The American soprano saxophonist and composer Steve Lacy (1934-2004) once described jazz as a "bug" — the kind of virus that can "bite" you any time and any place, and that you can't shake. Lacy spent more than 30 years of his life in Paris, but the last two at the New England Conservatory, where, it would appear, the Lacy bug was already part of the collective bloodstream. His pieces have shown up regularly in the work of NEC students and colleagues — Dominque Eade, Jeremy Udden, Monika Heidemann and, more recently, Josh Sinton and Jorrit Dijkstra.
Lacy got his start in Dixieland bands before being recruited into the avant-garde by Cecil Taylor. He nurtured a career-long love affair with the music of Thelonious Monk (in whose band he played for a few months in 1960), and even formed a quartet with trombonist Roswell Rudd that played all Monk. In the meantime, he established himself as one of the music's foremost virtuosos on the soprano saxophone. He also happened to leave a huge body of compositions, which has barely been tapped by other players. The music has the formal rigor and humor of Monk, but also leaves plenty or room for the freeplay of the broader gestures of the avant-garde, and is suffused with a rich vein of swing.
Now, as with the Rudd/Lacy band dedicated to Monk, there are at least two bands dedicated to Lacy. Last week, Bostonians got a chance to hear Sinton's Lacy band, Ideal Bread. This week, transplanted Dutchman Dijkstra (also an NEC faculty member) brings in his band the Whammies (like Ideal Bread, also from a Lacy title) to celebrate the release of The Whammies Play the Music of Steve Lacy. It's the debut release on Dijkstra and pianist Pandelis Karayorgis's Driff label.
If Ideal Bread approach Lacy's music with the elegant classicism of tightly charted performances, the Whammies take broader swings. That's not hard to understand, given that the band includes Dijkstra's countryman, the 70-year-old rabble-rousing drummer Han Bennink, a charter member of the "new Dutch swing" movement, and someone who had played frequently through the years with Lacy. It was a performance by Lacy and Bennink in Rotterdam in 1983 that inspired Dijkstra to become an improvising musician.
Part of what attracted Dijkstra to Bennink was his Dadaist approach to music. And there's a bit of that in the Whammies' take on Lacy. Bennink is here, along with one of his bandmates from the Dutch Instant Composer's Pool (ICP), violinist and violist Mary Oliver, plus Karayorgis, trombonist Jeb Bishop and bassist Nate McBride.
The tandem of Dijkstra and Bishop on the front line suggests the obvious comparison to the Lacy/Rudd collaborations. There's the timbral similarity of matching high reed and low brass, but also the additional similar contrast of Dijkstra's delicacy with Bishop's brawn.
There are passages of lovely beboppish walking-bass swing throughout The Whammies, but what is probably more characteristic are evocative uses of Dijkstra's Lyricon electronic wind instrument matching Oliver's high, sliding string figures. The result is especially eerie in numbers like the loping, laconic "As Usual," or Lacy's dedication to Albert Ayler, "The Wire." There's also the helter-skelter free-blowing tune of the band's namesake, the gently swinging "Dutch Masters" (from an album Lacy recorded with Bennink and another Dutch sage, Misha Mengelberg). They bring it all back home with an affectionate version of Monk's "Locomotive."