A European Proposal

a column by
Francesco Martinelli

Steve Lacy
Steve Lacy, 1978                                                                               Dagmar Gebers/FMP-Publishing©2008

Writing a short tribute for the forthcoming Blue Notes collection on Ogun I realized that retrospectively one of the most important effect these musicians had on us was that they challenged our cherished attitudes, one of which is how the Blue Notes embodied the presumed energy and rhythm of African musicians, together with the political issues of South Africa. All these things were there, but they gave us much more – soft melody, and funny irony. Even though they came from the most politically charged situation in the world as far as racism was concerned, a situation that hit them hard and deep, forcing to escape – they did not want to see their music and their personae reduced to a one-dimensional political statement. Their impact on me was made stronger by having the chance to meet them first-hand, work with them in the tense pre-concert atmosphere, and joke with them afterwards. Retrospectively, I recognize this same attitude in many of the most exciting musicians I have met. The outlandish statements of Sun Ra, the pointed refusal by Anthony Braxton to be considered a “free” musician, the fine analysis by Evan Parker of the Bacharach/Warwick recording I had considered too square to mention – they all challenged our predetermined, prejudiced system of categories.

Steve Lacy is another case in point. It is difficult to find a sweeter, gentler man – and at the same time – one who was more firm in doing what he wanted to do, without respect of what was anyone expected from him. We Europeans jazz lovers cherish the idea that our continent gave a new and better home to jazz, and mention Lacy as one of the expatriates who flourished here, which is true, up to a point. The soprano saxophonist left New York soon after he was offered a date on Columbia – as the soloist of a jazz arrangement of Vivaldi's “Four Seasons” – about the time when the label suggested an album of Beatles covers to Thelonious Monk. (Compare this with today's suspicious profusion of “tribute” CDs replaying music of  questionable interest to begin with – do we really need an “Abba in Jazz” tribute band?) When he left, Lacy was not comfortable in any of the camps, or cliques, in which the jazz scene of New York was split: uninterested in the muscular display of strength and speed in the post bop mainstream, and too respectful of the tradition to feel at home in what was then considered the avant-garde.

He still had to point this out in an usually sharp tone after 30 years to Daniel Eugé, Yves Gueniffrey and Jean-Jacques Janot in an interview published in Drôle d'époque ("Secrets et Silences", printemps 2002 - numéro 10):

Drôle d'Epoque : Right. You are an example of what we're looking for, fifty years of experimentation…

Steve Lacy : No, not experimentation but rather committment. But for me the poetical and the political, they are the same. There is a difference of just a few letters. Jazz is at the same time poetical and political. Noone asks us to play jazz, it's our wish to do it. I am not taking orders from anyone, except maybe Louis Amstrong or Duke Ellington ! I am most definitely within a tradition, within an history, but I play only the music I choose to play, with the musicians who share this choice. This need is political. … I learned from Cecil Taylor that to fight to play what one wants is political. And now I keep doing that as much as possible.

Steve had his “war song” – The Woe – and had very precise ideas about society, but definitely did not want to flatten his music on a political statement: the piece was played for the last time the night before the peace treaty was signed, and the recording of this performance, coupled with Lacy's first solo concert in Avignon (the latter was issued as the seminal first LP of the Emanem catalogue) form the Emanem CD, Weal and Woe, maybe the most striking single-album representation of the breadth of his music.

At first, Lacy did find better work conidtions and a space for his own music in Europe, It was an exciting musical environment; he absorbed ideas from the culture at large, and even discovering in Europe musicians from America. But,he also quickly realized the limitation of the local scene; as he told Fred Jung for “ A Fireside Chat with Steve Lacy,” published on jazzweekly.com.

(Singer) Irene (Aebi) and I were living in Rome in '68,'69 and by the end of '69, I was writing a lot of music and we were working with amateurs in Rome and they couldn't play what I was writing. Then I played a festival in Belgium, outside of France and I heard all these wonderful musicians from Chicago and different places that were living in Paris. I heard Braxton and Leo Smith and Leroy Jenkins and Jarman and all the wonderful musicians, Frank Wright and I heard Bobby Few. And so that is what really decided me to want to move to Paris from Rome. I told Irene that there were some wonderful musicians in Paris and let's move to Paris. We could form a band. We went there and Bobby was one of the main reasons because he was the first pianist I heard after Cecil Taylor that had his own thing really well developed.”

Lacy remained resolutely American, and he wanted his group to be considered as such. With few exceptions – Aebi, “the voice” of his music being the most important – Lacy’s working groups featured American musicians. To have Bobby Few in the Sexter, Lacy waiting ten years to become available, which is ironic because Steve and Irene’s decision to form their own band was made upon hearing Few. He replaced drummer Oliver Johnson with John Betsch. Lacy did have an ear for French bassists; he had established a partnership with Jean-François Jenny-Clark after arriving in Paris, and Jean-Jacques Avenel was the only other European who played in a band that saw few changes in over 25 years. Americans like Mal Waldron, Gil Evans, Frederick Rzewski and Eric Watson account for the bulk of Lacy’s occasional associations with pianist, and his longest-running collaboration was with Roswell Rudd . When he had to choose ten favorite records from his enormous discography, Lacy choose his own quintet's albums, solos, and collaborations with other Americans such as Don Cherry and Cecil Taylor.

Like all choices this had two sides. He did not become “local” for a long, long time, keeping his appeal for festival organizers and label owners; he was not fully accepted, which hurt him, and after 32 years in Paris he left because finally a better offer had come from Boston. He was quick to point out cultural differences between the American and the European systems for American interviews, but he wasn't refraining from speaking out to the Drôle d'époque interviewers:

“There is a time to go back: not too early. There's a time for the exile, but you can't stay too long. Now I feel it's the time for me. This is also because I play more and more the [the USA] and less and less here. The telephone does not ring anymore. I am not invited anymore to play solo concerts in Paris. In the Seventies, and after that, I was doing many things in the museums, the schools, the clubs, the art galleries... I am not playing in Paris almost anymore. There was the possibility in 1997 for me to become director of the ONJ [Orchestre national de jazz]. But it was refused to me because I was American. Since then it has been clear that I had to leave. It's rather hard.”

In his books and interviews, Mike Zwerin – another expat, with a very similar background – has described the situation on the Americans in Europe with the adapted quotation: “There's only an inch of difference between Paris and New York, but it's the inch I live in.” This territory had also shrunk, as Lacy pointed out in a farewell interview to Zwerin for the International Herald Tribune (and “reprinted” at culturekiosque.com):

"The 'fisc' is on my case," is the way he put it. The French equivalent of the IRS "wants money I never made. I have three lawyers working on it. It's expensive and boring and it keeps me from concentrating on the music. There's a guy there who thinks I'm a big American fish with bank accounts everywhere. I always manage to keep busy but basically I run at a loss. I kept it going on deficit financing from my mother's stocks and the MacArthur."

So was Lacy closed to working with European musicians? Not at all; he was very open. He only kept these collaborations occasional, away from the risk of obscuring his groups, solos, original projects. After installing himself in Paris, Lacy worked with the most famous aggregations of European improvisors – Derek Bailey's Company,  Alex Schlippenbach's Globe Unity Orchestra and Misha Mengelberg's ICP Orchestra (in a concert dedicated to the music of Monk, Ellington and Herbie Nichols). Lacy also worked in many ad-hoc duos with a wide assortment of musicians, including Maarten Altena, Joëlle Léandre and Ulrich Gumpert. They were often very satisfactory occasions where one could savor his sound and hear the music adjusting according to their personalities.  

One of my favorites among this latter group of musicians were the “rotating” duos with Lol Coxhill and Evan Parker partially collected on Three Blokes (FMP). Lacy and Parker, the two giants of the soprano saxophone on this side of the pond, expressed mutual admiration not only in words but also musically in these meetings; recorded seven years earlier in 1985, Chirps. (FMP) is an earlier example of their rapport. Parker also created a special tribute to Lacy with “Lapidary” on his '91 album of overdubbed solos, Process and Reality (FMP), where he, according to annotator Steve Lake, puts the mic into the bell of the soprano and “drums rhythm patterns upon the keys, and the horn ‘listens’ to a record of Steve Lacy playing to a record by Ruby Braff! How much we hear of Lacy's “Cryptosphere” hinges upon which soprano keys are open at any given moment.”  

With his curious, gentle smile Steve managed to live here for thirty years, yet he remained a visiting American. Maybe he was also felt somehow like an alien or strange being, not fully fitting in the scheme of things in the States. On this side he got to know us well and was ready to offer us his oblique, Taoist advice, more often than not – as far I was concerned – chiding to not do something, to not be too active and too rational, to let things go according to their way.

It's heart-warming to realize – for example during the Siena Jazz Summer Courses – how much the influence of Steve Lacy is powerful among the best Italian saxophone players: Mario Raja, Eugenio Colombo, Maurizio Giammarco, Roberto Ottaviano not only talk about Lacy to generations who had not the chance to hear him live, but actually have the students play Steve's pieces, which prompts them to come to the Library asking for his recordings. In their music, there isn't an imitation of Lacy's sound and style, but his approach to music-making has been crucial in shaping how they think about music (and I'm sure they asked him about his “findings” on the instrument as well).

He was fond of all arts as much as of music, often working from or with texts, paintings, body movements. His humor was often about himself, showing surprise of having not finished yet his exploration of the “fish horn,” or asking to call his music “high jazz.” Musically inimitable, his dissemination in Europe of the spirit of jazz through the compositions of its past masters and through his own music permanently changed the path of European jazz.

Francesco Martinelli©2008

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