The great big beautiful sounds of STEVE LACY

STEVE LACY interviewed by Martin Davidson

[Lacy stayed with us for a week early in 1974 primarily to edit his 'SOLO' record which was the first release on Emanem. I took the opportunity to interview him, and the results were published in INTO JAZZ (1974 May)]

For some reason or another, Steve Lacy has never made it big. When he was pioneering the use of the soprano sax in modern jazz during the '50s, his then unusual instrumental work was not taken very seriously. While Coltrane was popularising the soprano in the early '60s, Lacy's three year collaboration with Roswell Rudd went unrecorded. [There were recordings, but none were issued until Emanem released 'SCHOOL DAYS' in 1975.] (During this period, though, he did receive the distinction of having a tape returned to him half way through a recording session by Creed Taylor.) Even today when Lacy is still developing and expanding his own unique music, all the fashionable attention is focused on the myriad of soprano players who have long since mined Coltrane's concepts dry.

Lacy's move to Europe has meant that he is now beginning to get some of the hearing and appreciation that he deserves, and the time will hopefully not be far off when his improvisational strength, originality and honesty, his unique composing and his amazing technique are generally recognised as being that of the greatest soprano player since his original inspiration Sidney Bechet. Even if he had only made his four early records and his recorded appearances with Cecil Taylor and Gil Evans he would still be a most important jazz musician - a position that his recent and continuing exploratory work can only enhance.

Before any cries of `vested interest' are raised, let it be said that several people, including the Editor [Ron Brown] and Lacy himself, suggested that I do this interview as I have a knowledge and a liking of much of his music. Needless to say, my recently acquired `vested interest' is a result of this knowledge and liking, and not vice versa.

As Lacy's unique story is not widely known, I decided to start the interview `from the top'.

Have you always just played the soprano saxophone?

No. I used to play clarinet, and I still play piano but not publicly - and I used to play tenor, baritone and alto too.


Unfortunately, yeah. When I was young, very young, I used to play them badly.

How long has it been since you've been concentrating on soprano?

More than twenty years.

What was it that took you to the soprano in those days when virtually no one was playing it?

Bechet! Bechet! I succumbed to, I think it was, 'The Mooche'.

And you started playing in that area of music.

Bechet and Hodges, yeah.

You played with a lot of famous people then?

Yeah. Pee Wee Russell, Joe Sullivan, George Wettling, Miff Mole, Lou McGarity, Frank Signorelli, Red Allen, Lips Page, Max Kaminsky, Jimmy McPartland, Rex Stewart, Vic Dickenson, Buck Clayton and some relatively obscure players who were very good like Henry Goodwin, Gene Sedric, Sandy Williams… There were hundreds of them really.

Then you met Cecil Taylor?

Yeah. I was playing in that area with some young and old people like Dick Wellstood and Don Fry. Then Cecil came and plucked me out of that. He just pulled me out of it into his orbit and I stayed there for about six years.

Why did he pluck you?

Well, he saw something there and he needed a voice, because he liked accompanying. He's an expert accompanist for dancers, for singers, and for saxophonists too. I think he enjoyed more being behind. I was with him from '53 to '59. First it was a trio, then mainly a quartet, though sometimes it was a quintet with a trumpet player.

What was he sounding like in '53, and what were you sounding like in '53?

Me? I wasn't sounding like anything! He was great, though, back then. There was a little Erroll Garner, there was Bud Powell, there was Duke Ellington and there was a lot of Cecil there already. It was very highly developed and a lot of the stuff that McCoy Tyner played ten or fifteen years later, he was through with at that time already. Sometimes we'd play for dancers and there'd be no bass, so he'd play the bass on the piano - he was a great bass player too.

But while you were playing with him you were still playing the older things too?

With some of those guys, yeah, and beginning to do a few of my own things with little groups.

Did you find this a bit schizophrenic?

No - not at the time. Later when I think back on it I wonder about it - but at the time, no. I never found Cecil's music strange or anything - I liked it right away, and I didn't realise for a few years just how advanced he was.

At this time would you have been playing in the hard bop sort of area?

Well, that's what was going on in New York really, and I had trouble with it - I didn't know the repertoire. But, at that time, I was studying some Parker and learning some of that music, and going around jam sessions playing with a lot of guys and trying to get my bearings in what they call hard bop. But it was a strain. I didn't really feel at home. I got there too late for it really, and I found it hard to fit into the structure of the music. Nevertheless, I did study changes and tunes and all that stuff for many years.

l find that there are quite a few people who went straight from early jazz into the free area beyond hard bop, and I feel that in a sense bop had the most complex structure to improvise on, whereas the others were simpler before and after. So, in effect, although it seems a big jump, it's not such a big jump.

And very much of the music now resembles a lot of the older stuff with the kind of group approach and all that. If you talk about freedom, I think that Dixieland was quite free. The old New Orleans styles sound quite a lot like Free Jazz in a way - like the loose ensemble.

What sort of things were you doing on your own at that time?

Lester Young type things. Benny Goodman type things with vibes, a bass and a singer, and me on clarinet playing for strippers. It was terrible, just terrible, but it was mild and it was easy to get jobs for that kind of thing. Fortunately, we didn't record. Also, playing with Mal Waldron behind some poets, and with some sort of experimental Dixieland groups in New York. All variety of things really. And I played with a lot of Eddie Condon type people, though not Condon himself.

When did you actually stop playing in this sort of area?

It just sort of petered out -- it didn't stop at any given moment. In fact there was that record I made with Bobby Hackett in '64 - that was late. That was the end, though, really - in fact it had been over for some time - that was like a throwback to around '56 when I gave most of it up and got with Gil Evans.

You played quite a bit with him.

Yeah. For many years.

Who else were you playing with later on in the '50s?

In '60 I played with Jimmy Giuffre for six weeks. He came to New York and was shopping around and heard some of the strong musicians there, Rollins and people like that. He was interested in changing his repertoire, and he heard me play Monk tunes with my trio which had Buell Neidlinger and Dennis Charles. He liked it, so he took all three of us and called it the Jimmy Giuffre Quartet. He learnt a couple of Monk tunes and we learnt a couple of his tunes, and we played the Five Spot for six weeks. But we couldn't get along musically, so at the end of six weeks we called it quits. Rollins was a big influence on me too. We used to practice together and he showed me a lot of things.

You were with him on the bridge, weren't you?

Yeah. At the same time I was playing with Monk, which was right after the gig with Giuffre, we would go there and practice days.

You never actually worked with Rollins though.

No. We talked about it sometimes, but it never happened.

!s there any truth in the rumour that you inspired Coltrane to take up the soprano?

Yeah. When I was with Giuffre, Coltrane was searching for something, and he often came by and asked me questions about my horn. When I told him it was in B flat, he flipped. A little while later, Don Cherry phoned me from a Chicago club to tell me that Coltrane was playing soprano, and he let me hear some over the phone.

Was there any particular reason why you didn't stay long with Monk?

Well, that was the end of the job. It was a sixteen week job, and then he stopped working for a little while, and when he resumed working again he didn't use me - which was okay, because it was a strain for me. I was trying too hard. I couldn't exactly say I was ever comfortable with Monk except for rare periods. It was wonderful to play with him, but I never felt that I was on that level. I couldn't relax enough to play well.

I find that strange, because at that time you were concentrating on playing Monk's music.

Maybe too concentrated. I was trying too hard. I was practising all day and playing at night and going crazy.

For a long period before and after that you virtually just specialised in playing Monk.

Yeah. For about twelve years, really.

Why just Monk's music?

Well, it had a certain consistency to it. I wanted to see the proportions of the whole thing and to check out the consistency of the language. It was just there and nobody was doing anything with it. There were all these interesting tunes that he had just recorded once years ago and he wasn't even playing them himself. So, it excited me a lot that there was this body of music. I found it the most interesting repertoire around, and it fitted my horn and my personality. It was a challenge and I was just wild over it. I wanted to learn all those tunes because I wanted to play in the structures. I didn't even know why - I didn't have a why - it was just love, interest. I just got into them gradually, one or two, then I'd see three more, then there was another dozen, and it just went on and on. Then I had to go back to the first ones and reconsider them, and I'd find I was doing something wrong and correct that and…It was just a long school. Then I met Roswell Rudd in the '60s and he joined me because he was wild in that way too. He helped me learn a lot of the ones I didn't know and vice versa. We collaborated and practiced together and we formed this group and played just that stuff. Because it was a way of going through something to get to something else. We knew there was something on the other side, and we wanted to go through it to see what was there and how it would be after we'd gone through it.

How did that quartet sound? Did you stick rigidly to the changes, or did you start moving out?

We played them very strictly, especially at first we didn't dare deviate at all. We improvised right on the structures whether there were five bars or seven bars or funny keys or everything. We tried to stick to the letter of the law, whatever that was. The thing is, though, it was an every night experience - we wanted to play those tunes every night. So after a while, if you do things every night you start to take liberties and the liberty was what interested us - a liberty through this discipline. And sure enough it worked - there was something on the other side, and we began to get through to a kind of freedom, a kind of looseness. It got looser and looser until it sounded like some New Orleans stuff after a while.

Would it have been the looseness that scared off the record companies?

Yeah. And the sound. It must have been funny because there was no piano in it and it was piano music. It must have sounded very spare. But, through learning all this music which was non-trombone music, Roswell developed an extraordinary technique on the trombone.

He was someone else who jumped in straight from Dixieland.


You've since completely abandoned playing Monk, of course.

Yeah. I reached a point where I thought I was not doing it justice. I just got discouraged. I also began finding my own thing. For example, when I came to Paris in 1970 or so, we were playing half my stuff and some Monk still. Gradually, as I wrote more stuff, the Monk material was replaced. It's hard to play somebody else's music if you have your own. I'd been writing for years, but I'd thrown it all away until it got respectable, which was around '65. You know, if you write something and you play it over, maybe it sounds good one time. Then you play it over again a second time and you see the flaws, so you throw it away. Then after a while you write something and you play it over and it still sounds okay - you play it again and it's okay. So then it's alive.

This is when the group with Roswell broke up presumably.

No. The reason that group broke up was because Roswell started writing a lot of stuff himself, and he wanted to play some of that music. I was still into Monk, and I had a lot of personal difficulties in New York at that time - and we couldn't get any work anyway. So that group just sort of died after about three years.

You said you couldn't get work, but then you said earlier that you were playing every night.

Well, we invented work. We went around New York systematically street by street looking for any kind of place that we could invent a job, and we found, for example, an Armenian restaurant with a downstairs room, and little coffee shops and things like that. We didn't make any money with it but it was an excuse to play.

You then started getting involved in some of the new music over there.

Yeah. Carla Bley and Archie Shepp and Don Cherry and other people too. Cherry was very important. He came to New York around '59 and he was a decisive factor on many people, especially on me. In fact, he was way ahead of everybody in terms of freedom. I mean, in '60 he was completely free already, and I don't know anyone else who was. He used to tell me, `Come on, let's play'. I'd say, `What do you want to play? What tune?', and he say, `Come on let's just play'. And that was new to me at that time - I couldn't do it yet, but he could.

You used him on one of your records - 'EVIDENCE'. Was that just a special group for the date?

Maybe we played a little coffee shop for a week or so, but it was mostly for the record.

You first came to Europe when? In '65?

In '65, yeah, and I stayed for about two years. I started in Copenhagen then went to Paris and Italy and Germany and here and there - and England too for a minute. Mostly travelling around, but in Italy quite a lot. I ran into Cherry right away when I got into Europe. In fact he was waiting for me in Copenhagen and played with me for a month. Then there was Kenny Drew and some Danes also. In Paris I hooked up with Cherry's rhythm section - Aldo Romano, J. F. Jenny-Clark and Karl Berger. And I met Carla Bley and Mike Mantler and Kent Carter and a whole lot of other people. Various groups came out of this and came and went. The first group I actually had myself was with Enrico Rava, Aldo Romano and Kent Carter in Italy. And then Aldo and Kent left and I got Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo. I first came to London to get them. I had met Louis and he told me he knew a bass player so I came and checked him out. He was good so I asked him to come with me and he did. We played the San Remo Festival then went to Argentina for almost a year.

You found there were enough gigs there to keep you going for almost a year?

No! We were blocked, without work, and again we were forced to invent work. But it was hard in a strange country. No, we were in desperate straits down there. We were out of work, thrown out of hotels, with no money for food, and everything was really `la misere'.

How did this situation come about?

Enrico Rava's wife was from Argentina, and she arranged a job at a theatre down there. But when we got there, the junta had just taken power - there'd been a coup - and things were very bad. And I thought they knew about jazz down there. It turned out they didn't know anything, but anything. We were advanced even for some place that did know about jazz, so it was hopeless. Finally toward the end it started to get better and we had a few fans and some good paying jobs, got on the TV, and all that - but it was rough.

What happened when you left Argentina?

I went to New York and stayed there a year and found it harder than ever. I started working days again, and writing a lot, and formed a group with Aldo, Karl, Kent and Enrico, made a movie and started to organise the freedom we had learnt in the last few years. It was a very interesting period. It was like the beginning of all my music right there. In fact the stuff I wrote back then is like opus one.

You said you made a movie. Did that come out?

No, it never came out. I learnt a lot from it though, as I was obliged to structure the improvisation to fit the movie - one minute of this kind of music, thirty seconds of that kind of music, etc. That was very valuable. But New York was rough, so we decided to go back to Europe again and got a job at the Hamburg Workshop, and went over on the strength of that with the group hoping that we'd get some more work afterwards. But we didn't, and then that group dispersed. So we went back to Italy, my wife and I, and stayed in Rome for a few years and did all kinds of things there. Played with an electronic group for a while, worked a lot of trios and quartets and quintets, made some records, wrote a lot more too. In '70 I had used up Rome - I had done everything that should be done down there, and there were no more musicians - we'd been mostly working with amateurs, and the stuff I was writing was too hard - I couldn't get it out of them. So I thought there was something happening in France, because I'd played a festival and heard a lot of the newer musicians who I didn't know about at all - people like Anthony Braxton, Bobby Few, Leo Smith, the Art Ensemble, Frank Wright and everybody - and I said, `Wow! Paris is happening!' That's just what I'd been looking for - with good musicians. So we decided to give up Rome and go to Paris and we've been there ever since.

Do you ever envisage going back to America?

Well, I was back a year ago for a couple of weeks, played a couple of times, then ran away again, because it's too soon for me. Sure I envisage it, but at a certain time, whenever that is. Paris is good. I can travel a lot. I have my musicians there, and they know my stuff, and I can write new stuff and they can learn that - and I can learn from them - and it's very fruitful. We're getting more and more work and we can record here and there, so I'd be crazy to leave right now because it's just starting to go well. It was very rough though for a few years.

!t strikes me that there does not seem to be much sign of that sort of music coming out of America at all - nothing from the whole free area.

No. I was appalled that the people who were working were way behind, and the people that were actually trying to do something had no possibility of working ever. So I saw that was not for me. What I hear in Paris is more interesting than what I heard in New York in a way, although the New York musicians are fantastic musicians. Anyway, we now have a very good sextet and that's what keeps us in Paris.

Who's in the sextet?

Steve Potts, Irene Aebi and Kent Carter, Michael Smith and Kenny Tyler - two saxes, two strings, piano and drums, and a voice. Irene has the voice - we've been working on it for seven years now and we've only done a few things in public so far here and there - it's just coming out now.

How are the improvisations on the pieces you play with the sextet structured?

Gee! They're all different, really. We've got about sixty or seventy pieces, and maybe we use about a dozen of them.

They're all yours, are they?

Yeah, and each one has a different premise, and the area of freedom is in a different place in each one of them. So it would be hard to generalise about that.

You went through a period around '66 when you were just playing, not using tunes.

Yeah. About two years of complete freedom until we got to New York. There was not a word mentioned. We'd just get up and play and go home. There was nothing to say at all. No limits at all.

But now you are using tunes practically all the time, and yet ! find that the improvisation is freer than it was before. This seems a bit of a contradiction.

Well, it's a paradox, not a contradiction. I find that the more pinned down you are, the more free you are in a way - that the freedom can come out within limits. Then you are really free. Whereas when you are completely free, after a while it dries up, it turns into the same thing all the time - it winds up to be an act, and that's why that ended. However, we always go back to total freedom as a way of research, and we stay there for quite a while just to see what we can fish out. But I object to the meandering and I object to the act part of it. When it becomes an act it's dead for me. You have to find something else. What interested me in Monk's music was to improvise on the pieces. That's why I couldn't get anywhere with it. l tried to assimilate that material so that I could make sense out of those structures and play something that related to those tunes, but I find it easier to do that with my own stuff. And what interests me mostly is the coherence and the variety possible between the numbers. In other words, this tune has one type of play and another one has another type of play. It's a way of extracting the most variety out of what you have.

So for each tune you are aiming to keep all the improvisation within a certain area.

Yeah. We have a ways to go on it yet but it's coming along. Each person has a certain amount of things that they can come out with in the course of an evening, and if you have six people like that, you have six quantities of variety; and then to structure all this and satisfy everybody and get some music out of it - that's the problem, and it's a good game. Duke Ellington was the master of it, of course.

What other things have you been involved in recently apart from the sextet?

Solo playing. And it's going towards larger groups again. I've dabbled with large groups before - it's quite difficult, but it interests me a lot to have an orchestra. I'm also interested in making music for films.

Have you been using an orchestra recently?

Well, I had an amateur orchestra - a workshop orchestra, but I'm interested in having one with advanced musicians in it but it's going to take me a while to organise it - probably another year.

And what sort of musical organisation do you envisage in this?

Well, most of the stuff I have can be done on one instrumemt. or can be done in a sextet or in a large orchestra. ln other words the music is there. But I'm interested in having an orchestra that several people would write for, not just me because it's too heavy otherwise. I don't want to be a band leader in that sense like Paul Whiteman.

How was your workshop organised?

It was free. In other words, everybody blew at once for three hours once a week. There was nothing to say, except that sometimes the drummer was drowning everybody out - I'd tell him to cool it - but we never said anything else. It was very valuable - it was like research, collective research.

You didn't try and structure it or restrict it or anything?

No, not at all. It was just a place to come and huff and puff with other people. It was just like practising together at the same time. But it was a strange thing because after a while the music started coming together anyway - even though we would ignore each other we couldn't, so it started to turn into music after a while. But then it passed that point and in started to go bad because it did that same old thing again, it started to get like an act. So, I started to try and structure it and it sounded worse, so I gave it up.

One feels that that sort of thing goes through a very good period, but it is limited in time.

It's fragile.

Do you think it would have worked better if it had bee structured more to begin with?

It would not have been my cup of tea then. In Paris I started because there was a definite need for this kind of thing. There were all these people who just wanted to play and get off the streets. In Rome we did something when I was working with the electronic group, where we made what we called `soup'. There were about six musicians and many instruments, and we'd open the doors to the public and everyone who came in played, and we'd make this `soup', and that was good - that was very good for a while, again.

I know that you are not satisfied, to say the least, with some of the records that you have made which have been issued.

Some of them are no good.

Which ones do you think are good, and which would you like people to judge you by, shall we say?

I like 'THE GAP' - 'THE GAP' is a good record, and 'LAPIS', the 'SOLO' record and 'THE CRUST'. And the new record, 'SCRAPS', we just made in Paris - when it's mixed it will be very good. I think I'm happiest with that really because it's the most recent - it interests me the most right now, and it came out good. Also, it's the first one that has a little bit of the voice on it, and it's the first one with the sextet. Some of the older ones are fair here and there. 'THE FOREST AND THE ZOO' is all that remains of a very fruitful period and a good group - that was a good record. But, I really don't know - it's hard to judge your own stuff. 'ROBA' is a record I like, but a lot of other people don't like it at all.

You sound as though you are not very happy with your earlier stuff now.

Oh, I don't know. That's so old really. I'm happy with it but I'm not with it. I don't listen to that at all. Jelly Roll Morton said that he never even kept his records. Now I'm not like that, but still I can understand that.

Most of your pieces are either inspired by certain events or inspired by people. They all seem to be related to something.

All of them, yeah. They're about all different things. They're all people I know, or people I've admired. They're a way of paying debts, artistic debts to the people that I got things from - they're many of the painters, writers, musicians and just people I know. I write a piece and it's a way of paying a debt. But I think music is always about something whether it matters to the listener or not. It's generated by something, it's always about something. Images. They're all images. Yeah. I always liked images. I used to be heavily into photography when I was young, and to me it's the same, photography and composition, in a way. You try and capture something. Sometimes you start the music without knowing what it's about at all, then you see what it's about after a while or sometimes much later - but it turns out it's always about something. Although other musicians would say the contrary and I would have to agree with them - if they say, `Music is not about anything at all', I say, `Okay'.

Your arrangements for two horns seem to be very… well, dissonant is the wrong word, but you know what ! mean - you use unusual intervals.

Well, almost everything I've written for quite a few years now is in seconds. It's like one line, but it's thickened by another line quite adjacent to it. There are two kinds of seconds, major and minor, and they both fall into what's known as dissonant category, which is a useless category. Actually, to me they ring like bells if they're in the right order, if they're placed right and if they're pitched right. However, it's much more complicated than that and I couldn't explain it really - I mean, I could show you on the paper and all that, but it doesn't matter. It's a way of thickening the single line or it's a way of speaking with a forked tongue, if you like.

You also tend to go very high.

Years and years ago, Sonny Rollins took me to hear a saxophone player named Rascher Sigurd who was a classical alto player who had perfected a four octave technique on the saxophone where he could play any note within four octaves at any volume he wanted it. Actually, the music he played was not too interesting - Glazunov, French sonatas and stuff like that, very dull stuff - but he played so extraordinary that I started working on my registers too. Now, when the skies are clear, I have four octaves - sometimes a little more. But in order to have that you have to keep it up everyday, really, otherwise your lip goes away. And so having these extra notes on top, you naturally want to use them in some way. Anyway, it's more interesting upstairs. It's unexplored territory up there around the ceiling.

It does strange things to your ears.

Yeah. Very. It's dangerous though. Those sounds are dangerous - you can hurt people with them - you really have to be very careful with them. It's just sounds. Sounds is what interests me the most. Like Schoenberg said: `The thing that interests me the most is sounds, great big beautiful sounds.'

Return to home page