And the beat goes on

Publication Date: Friday Aug 25, 2000

And the beat goes on

Saxophonist Steve Lacy finds inspiration in poetry and prose

by Robyn Israel

Allen Ginsberg inspired a generation with his spontaneous, carefree-style poems. Today, the famous beat poet and other members of that genre continue to inspire soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy.

Lacy has set a number of beat poems to music, including those of Robert Creeley, Bob Kaufman and Anne Waldman. These compositions, along with a number of Thelonius Monk tunes, will be featured on the program when Lacy performs tonight at the Cubberley Community Center in Palo Alto. Accompanying the master saxophonist onstage will be his wife, vocalist Irene Aebi. Two Bay Area performers--koto player Miya Masaoka and jazz musician Will Bernard--will open the show, unveiling a new collaboration of koto and guitar.

Regarded as the foremost interpreter of Monk's music, Lacy has one of the most recognizable sounds in jazz. His playing has been celebrated by perennial awards from "Down Beat" magazine as the top soprano saxophonist, the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship--the "Genius" award--in 1992, and the respect and admiration of fans and musicians alike.

Much of what Lacy composes is based on lyrics from poetry, prose and scientific journals. Author Herman Melville and playwright Samuel Beckett have also served as inspiration for the Manhattan native.

"Jazz is structured language and so is literature, so for me that's a normal departure, especially if you have a great collaborator like Irene," Lacy said from Vancouver, B.C. in a recent phone interview.

Both cerebral and visceral, Lacy's music represents a unique brand of jazz--one that sets his sound apart from his contemporaries.

"It's organic," Lacy said of his creative process. "It's been a long time in the making, with disparate influences from literature, dance and theater."

Lacy collaborates directly with Abie, writing pieces specifically for her. She doesn't sing scat or jazz standards, but rather vocalizes the lyrics of the texts he sets to music. The end result is something very special, he said.

"Irene is a real musician and can handle what I write for her, and some of it is very difficult," Lacy said of his muse.

Lacy's literal inspiration began in the '60s, when he set work by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu to music. Another influence was legendary jazz musician Duke Ellington.

"He was an artist, painter, liked words and used interesting lyrics," he said.

Lacy began his musical career on the clarinet, on which he worked steadily through the Dixieland revival in his native Manhattan. Lacy made the permanent switch to soprano saxophone after his love-at-first-sight reaction to Sydney Bechet's soprano recording of "The Mooche." Listening to that piece for the first time, Lacy heard what he describes as "the call," an overwhelming beckoning from within that wed him to the instrument.

"It was a powerful message, like a voice I'd been searching for without knowing," Lacy said, describing the instrument's sound as a cross between a human voice, a violin, a flute, a trumpet and a saxophone. "It was a passionate sound."

Lacy soon jumped over several styles to play free jazz with Cecil Taylor during 1955-57. Playing "free," without much more than a starting key--if that--destroyed every jazz convention of the day.

"It was war," Lacy recalled. "People hated us--they would pound on the walls when we rehearsed."

One night in 1955, Taylor took Lacy to hear another pianist, Thelonius Monk. That same "call" that charged through Lacy when he heard "The Mooche" struck again. Monk's structure and simplicity fascinated Lacy; the music "fit" him and his horn.

At the time, nobody else was playing this music, so to get to the bottom of it, Lacy started a group that played nothing but Monk. In 1958, he and pianist Mal Waldron pressed "Reflections," the first all-Monk recording without Thelonius. Monk heard it and in 1960 invited Lacy to join his regular quartet as the fifth man. So at age 26, Lacy got a four-month crash course with his mentor.

"As a master composer of jazz structures and the brains of the be-bop revolution, he was a model bandleader, composer and improviser--and a wonderful person," Lacy said of Monk.

Lacy's title as the foremost interpreter of Monk's music is just one of his considerable achievements, often mentioned in tandem with his other connection with jazz immortality--the fact that he inspired John Coltrane to try out the soprano saxophone during a 1960 "battle of the bands" between Monk's and Coltrane's groups in New York City.

Having bridged both extremes of the jazz continuum and settling left of center by his late 20s, Lacy found resistance when he tried to develop his own style in New York. He ultimately left his hometown because he could no longer support himself by playing.

"The '60s were hell. The music was experimental, erratic and underground," Lacy said.

Europe promised greater artistic freedom. So in 1966, Lacy tried Rome, which didn't yield much musically but did provide the setting for meeting Abie, then a cabaret singer and theater performer who worked in a biology lab.

In 1969 the couple settled in Paris, where they still thrive in the city's arts scene. With French bassist Jean-Jacques Avenal and American expatriate Jon Betsch, Lacy also leads one of the finest working trios in jazz.

"We've been able to develop our own form of jazz, without worrying about the pressures from commercial America," he said. "It's just been an artistic haven. Paris is a wonderful place to collaborate with other artists. We work with dancers, actors, painters and poets."

In 1996, the texts of Bangladeshi poet Taslima Nasrin, who had been placed under a fatwa (a public contract for assassination issued by Bangladesh's religious leaders) for her criticisms of the Koran, inspired Lacy to write the opera, "The Cry." Lacy befriended Nasrin when they were both living in Berlin, and became fascinated with the provocative poet's story.

Written for an ensemble of harpsichord, accordion, bass, percussion, two reeds and voice, "The Cry" has been performed 16 times in six different countries, including the U.S.

Another piece that Lacy might perform tonight is "The Sun," inspired by American engineer, inventor and philosopher Buckminster Fuller. Named for its shining message, the litany's origin lies in a 1948 Christmas card Fuller sent his friends, which was later published in "No More Second Hand God," a collection of his writings. Not exactly a light greeting card, the piece discussed the technological potentialities for mankind.

"It was four pages of dense, Shakespearean text," Lacy said. "To me, that's one of the first raps."

Lacy is currently working on setting the work of beat poet Kaufman to music. He has also written "Traces," one of 10 Zen pieces inspired by Ryokan, a Japanese Zen monk/poet/calligrapher from the 18th and 19th centuries. The title was taken from one of the works: "We meet only to part/Coming and going like white clouds/Leaving traces so faint hardly a soul notices."

With endless sources of inspiration, Lacy's music continues to sound as fresh as it did 50 years ago.

"I've followed music all my life. It directs me. It reveals itself little by little. It makes me do what I do."

Who: Steve Lacy and Irene Abie, with special guests Miya Masaoka and Will Bernard.

When: Tonight. Doors open at 8 p.m. Show starts at 8:30 p.m.

Where: Cubberley Community Center, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

Cost: Tickets are $16 at the door; $14 in advance, available at Draper's, CD Land and BASS.

Info: Call (650) 949-4507 or visit 

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