SOPRANO SAXOPHONIST Steve Lacy, with Jean-Jacques Avenel, string bass, and John Betsch, drums – a “free jazz” ensemble – performed exquisite and innovative chamber music for the Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society in the Pete Douglas Beach House at Miramar on Sunday.
Lacy, a New Yorker, came on the jazz scene in the early 1950s, a soprano sax era dominated by the classic New Orleans stylist Sidney Bechet. Although Lacy did play clarinet, then soprano, in many Dixieland groups, his distinctive sax sound, thematic structures and improvisations bore more resemblance to such swing-era giants as Lester Young and Willie Smith.
He eschewed Bechet’s broad vibrato but still occasionally growls out a note, as did Bechet. Lacy’s is a strong, clear and flexible horn sound – a recognizable style on his recordings made in 1957-58, before John Coltrane was playing the soprano. It was at an Apollo Theater band-battle that ‘Trane heard Lacy playing soprano with Thelonious Monk and soon took up the instrument himself.
In those years, Lacy also recorded and played with composer-pianists Cecil Taylor and Gil Evans and others who were moving into “free jazz.” He stayed in the New York area, playing and recording until the 1960s when he toured South America, then Europe. After a stay in Italy, he moved to Paris, where he has lived for 27 years.
The Douglas Beach House is a perfect home for chamber music, whether Monk or Mozart. Lacy’s pure, strong tones carry beautifully through the 200-seat room with no need for amplification and Avenel’s resonant string bass sounds, whether bowed or plucked, melodic or rhythmic, are projected with clarity and richness.
On this 30-concert tour, Lacy is using no pianist, although he still includes Monk tunes in a performance. On his original compositions like “The Door,” or “The Rent,” Lacy regularly refers – in his jagged rhythmic patterns – to Monk.
Drummer Betsch, a Floridian who has lived in Versailles for many years, plays with the same taste and finesse as Lacy and Avenel. He is first an ensemble participant – a
“team player,” if you will – and then a soloist. So cohesive is the trio’s overall sound that solos come and go unobtrusively throughout a selection without affecting the flow of the performance.
Lacy mentioned that it is Monk’s use of space that most affected his own writing and playing. Lacy’s compositions are clearly defined from the first notes, even when those notes may be on Avenel’s bass. Dynamics are carefully balanced, the expansion of a simple melodic theme reveals fascinating innovations on all three instruments and soon a listener feels like a member of the crew on this musical voyage.
Perhaps the most fascinating work performed came in Sunday’s second set. Avenel began playing an African theme, rolling rhythmic figures on a thumb-piano, with the drums – gradually increasing volume – developing contrasting rhythmic patterns in support. As Lacy’s soprano sax entered, wailing minor-key expressions, Avenel shifted to string bass, alternating rhythmic patterns and explosions with Betsch’s drums.
This is chamber jazz at its best, in heaven.
(by Phil Elwood, in the Chron, about Steve at Pete’s, unearthed and Plasticized by Mark Weiss with a little help from the search-injuns and Eric Hanson)