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An American in Paris 

Over the last forty years, expatriate soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy has been one of the most daring figures in jazz.

A certain fact and a certain opinion always seem to dog soprano sax player Steve Lacy, whenever he returns to the U.S. to tour. The fact: Way back in the late, late '50s, Lacy inspired John Coltrane to play the soprano sax--which he did ebulliently on such notable recordings as My Favorite Things. The opinion: that Lacy never received adequate recognition for keeping the soprano sax alive between Sidney Bechet and Coltrane.

These peripheral, offhand mentions pop up in print, hoping to reconnect American audiences to Lacy, an expatriate American living in Paris, through a familiar point of interest. A well-intentioned impulse, but this squinty-eyed, sidelong glance at Lacy relegates him to glorified footnote status--a notion that couldn't be further from the truth. The flesh-and-blood Lacy, now well into his sixties, continues to add to his remarkable body of work at an incredible pace.

Since 1997, Lacy has released several albums, including Communique, a recording with longtime collaborator and fellow Thelonius Monk interpreter Mal Waldron; the self-explanatory 5 x Monk 5 x Lacy; and Sands, a meditation on Lacy's Judaism for John Zorn's radical Jewish culture series. A MacArthur genius grant recently allowed Lacy and his wife to complete an improvisational-based opera, which uses as text the work of Bengali poet Taslima Nasrin. A double-CD recording of the opera, titled The Cry, will be released this spring.

Lacy's eclectic tastes have led him down seldom-traveled paths. In the 1950s, he began playing clarinet in Dixieland outfits, before Bechet's solo on "The Mooche" converted him permanently to the straight horn. At the time, hard-bop was the lingua franca, but Lacy, then as now, followed his own interests. In 1957, Lacy made a quantum leap over bop and allied himself with free jazz visionary Cecil Taylor. Lacy's formative years weren't quite over. Through Taylor, Lacy met Monk, and it was in Monk's reconstituted swing and fiercely idiosyncratic melding of phrasing, composition, and melody that Lacy found perhaps his most influential model.

Lacy would stay devoted to Monk for years, continually revisiting his compositions and taking to heart his sense of composition and musical sense of humor. He was one of the first musicians to recognize Monk's music; Lacy recorded the first album of all Monk music without Monk himself playing (1958's Reflections). Lacy's devotion to the U.S. and his home city of New York, however, was a little more tenuous

As with Taylor, Coleman, Giuffre, and others, Lacy's first forays into free jazz were unwelcome ones, provoking some ugly hometown reactions. Unable to make a living in America with his own music, Lacy left the country and eventually settled in Paris, where he's spent the better part of thirty years. Gathering a close-knit group of like-minded musicians around him, including his Swiss wife/singer/collaborator Irene Aebi, Lacy has been living on a creative island of sorts, content to work at his own pace and on his own ideas. His sextet, the main vehicle for his music for years, broke up a few years ago, after many recordings and an impressive 23-year run, but, as Lacy explains in his clipped, wandering, accented English, he's hardly grasping for a new musical context.

"The sextet ran its course. Twenty-three years, that was a hell of a time. In a way it's still business as usual. The colors have changed a little bit, the means. The most important part of it is the organic base--that we grow over a long period of time. We have a lot of things in the drawer that have never been touched. We have a lot of stuff that's half-done and a lot of stuff that's overdone. We have a backlog and a frontlog and a sidelog."

Patient, directed, and living apart from American jazz fashion, Lacy spent years not only forging an original sound--lyrical post-bop tempered with a European cabaret theatricality--and becoming the foremost interpreter of Monk today, but also working the scarcely populated, heady gray space between jazz and poetry, pure sound and language. An avid reader and literature devotee, Lacy has chosen the writing of Beckett, Ginsburg, and Burroughs, among others, as texts to animate his music--music that he hopes will reintroduce language to jazz. Ira Gershwin it ain't, but Lacy remains optimistic, finding that the longer he works in this vein, the better the situation becomes.

"Maybe someday these things will be called standards, but it takes a long time for people to catch up to certain things," he says. "Every time we play, we all make progress...It's getting clearer; the music gets clearer, and the people are understanding it better. It's all about catch-up."

A large-scale production like The Cry may be new for Lacy in terms of scope, but as a meeting of modern poetry and sound, it's a familiar idea--at least for him and his cohorts. "There's nobody doing what we do," he says. "Like The Cry and other work, with literature and dance...I don't know anybody who's doing that in the way that we're doing it. And Irene--I don't know another singer that can do what she does, who can sing like her, who can deal with all those different writers.

"There's nobody else dealing with this kind of material. It would be nice to see somebody else in the same kind of activity, but the only ones that I've heard are pretty weak. I can't get too excited about my own thing, but I'm always interested in what other people are doing. [With] different approaches, I get other ideas."

Lacy won't bring a production of The Cry, or even his singing wife Aebi, to Cleveland, but his show will still certainly have a bit of the linguistic about it. Lacy finds much to emulate in language--in his playing as well as his composition and collaborations. "Language is language is language, really. One language can be spoken with another mouthpiece, if you have the imagination. [Language] certainly influences the music I play, because I always try to make sense when I play. And even when I was playing completely free in the '60s, I was trying to shape it compositionally, like a spoken language. And, when Mal Waldron and I play together, it's a conversation."

On Sands, Lacy has moved away from the harsh, abstract style of earlier solo albums such as Axieme and embraces a more reserved, introspective sound. Retaining his signature bleached, visceral tone--though now grown more ripe, more pungent--he plays with the same extroverted sense of humor and employs the same impressionistic use of space. Lacy's horn works slowly through parts of melodies, melodic syllables, or paradigms, like an infant testing the range and possibility of his own vocal cords. He articulates a phrase and restates it over and over, every time varying it slightly. He combines it with other phrases, varies the meter, the duration of the notes, the articulation, or the tone. On tracks like "Naufrage" and "Sands (3) Fall," Lacy plays his melodic inventions into his piano with the sustain pedal depressed, giving his horn a sonorous echo. His wife joins him on Song, in which an old Ginsburg text literally joins language to Lacy's sound, as it has so often in the past, and the sound is as cogent as ever. On this album and in much of his playing, there is undeniable lyricism and swing, intractably locked with curiosity and the patient seeking of expression.

The solo album--this one or any number of the ones he's recorded over his long career--is not an easy thing for Lacy to do or an easy temptation to avoid. "I don't do it too much. I can't, I shouldn't, I mustn't," he says. "I'd go crazy if I did it too much. I'd swallow my own tail. I treat it as an exceptional thing. I have to play with others and also with dancers and singers. Once in a while I can do a solo on the side; it's like a side trip for me. It's interesting--very fruitful--and some people like that [music] better than anything else.

"I enjoy it, but I have to be careful that I don't blow it. It's a matter of life and death. You have to keep it live; you have to keep the contrast going. You have to keep people interested, and you have to keep yourself interested. It's all about a choice of material and order--playing certain things in a certain order so as to maintain the life--that's a challenge, really. I have a lot of material of my own and also Monk and other stuff, but basically in solo, I concentrate on some Monk tunes, and the rest are originals. Not every day I can do that."

Lacy will be doing a few solo gigs on his U.S. tour, as well as collaborating with old pal and trombonist Roswell Rudd on a few other stops, but for the Grog Shop show, Lacy will be bringing along the "power base" of his old sextet--Jean-Jacques Avenel on bass and Jon Betsch on drums. The trio toured the States in '97--look for the soon-to-be-released Live From Portland album from that tour, if you dig the show--and Lacy looks forward to revisiting some venues he played on the last tour and playing others for the first time. You might expect a guy like him to favor the opera house, but Lacy and his trio gets a kick out of new crowds and the smaller, less fancy venues like the Grog Shop.

"Sometimes we come into a really grungy place, and the public is wonderful. Those are some of our best concerts--it's true. It's sort of funky, sort of groovy. People enjoy the music, and we have a ball there. It's not like the Modern Jazz Quartet. We play a place in New York, and it's expensive, too expensive. The people can't get in, and [the club is] mean and everything. We might prefer those funky clubs, but we can't afford to play only those. We have to play some snobby places as well."

Steve Lacy. 8 p.m., Sunday, March 21, the Grog Shop, 1765 Coventry Road, Cleveland Heights, $10 ($12 day of show), Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.

More by Aaron Steinberg

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