Shortly after the release of Reflections, his watershed 1958 Prestige/New Jazz album of Thelonious Monk compositions, Steve Lacy opined in a Jazz Review article that “music can be comprehended from many different levels. It can be regarded as excited speech, imitation of the sounds of nature, an abstract set of symbols, a baring of emotions, an illustration of interpersonal relationships, an intellectual game, a device for inducing reverie, a mating call, a series of dramatic events, an articulation of time and/or space, an athletic contest, or all of these things at once.”
Fast forward seventeen years: the soprano saxophonist’s music had come into its own. Lacy’s compositional vernacular was uniquely specific, yet it had proved to have the requisite plasticity for his first forays into the newest frontier - solo saxophone music. Unlike Anthony Braxton, who largely performed compositions specifically written for solo alto saxophone, or Evan Parker, who freely improvised, Lacy relied on compositions he also played with his Quintet and in other settings. As his solo work increased after his groundbreaking 1972 Avignon performance - and further accelerated with its ‘74 release on Emanem - Lacy developed a holistic approach to a solo set, honing sequences of compositions that expanded Lester Young’s axiom that every solo tell a story, resulting in something akin to a short story collection.
Stabs is an excellent early example of how Lacy’s mulling sensibility yielded recordings that met the wide-ranging criteria he enumerated as a 25 year-old making his way in a complicated New York scene. It is a constructed album, sequenced by Lacy in post-production. For the A side, Lacy chose three pieces from his November 1975 performance at the Quartier Latin as part of Total Music Meeting. “Deadline” and “Coastline” comprised the second half of The 4 Edges; on the infrequent occasions when the work was performed in its entirety, these pieces were reversed. “The Duck” - issued on other recordings from the ‘70s as “Ducks,” “The New Duck” and “Swiss Duck” - showcased Lacy’s use of extended techniques. On Axieme (Red), recorded two months before, Lacy inserted “The New Duck” between “Deadline” and “Coastline” with less cogent results. On Stabs, Lacy draws a graceful arc from the wistful lyricism of “Deadline” through the jazzy phrases scattered throughout “Coastline” and to the quacks and the scurrying of “The duck.”
The B side of the album is thought by some discographers to be excerpted from Lacy’s April ’75 performance at the Workshop Freie Musik, presented at the Akademie der Künste; however, it is something of an after-hours session, as the material was recorded when the hall had emptied after the concert. The setting obviously suited Lacy; these renditions of what were then staples of his solo sets are arguably the best of this period. On paper, “Cloudy” is a dry proposition, a series of eleven twelve-tone rows; but Lacy gives each long note in the opening exposition an engaging introspection that propels his improvisation. Other versions of “Moon” only hint at its four vertebrae of materials; they stand out a bit more on this reading, which ends with astonishingly high-pitched notes. Even though Lacy ends the set with a strong version of “No Baby” (the piece central to his discussion of dynamics in Findings: My experience with the soprano saxophone [CMAP/Outre Mesure; Paris; 1994]), the pearl of the session is the title piece. It is a sublime example of how Lacy incorporated meticulous examinations of pitch relationships into exclamatory passages to create compelling solo saxophone music. This is also the only recording of the piece now on CD; Lacy’s only other recording of it is on a rare Japanese LP, Live at Mandara (Alm; 1975).
In April ’77, Lacy’s Quintet with Irène Aebi, Kent Carter, Oliver Johnson and Steve Potts performed at the Akademie der Künste as part of the Workshop Freie Musik, a concert documented on Follies. Tape deterioration precludes inclusion of the original A side of the LP in the current edition. Arguably, the deletion of these performances of “The Crust” and “The Throes” create minor holes in the digitalized record compared to the loss of the radiant ’82 septet performance of “Prospectus” for the hat ART LP box set of the same name. Additionally, this is not the first version of “The Crust” to disappear; the 1973 performance that provided the title for Lacy’s second Emanem collection was passed over for the 1998 compilation, Saxophone Special + .This was, however, the only recording of “The Throes” waxed by Lacy’s Quintet; a quartet version recorded earlier in ’77 was included on another rare LP, Raps (Adelphi).
Still, the surviving performances make a strong, if cursory case that Lacy’s Quintet was one of the decade’s important working bands. “Esteem” and “Follies” encapsulate the impressive breadth of materials performed by the Quintet and exemplify its unique chemistry. Lacy recorded “Esteem” nine times between 1972 and 2001, four times between 1992 and ’94 alone. By then, Lacy had largely rewritten the piece, making it more accommodating of pianists like Gil Evans and Mal Waldron. This is the last, the longest and the most intense of the three Quintet recordings that follow the original contours of the piece. The raw emotional tenor of this performance stands in contrast to the stately honorific the piece became in later years. This is the sole extant recording of “Follies,” a frolicsome line goosed by an undulating rhythm. On this occasion, the theme was quickly abandoned for a full-throttle blow which emphasized the stylistic contrasts between Lacy and Potts, Aebi’s interstitial role within the ensemble, and the searing momentum created by the Carter-Johnson tandem.
Take an occasional glance at Lacy’s Jazz Review quote while listening to this collection; undoubtedly, one of his criteria will resonate with what you’re hearing at the moment. By the end of the album, you will have certainly heard them all, and maybe all at once.