectus” and “The Dumps” are published by Margun Music.
19. Isn’t it a sin to define a word with itself (i.e., prospectus / prospective)? For shame, M-W! (But “Isn’t It A Sin?” is a good tune title.)

© 2021 Phillip Johnston


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