Steve Lacy ‘Four Classic Albums’ 2CD (Avid Jazz) 5/5

steve-lacyIf you have not already sampled the delights of jazz re-issue label Avid, then prepare for a real treat. This independent label has the jazz connoisseurs best interests at heart and aims to provide optimum quality re-issues with the additional attraction of a bargain price differential and maximum time allowance nearing eighty minutes per CD. However, this is where the lowest common denominator ends because Avid have gone well beyond the essential jazz repertoire (though it most certainly is in evidence) to embrace musicians whom, for a variety of reasons, have not received their due, and this reviewer for one would like to redress the balance in their favour.
In the case of Steve Lacy, the musician has devoted his life to the study and practice of the soprano saxophone and this wonderful selection covers his early years from the late 1950s through to the early 1960s when Lacy was in hallowed company. Two magical Prestige albums grace the first CD and these are by far the more conventional of the albums with pianists featured on both. However, Steve Lacy has always been a musician capable of revisiting the jazz tradition while simultaneously embracing the avant-garde and his interpretations of the jazz masters is anything but standard.

The first album, simply entitled, ‘Soprano Sax’, dates from 1957 and included a rhythm section comprising Wynton Kelly on piano, Buell Neidlinger on bass and Dennis Charles on drums. Hearing these sides again once cannot fail to reflect on whether John Coltrane was influenced by hearing Lacy on soprano or vice-versa. Irrespective, the music stands the test of time wonderfully and offers a stunning reading of ‘Alone together’ while there is a brooding intensity to Monk’s opus, ‘Work’. One thing is for sure. Lacy’s lifelong love of and devotion to the work of Thelonius Monk is captured beautifully on the second album, which focuses squarely on the compositions of the pianist and Mal Waldron accompanies him on piano for what would prove to be a partnership spanning several decades. Indeed, Lacy is in scintillating form on ‘Four in one’ where Waldron stays out in parts while the two duet magnificently on ‘Reflections’. It should be stated from the outset that Waldron is that most sensitive of accompanists and with Elvin Jones on drums in his prime and Buell Niedlinger once again on bass, this is one stunning album. Collectively, they positively cook on a bustling, uptempo take on ‘Skippy’, with Lacy in a hurry and Waldron only too happy to maintain the pace.

The second CD makes for a fascinating contrast with the piano out completely. This reviewer was immediately attracted by the pairing of Lacy with trumpeter Don Cherry on ‘Evidence’ and the album does not disappoint (especially with Billy Higgins on drums who clearly is having an absolute ball), though it is not quite as ground breaking as one might expect. That said, how many musicians would have the courage to choose Cecil Taylor’s ‘Louise’ as a composition to cover? A swinging rendition of Ellington’s ‘The mystery song’ is eclipsed by a stunning Cherry solo on Monk’s ‘Evidence’, and interestingly the trumpeter sounds not dissimilar to Miles from the same era. This is not the pocket trumpet sound we have become accustomed to with Ornette Coleman and Cherry well and truly excels here.

For the second album, the 1960 Candid album, ‘The straight horn of Steve Lacy’. this is a pairing of Lacy with Charles Davis on baritone saxophone, John Ore on bass and Roy Haynes on drums. While probably the least satisfying of the four albums, this is still fine by any other standards for all that. Monk’s ‘Introspection’ is the most free sounding while be-bop hues are evoked on Parker’s ‘Donna Lee’. Of all the pieces, ‘Criss Cross’ is arguably the best known and taken at a brisk tempo with the saxophones playing in tandem. There are no extras included, but none are required when you have seventy plus minutes per CD. Of great help to the listener are the complete back cover notes (make that mini essays) by writers of the calibre of Ira Gitler, Nat Hentoff and Martin Williams. Essential listening.

Tim Stenhouse