Covering Lacy

By JON GARELICK  |  May 24, 2010

On Transmit, and on The Ideal Bread (KMB-Jazz) predecessor, you can hear almost everything that makes Lacy’s music both attractive and daunting — for players and listeners alike. He likes nursery-rhyme melodies and tunes assembled with building blocks of various short, repeated phrases (the theme of “Capers” repeats one five-note phrase 18 times) and dissonant intervals like major and minor seconds. Most pieces leave plenty of space for “free” improvisations untethered by specific tonalities or set rhythms. And some, like his piece “Duck,” are experiments with noise and sound. But there’s also lyricism, bebop flow, that nursery-rhyme simplicity, and humor (the duck really does quack). And Lacy wrote many songs (usually sung by his wife, Irène Aebi) drawn from a vast array of modern poetry (his friend Robert Creeley was a favorite) that split the difference between jazz and European art song. Overall, his pieces combine a rigorous attention to compositional detail with free-jazz sprawl.

Sinton found a copy of Lacy’s early, Monk-centric Prestige album Evidence when he was a student in Chicago in the ’90s, combing record stores and trying to fill in the blanks of the mixtapes he’d made from his father’s collection. But it wasn’t until he moved to Boston for the NEC master’s program that he was introduced to mature Lacy by saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase. “Like a lot of people, I was kind of freaked out by how incredibly strange-sounding it was,” he says. “Not in a bad way. I was completely curious. I’d heard very little music that showed such unabashed love for complete dissonance.” Those odd intervals weren’t the exception but the rule. “He treated dissonant intervals as if they were consonant.” As Sinton delved deeper into Lacy’s music and studied with him, he discovered its peculiar discipline and beauty and began to see Lacy as having discovered “this little through-line” in Monk and contemporary classical composers like Bartók and Webern — “the scope of what you could do with that kind of voicing and that kind of sound.”

Allan Chase, who hired Lacy when he was dean of faculty at NEC, says of Lacy’s compositions, “They’re very specific — at least as specific as Monk’s. They don’t just have chord symbols — they have written-out counterlines and bass lines and chords specifically notated on the staff. And they’re hard. They’re very close to Monk’s more difficult pieces, like ‘Played Twice’ or ‘Wee See’ — things people don’t play that easily at jam sessions. They have to be rehearsed and studied.”

Chase cites “unfamiliar groups of intervals and notes,” sequences that don’t fall into the well-rehearsed patterns of bebop. “It’s not patterns that your fingers have played a million times. They don’t have any clichés, and when they do have a cliché, it’s so unexpected that it comes as a humorous surprise. You never know what’s coming next.”

Lacy played one of the highest-pitched saxophones; Sinton plays one of the lowest. His Ideal Bread, with trumpeter Kirk Knuffke, bassist Reuben Radding, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, capture the idiosyncratic poise and humor of Lacy’s music but with their own slant — whether it’s the note-heavy bebop of “The Dumps” (introduced by one of Lacy’s funny vocal repetitions of the title, like a rude mantra) or the expansive lament “Longing.” And when they break into ruminative free section, the gestures they create from Lacy’s spare instructions for improvisation give birth to a cohesive individual space.

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