Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

Steve Lacy
Steve Lacy + Oliver Johnson, 1989                  Michael Wildermanę2008

My copy of Robert Creeley’s Collected Poems 1945-1975 is inscribed on the title-page, the author button-holed at a reading in Paris not long after the collection came out in 1982. There’s a further inscription later in the book, on the almost-blank of page 547, which apart from a running section-footer that reads “THIRTY THINGS” has only half a dozen printed words. The bulk of the remaining space is taken up with an enthusiastically scrawled signature. Even the most assiduous book-seller would have to give up and leave it at: p. 547, ink inscription – “[illegible] Yrs Steve”. If I get a moment before I die – just to boost the resale value for the wife and children – I should maybe put in a note that says: I believe the inscription runs ‘I’ll drink to that’.
The tiny poem Steve Lacy was drinking to is called “Here”. It goes “Here is/where there/ is” and I’d told him, an hour or so after the Creeley reading and in a bar – somewhere near Steve’s Paris apartment but which I couldn’t have found again five minutes later – that those words summed up for me something about the way Lacy played saxophone. Not so much in terms of the music of the sound but in the simple, ostensive hereness of it. We both drank to that, in fact, perhaps more than was good for me or for the assignment.
I had for a time a bad reputation for always coming back with the story, but the wrong story. Forty minutes with Joe Zawinul: nothing but boxing stories, and a hot tip on two tough little Mexican flyweights he was watching. An on-the-fly twenty minutes with that far-from-lightweight lightweight Miles Davis backstage at the Royal Festival Hall: some good stuff on the painters he liked, but not a word about Bird or John Coltrane. And a full hour with composer John Adams that only managed to move on to his music at the fifty-minute mark, after a long ramble through everyone from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Thomas Pynchon. With Steve, though, talking about poets and poetry made a certain sense, since words were central to what he did and how he thought about music.
Steve Lacy read voraciously, and poetry in particular. Born in 1934, he came of age at a moment when the “spontaneous bop prosody” of the Beats was arguably the dominant new form, and one that critically formed an alliance with the new jazz. One of the Steve’s last works, not necessarily one of his most successful, was The Beat Suite, recorded with some of his familiar collaborators and trombonist George E. Lewis in 2003. And, of course, following a meeting with Creeley, he’d recorded the two parts of Futurities in 1984.
It seems to me, though, that Steve’s characteristic language, indeed his whole musical philosophy, derived less from the Beats, those declamatory, chastened-romantic offspring of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot (check again how many musical references there are in The Waste Land, even a spot of jazz) and far more from the Objectivist tradition that comes out of William Carlos Williams. In Williams’ work, there is little incantation, surprisingly little “emotion” and “psychology” – he  was a physician, and apparently a good obstetrician, after all – and almost no abstraction. Williams didn’t even trouble to “celebrate” the thingness of things; he simply announced they were there. Look at all those one word Lacy titles, sometimes generic like “Clichés”, “Flakes”, “Stalks”, “Clinkers”, more often bluntly singular and substantive like “The Door”, “The Rent”, “The Crust.” And then perhaps listen to the tunes themselves. They don’t deliver narrative, they don’t emote, they don’t discourse; they simply announce themselves.
English, like most of the Western tongues, isn’t an ostensive language. In natural speech it isn’t possible just to say “dog”. Try it on someone, and they might say “bitch” back at ya, but they’re more likely to say “dog? what dog? where? what’s it doing?” The strength of some of the Oriental languages is that there remains the possibility of simply announcing an existence but one that has none of the familiar truth-function we demand of our words. It is possible – particularly in pictograms rather than alphabetical language – to say “dog” and “tree”, “frog” or “pond”, with no essential concern as to what the dog might be doing to or at the tree or where the frog is relative to the pond. That way, when the dog barks or the frog jumps with an innocent “plop” from one medium into another, the effect is so breathtakingly unexpected that words like “drama” fail to register.
Steve was fascinated by some of these ideas, and talked enthusiastically about wanting to make music which was about nothing but itself, but which was not in the usual sense “abstract.” We have an inconsistent attitude to realism and abstraction. The former is often considered to be a bad thing in music – Socialist Realism, first cuckoos of spring, and all that – the latter almost preferred. In the visual arts, straightforward realism is derided as too literal and unpainterly, while abstraction is promoted by intellectuals and generally suspected as a con by the public. In literature, abstraction doesn’t quite compute – words have to mean, don’t they? – while realism has to be continually redefined and rescued from those who reduce it to mere literalness.
I think Steve Lacy pushed through all that. He remains, of all the modern giants of jazz, the one I find most difficult to describe and characterize, certainly without recourse to that pseudo-Zen, sui generis, “he just is” stuff that gives away a failure to find a more secure description. Steve wasn’t above occasional onomatopoeic effects, insect-twitter and bird-song (on a later meeting, we talked about “Messy ‘Un” – for a guy who lived in France all those years, he never got beyond schoolboy French), his most distinctive language was one stripped of all the usual saxophone signifiers, dry, vibratoless, bleached, some tones sucked rather than blown, the attacks all wrong, somehow. Listening to him play at length always made me think of another Creeley poem, “Sounds” from the “In London” sequence, in which a monstrous nose-blow, yuketeh, yuketeh, “Velvet purr”, slosh, slush, Tseet, tseet become the substance of the poem and its “music.”
Creeley used to say that his line-lengths were a reflection of the short, enigmatic phrases Miles Davis played in his first post-bop years. I guess that makes sense, and Steve was very alert to that kind of thing, just as he was conscious of the singing and liturgical traditions that lay behind the Russian poets (mostly Mandelstam and Akhmatova) he set on Rushes in 1989. But I tend to think that Steve was more interested in the speaking voice than in singing as such; his wife Irène Aëbi devised a wonderful synthesis of the two. On Hooky, he used spoken phrases, including the ambiguously uttered “No Baby” (a chilling performance) to generate an interval and metrical foot that became the basis for improvisation.
In his intro to a later collected Creeley, musician and poet Clark Coolidge (who also recorded a panel session with Creeley and Steve) talks of hearing “Bob pause where I never would have expected it. Such resolve. Such heart . . .” before shaping the exquisitely knotty phrase “No truly further American poem without his”.  I don’t want merely to import and adapt the sense of other imaginations to capture Steve’s, but again it seems to me that if the music we are concerned with in these “pages” is to advance and to claim a stake in the future, rather than lapsing into an episode in the history of style and end-stopped self-expression, then it has to learn something from Steve Lacy’s willingness to leave pauses, to ignore the familiar breath-groups, to think in prose as well as poetry, and to root itself in natural things as much as in learned artifice.

“Head of / the outside / inside.” There is a perception that Steve Lacy started out in Dixieland and then somehow vaulted over everything that lay in between to stake himself a place in the avant-garde. I’d say he was the perfect example of the artisanal jazz musician, more interested in work than in “works,” as right(eous)ly contemptuous of the exposure of “process” as he was of mere emoting, possessed of a deep guild knowledge and mastery of craft that had become a form of muscular memory rather than articulated thought. I never found Steve to be a revealing talker about what he was trying to do, but I recently found a fragment of video of him, sound for some reason lost or never there, obviously trying to explain some point. He isn’t gesturing so much as inhabiting a physical idea that has no other realization. It’s perhaps my favorite Lacy “performance.”

Brian Morton©2008

Michael Wilderman Jazz Visions Photography

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