Steve Lacy, 5 piano players and Music and Architecture
1. S, M, L, XL, XXL
"You've got to dig it, to dig it. You dig it?" Thelonious Monk once said to Steve Lacy. Today Steve Lacy is not only one of the two major soprano players of this century, he is also the most important exponent of Thelonious Monk's music. In contrast to the "Marsalis school", Lacy represents an avant-garde, which contributes to the exploration and explanation of the past and works towards a future free of totalitarian visions. Monk is, in this respect, a welcome object of research since his pieces are compositions of the highest calibre and definitely milestones of the music of this century. Monk's particular quality has, from time to time, been described in the terms of one of the key concepts of the modern age, in particular of the architecture of the 20th century - the legendary dictum of "Less is More". Lacy, like Monk, has been dealt with , again and again, under this heading: In fact, what seems to be Less at first sight, in both cases, develops sooner or later into a wonderful More. More reminiscent of MC Escher's Labyrinths than Mies' Pavilion in Barcelona. So Lacy's Small becomes a Medium, a Large, an Extra-Large, an Extra-Extra-Large and so on: You can hear it grow, this aural architecture develops from sound building blocks. There is a certain irony in the fact, that Lacy's solid architectural craftsmanship can be heard in Berlin at a time, when the capital is loosing itself completely in "Architainment", claiming to be fulfilling the Modern Age, but is, in fact, executing it by the speculator's hand.
At least one of the five duo partners with whom Lacy has recorded this CD, has thought a lot about Thelonious Monk: the Dutch composer, piano player and Monk-exegete Misha Mengelberg, who has referred to his year-long preoccupation with Monk also as a question of hygiene: "first you have to tidy up what's still there".1
And, of course, in their combined set on April 5, 1996 within the framework of "Workshop Freie Musik" they played Monk compositions, three of which are on this CD. These compositions have already been recorded several times by both Lacy and Mengelberg: "Evidence" is something like Steve Lacy's signature tune and here, the duo doesn't sound so much like a team of cleaners, but is reminiscent of this infinitely deep, hazy, indefinable, dry, timeless but still gleaming glow, which becomes visible in the glaze of a Japanese teapot. S, M, L, XL, XXL.
From April 4 – 8, 1996 "Free Music Production" organised the "Workshop Freie Musik" in Berlin. Apart from Steve Lacy, who played on all five evenings, five piano players had been invited to organise one evening each with their regular bands or a group of their own choosing. A duo set with Lacy together with each of the five piano players was a fixed part of the programme. Vladimir Miller and Marilyn Crispell had not played with Lacy before, Ulrich Gumpert, Misha Mengelberg and Fred Van Hove had already played several times with him.
Lacy, who is spending the year 1996 in Berlin as guest of the "DAAD" was, through many years of practice, not only very familiar with the rules of a "Workshop", he was also, it seemed to me on my visits to the concerts, unusually relaxed.
This is a CD of the duos which played on these evenings. The sequence of the pieces published here has its own particular inner logic, and does not follow the actual sequence of the performances. Apart from the already mentioned three Monk-compositions, four Lacy-compositions have been recorded. Only "Twenty One", the piece with Fred Van Hove, is "free improvisation". During the "Workshop", Lacy rehearsed with three of the five piano players in the afternoon before the concert. With Van Hove and Mengelberg he did without rehearsals, and perhaps he played. Go.
Go is an old Chinese game about territories. "The aim is to use the open spaces, the fields with neither white nor black stones, the stones are called "Eyes", by the way. In order to gain these spaces one has to fight for them. Go is a great board game with a complexity comparable to Chess. It is a very old game which was played in Japan in the 16th century on the highest level. In order to understand the structure of Tokyo, a city whose centre is empty, one should play Go. It seems to me, that the basic idea for the city of Tokyo developed directly from this game. In Tokyo, the really important events take place, where there is nothing."2 When listening to the music of Lacy and his companions it does no harm to be aware of the meaning of the so-called unenclosed space.
3. All that mother Jazz
In his own musical history Lacy has played through the whole century of Jazz. "Five Facings" is, in my opinion, the first CD (apart from the double CD "Findings", which was edited together from a variety of sources and conceived by Lacy to be the accompanying CD to his saxophone school), where all the possibilities Lacy has developed on soprano are to be heard, perfect in every respect. With the dry charm, the accuracy and the precision of a tax inspector Lacy succeeds in expressing great feeling within all these possibilities. "Blues for Aida" with Marilyn Crispell is an excellent example for what is basically a simple, naive melodic line, which, through its interpretation gains a lucidity, gentle intensity and existentialist absoluteness as if it was travelling through a wonderland. Crispell underpins this Lacy-tude with heart-rending economy: After hours, and no question about it, the Blues as a universal anthropological experience.
The pieces with Mengelberg are sheer Masterpieces. Lacy, who, for a while, had more Monk-titles (54 to be precise) in his repertoire than Monk himself (about 30) meets THE congenial partner. The result is the essence of interpretation. Wit, melancholy, refinement and genius demonstrate the continuing validity of the 'Monk-system'. Lacy and Mengelberg prove to us in a burlesque dizziness of two converging roller-coasters, that life can be a pleasure even on a Beckett-level of perception.
In the first bars of "Art" Gumpert reflects Lacy's fascinating rationality through the semblance of an even more European piercing accuracy. His improvisation, however, develops Tyner-like modal shifts, his sliding Arpeggios turn into a beautifully opulent impressionistic sound-painting. Here Lacy's minimalism is confronted with the acoustic covering of a horn of plenty, which is reminiscent of the forceful dynamics of the classic Coltrane-Quartet.
With Van Hove, Lacy extemporises the possibilities of so-called free improvisation. Both musicians reach into the multicoloured palette of their own typical extensions of the given technical limitations of their instruments. Lacy produces his abstract, at times onomatopoeic sounds, he overblows, he sucks at the reed and uses the noise spectrum of his playing in such a structuralist manner so plausibly revealed on "Five Facings". Van Hove constructs a constantly opening, breathing and muted 'Cluster-Bauhaus' using his perfect pedal technique. Lacy's clarity becomes even more distinctive through Van Hove's suggestions of energy. Van Hove lays down a complex web of melodic fragments and block chords, which, in dialogue with Lacy, principally develops a kind of rhythmic permanence. This creates the impression of a transparent maze, the listener knows in every instant of the music where he stands, which means that, because he thinks he knows where he stands, he can surrender himself to the diligent construction of the maze with even more pleasure. Thus "Twenty One" also reflects the misunderstandings in the discussion about free improvised music. Both musicians can move with such freedom, because their partner always seems to know where they are going to and is playing with this in mind. "Twenty One" is, from the communication-technique point of view, one of those rare and at the same time best examples of how Bazon Brock's irrefutable Aperçu "We have to communicate, because we don't understand each other" can be overcome. Lacy and Van Hove are moving on a Meta-level and it seems to me, that only through the kind of the music presented here (and maybe in great moments of basketball) a perceiver can experience this Meta-level as possibility.
"The Wane", the piece with Vladimir Miller operates on a more down-to-earth level. Miller concentrates mainly on accompanying Lacy. In memory of Johnny Hodges, Lacy glides through his melodies using endless strange-"Indian"-type Glissandi like the "Silver Surfer". Particularly in this piece, which gives Lacy a relatively conventional basis, the 'avant-gardist' plays through the whole history of his instrument, of his music. Dig it!
1 Misha Mengelberg in an Interview with Mario Airo, in : Sonsbeek 93, ed. by Jan Brand, Catelijne de Muynck and Valerie Smith,
Sonsbeek 1993, page 123
2 see above, page 123 ff.
Translation: Isabel Seeberg & Paul Lytton