Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

Steve Lacy and Irene Aebi
Steve Lacy + Irene Aebi, 1995                     ©2008

I first interviewed Steve Lacy on the afternoon of December 29, 1979 in Washington, DC, a few hours prior to his solo gig at d. c. space. He had taken what he somewhat ruefully called the milk train from New York the morning after performing with bassist Ronnie Boykins and drummer Denis Charles at the European/American Music Festival presented at Soundscape, a performance documented on New York Capers (hatART). Even though Lacy had occasionally performed in New York during the ‘70s – a ’76 solo set at Environ was released as Snips (Jazz Magnet) in 2000 – this trip triggered a pronounced return-of-the-prodigal-son buzz in New York. It may be difficult for some to now imagine, given the current state of the music in the US, but there was a real sense in the jazz community that a page was turning, and that jazz was on its way to its rightful place in American culture. For a press cycle or two – granted, they were longer then – the States-side presence of the uncompromising expatriate soprano saxophonist epitomized this.

As we walked from Union Station to his hotel, we talked about current events. I was immediately struck by Lacy’s keen interest in how recent events like the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island and the Iranian hostage crisis, which was then only in its second month, were playing out politically in the US. He also asked about the economy, which was then groaning under the weight of stagflation. His responses were spare, but sharply funny. After stowing his bags, we grabbed a quick lunch, where the conversation turned to poetry and art. Whether he was talking about Pound, whom he called the first Beat, or Kandinsky, Lacy had an ease in distilling a complex topic into a single sentence, his hip pith conveying true clarity instead of jive or platitudes. This is going to be a great interview, I kept thinking.

Back in his room, I started rolling tape; for well over a half hour, Lacy talked about his pivotal work with Cecil Taylor and now-legendary stint with Monk. Lacy recounted an early, abruptly ended gig with Taylor playing rumbas at a Catskills resort, how they lugged Charles’ kit up five floors to rehearse at Taylor’s apartment, and how exhausted they were from Taylor’s paces when they took the kit out. He frankly said Monk probably hired him so that he would stop bugging the pianist; but, Lacy relished recounting everything about that 16-week period, from riding in the Baroness’ Rolls to the gigs themselves (though the Jazz Gallery is the site of the one photograph of Lacy playing with Monk, the only known recording of the group was made at a festival in Philadelphia (three tracks from a radio broadcast survive on Monk’s In Philadelphia 1960 with Steve Lacy, issued on Rare Live Recordings). It was an incredible interview.

As Lacy listed the names of musicians that hung out with Monk in his kitchen – Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane; generally, a cross-section of the era’s innovators – I looked over to see how much tape was left on the first side of the cassette. Usually, I try to keep the recorder directly in front of me; but the layout of the room forced me to put the machine on a table behind my shoulder. To my astonishment, the machine had somehow jammed and hundreds of feet of tape were in a spaghetti-like pile. I turned around to see Lacy staring at the tape, which was still spooling out of the recorder. He then looked at me and said, “That’s the big one that got away.”


* * * *

My last interview with Lacy took place late in the morning of June 22, 2001 in Vancouver, where he was launching a two-week North American tour with the Beat Suite quintet with Irene Aebi, Jean-Jacques Avenel, John Betsch and George Lewis at the Vancouver East Cultural Center as part of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Logging tens of thousands of miles, year after year, Steve Lacy had many homes away from home but Vancouver was among his favorites. In the Sylvia Hotel, which overlooks picturesque English Bay, Lacy and Aebi had a crib where they could truly chill. Lacy met one of his most cherished collaborators, the late poet Mary Frazee, in Vancouver.  He has been able to perform his song cycles Vespers and The Cry at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, and present intimate New Year’s Eve duo programs with Aebi at the Western Front. Lacy even had a Vancouver dentist. A park bench just a stone’s throw from English Bay proved to be a perfect setting for Lacy to leaf though his book of scores and talk at length about songs inspired by poets ranging from the Japanese Zen monk Ryokan to American poet Anne Waldman.

At the outset, however, the conversation focused on Lacy’s bombshell news of an imminent agreement with the New England Conservatory of Music to become a full-time faculty member beginning in September 2002, setting into motion jazz’s most important homecoming since Dexter Gordon’s. That the 67 year-old Lacy was quitting Paris was not totally unforeseen. For years, he has complained that "Paris isn’t swinging." His disaffection with Paris intensified with the refusal of the Banlieues Bleues festival to present The Cry in 1997 without poet and fatwa target Taslima Nasrin, who had previously performed in a bullet-proof glass booth. Then, the rupture was completed when Lacy was passed over for the directorship of the Orchestre Nationale de Jazz. Still, it was a day many thought would never come. Were it not for Lacy bringing his book to the park – he was preparing for a July residency at Naropa Institute’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Colorado – the conversation may not have gotten around to the intended subject of songwriting, which, intriguingly, largely centered about the old days in Paris …

Shoemaker:  Why do you begin the songwriting process with the text?

Lacy: I have to. It’s not so much that I find a text; it’s that the text finds me, a text that shakes me up, knocks me out, that captivates me. I have to be captivated. It doesn’t happen every day. But, it’s happened enough, maybe 250 times.

S: Does a melody immediately present itself?

L: No, it takes a lot of mulling. Mulling is the word for it, really. You have to dwell in the words for a long time, usually, before it comes out of your belly. It really has to come out of your solar plexus. It’s an inside job. When I first started doing this in the ’60s, it took years to put a piece together, but the more I did it, the interval between the captivation and the delivery got shorter. I write death pieces when someone dies. I have to find music I can play at the funeral, to commemorate them and to get rid of my own pain, really.  I have to deal with it immediately. The funeral is the next day. It’s an emergency, so the obituaries, death poems, and tributes have to come fast. I can come up with something good in a day because of the necessity.

S: Playing a funeral is one of the oldest traditions for jazz musicians in New Orleans, perhaps the first serious social function of the music.

L: Yeah, but I’m not hired out. I’m there because I knew the person. In that sense, there is a social function. It’s a release, really, for the person who has died and the people who are still here.  An old friend of mine who I hadn’t seen in a long time – Tony Long, a sculptor – died, and his ex-wife and girlfriend called me up in Paris, and asked to play at the funeral, which would be in two days. I have a book called Japanese Death Poems. There’s a tradition in Japan where Zen monks write a poem just before they die, and this book has many of these death poems. I spent many hours going through it, looking for the right test. More hours than it took to write the music.  I have it here. It’s just for single voice, no harmony, just to be played by myself and to be sung, eventually. I couldn’t ask Irene to sing it cold. It’s called, "Filling the Void:" "Spring sun/Snow whiteness/Bright clouds/Clear wind."

S: When did you write your first commemorative song?

L: The first one goes back to the early days, 1970. We had just moved to Paris and a dear friend of ours in Rome died. Here – "Obituary:" "Gordon McIntire/was in Rawalpindi/traveling with his children/when on Sunday July 26th/he passed away." This is the actual death notice. When I received this card in Paris, it shook me up so bad. I was just crushed by the language. It took me a long time to write this. I didn’t really start writing until the late ‘60s, so by 1970, I was no expert. And, since I was self-taught, I had to keep it simple, so I recorded it with a very free harmony.

S: This is the polar opposite of another found text about travel, the travel brochure you used for "Prospectus."

L: Well, there are trips, and then there are trips. That was another one that found me.

S: Is death a more compelling theme than love?

L: Compelling is the word. It’s deep. Death is the ultimate depth, really. Music can go there.  I’ve ended up with a lot of pieces dealing with death. Even Futurities has one, "Oh No." It’s part of the story. It’s the one thing you’re compelled to, to die.

S: When you look back at your early pieces, what do you see that has survived over the years in your current songs?

L: A certain language has survived; though it is much more elaborate now. Pieces like "Traces" from the new Zen series have a full piano accompaniment, which was written right away, along with a bass part. I then can flesh it out for trombone, harp, whatever. But, the piece is en toto; whereas, in the old days, I could just barely get the melody. When I first started “The Way,” I only had the melody in my head and it took me years to get that melody on paper. It was only after I met Irene that I settled on the pitches. That’s all I had. I didn’t have a rhythm, a harmony, a bass part. I then went through years of rewriting, searching, and experimenting before it settled down. I have the first version and the final version here, so you can see the difference. 1967: nothing but pitches. There’s something of rhythmical shape to it, but it’s basically just quarter notes, very simple. But, there’s pages and pages and pages in the notebook leading up just to this.

Seeing these two versions side by side really illustrates the way I work. I make a model, and the model is wrong. Then I see how the model is wrong, I make another one. I approach the piece the wrong way, so to speak, by focusing on what’s wrong with the piece. I got “The Way” by going the wrong way. So, you get pages and pages of wrong models until, suddenly, it’s there. The process has a lot to do with Irene. I know here voice so well that she doesn’t have to sing something for me to know what’s wrong with it. So, it is through her that I found the way to The Way and all of the other pieces. Then I can spend years fleshing out an arrangement, changing harmonies, bass parts, everything but the melody. There are twelve versions of “The Way.”

S: A long, complicated process.

L: A complicated scene, really. It got complicated in the ‘70s. All of the music we did in the ‘70s was complicated. I was working with seconds in the ‘70s, major seconds and minor seconds, as if that’s all there was. (Steve) Potts and I developed those seconds to a fine art. In a way, it comes from my Russian blood, because you hear that in their music, and in Bulgarian music. I determined in the ‘70s that unisons, major seconds and minor seconds were it. All of the other intervals were not irrelevant, but they came out in another way in the ‘70s. The accompaniments of the pieces were mainly built on fifths and fourths, double stops on the bass. I don’t know how Kent Carter did it. I was writing impossible bass parts. So, that was our sound, this combination of these double-stop bass parts and these melodies with all these seconds.

It’s hard to briefly explain how this has evolved over 35 years, but I can say that now, I can get a lot out of a little, I think you can see this last version of The Way. Man, the crazy, impossible stuff I used to have in this. But, not it’s simple – all 4/4, except two measures in 6/4, which is the same. They are all primary chords. There is still some funny stuff – held notes, tied notes – and it requires a good pianist, because there’s still a lot of seconds in there, but they’re hidden.

S: Your bass parts for J.J. (Avenel) are quite different than those for Carter. A conscious decision based on J.J.’s qualities as a player?

L: Definitely. A musician like J.J. has to determine what you write. You have to turn the players on. That gets easier in some ways and harder in some ways when you’re with someone for a long time like I have with J.J; we’ve played together for more than 25 years. The quintet with Irene and Potts went on for more than 20 years. So, the music has to keep turning the musicians on – they have to play it, and be able to play it without pain.  We went through a lot of pain in the ‘70s because I was still finding my way in writing the music. But, it was something I had to go through, piece by piece, because each piece was organic in the sense that it led to the next one. I had to turn the musicians on, or they don’t turn the music on. J.J. is a miracle for me. I really learned writing for the bass, writing for J.J.. Kent was very patient with me because the bass parts were very perverse in the ‘70s. They worked, but it really required him to extraordinary things. Good thing he had strong hands. And those parts had a good clangorous quality, like on "Lesson."

S: That’s the second or third composition you’ve mentioned from the Saravah albums.

L: They’re some of my favorites, really. The one that kills me the most and is my favorite record of all is Dreams. We doubled and doubled and doubled tracks on that. Irene sings in major seconds. There’s a hidden piano part that you can hardly hear. There’s several bass parts and guitars. It’s all layers and layers of sound, and it’s only about four minutes long. To me, it’s gorgeous. In a sense, everything came out of that record. Music comes out of dreams in the first place. One of the first pieces I wrote in Rome became "Dreams."  In Rome in ’69, Irene and I were doing a show with some of the people from Musica Electronica Viva and Falzoni, the poet-playwright-character-personage. He gave me a text, which I couldn’t do anything with.  I sat at the piano forever, looking for the pitches. I ended up banging my head against the piano. So, I took some acid, which was fantastic. When I woke up the next day, the melody of "Dreams" was in my head, going around and around. It’s a spiral melody. But, fitting the Italian in was a real problem. It worked and it didn’t work. The song didn’t live past 1969, but the melody haunted me into the ‘70s, and we played it without words. The words didn’t marry: the wedding got cancelled. But, then I met Brion Gysin in 1973, and we got to be very tight. I knew he invented the Dream Machine, and he was an expert in dreams. In London in 1965, I had heard the record he Burroughs and the others made, Electronic Poetry, where they were experimenting with tape recorders, loops, and things like that. I heard Brion’s "Pistol Shot" poem and it knocked me out. I didn’t realize it was the same guy until years later. So, I gave him a tape of the melody of "Dreams." Within a day or two, he delivered these incredible lyrics that I still think are about the most perfect lyrics I’ve ever seen: "A dream like/Like a dream/Dream a like/A  like Dream/So you seem/So seem you/You seem so/You so seem/Like a dream." It goes around and around like the melody. It’s a perfect fit, so it lived.

S: The way Gysin takes a few words and rearranges them …

L: Permutations.

S: It’s a cycle that is very similar to the way you take a motif and permutate it until it comes around to the beginning. It’s an approach to cadence that has nothing to do with chords.

L: It’s all done in a single line. I was already en route to that when I met Brion. I was already permutating phrases, musical phrases, but Brion’s words made me think more rhythmically about permutations. At first, I just wrote phrases to the words on the page, but then he would read his lyrics and I would accompany him, playing the written melody, and by rhythmically following his voice, they took on their shape. We were somewhere between speech and music, which was a new experience. My notes were set and his words were set, and when we improvised, it was neither here nor there, but everywhere. I have a tape of it somewhere. The Catholic school he went to as a kid told me he had a tin ear and should never sing. But, he had perfect rhythm, and he proved, really, that you could do so much just with rhythm. When I was a kid, I was discouraged from music because they said I lacked manual dexterity. Fortunately, I didn’t pay any attention to them.

S: What makes a good song?

L: If it lives. That the main thing. They have to live, which means you have to have a gig. Tonight, we have a gig, and have some new things that I know are good. We’ve rehearsed and they’re ready, but they haven’t lived yet, and they won’t until they’re performed. A good song is a gift. It fits the singer and it doesn’t betray the author. The spiritual connection with the author is very important, whether he is dead or alive. I’ve worked with a lot of poets – Brion, Judith Malina, and Mary Frazee – and you have to learn what knocks each one out.

You have to bring out the song and the dance, and the song and dance. I think one of the attributes of a good song is that it has dance in it, that it is danceable. That’s something I learned from Monk. Everything he wrote danced. It’s got to have a shape, a structure, and freshness. And, it’s got to be repeatable. You have to dwell so long in the words that you find something you can repeat and repeat and repeat and never get sick of it. If you find words that are so interesting that you repeat them over and over again, then you’re on your way to music. That’s what happened with me and The Tao and the Tips of Georges Braque. These things were part of my being. I kept saying them over and over and they eventually became music.

Henceforth Records

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