The Steve Lacy Sextet

Live at the Middle East, Cambridge, Mass., July 13 & 14, 1993

Reviewed by Scot Hacker

It has now been 21 years since this sextet's four core members (Steve Potts - alto and soprano saxes, Irene Aebi - violin and vocals; Bobby Few - piano; Steve Lacy - soprano sax) began to convene around the vision of a music as playful, logical, and complex as that of Lacy's mentor Monk, whose presence is still felt in the lilt and jar of suspended fourths, and in difficult compositions hidden behind deceptively simple, elegant melodies. The sextet is currently rounded out by drummer John Betsch and bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel.

Time fosters deep alliances between minds. The resulting cohesion is apparent in the sextet's by-now familial bond; an almost psychic connection that shows in the ease with which the members relate -- their communication seems effortless and complete.

The group moved lithely through a corpus of tunes old and new, several of which appeared on the 1990 "Anthem" recording (Novus), notably including the tribute to James Brown "Number One" and a noir piece "The Rent" which commemorates the suicide of French jazz writer Lorent Goddet. Some of the most inspired playing came with the multi-segmented "Revenue," a tribute to poet Robert Creeley which began with a short, abstract head and quickly flowed into an extended series of fleet-footed trio, duet, and solo configurations, all of which showcased the improvisors at their most intense.

Betsch demonstrated just how far a drummer can go and still swing. The rest of the band gathered around his kit in amazement, as if they had never heard him play before, and were being blown away for the first time. Avenel's fingers ran circles around the neck of his bass while Lacy described interlocking concentric rings in the air on soprano. Potts is strong, and more filligreed than Lacy -- he adds a sometimes welcome density to Lacy's spare outlines. To boot, he sometimes pulls out the Roland Kirk trick, playing two horns simultaneously. Bobby Few played with a pensive intensity, crossing one arm over the other to reverse the roles of left and right hands. When finished, he fannned out the inside of the piano with a towel as if to cool the overheated strings.

Steve Lacy assembles mosaics before your eyes -- every note that falls from his horn is a clearly delineated and distinct tile in a picture which exists as a whole before the first note is played. The coloration and placement of tiles always corresponds to a vision beyond each note's individual presence, and gives a continual sense of 'fit', i.e. that this tile belongs next to that tile and to no other. Constant attention to the synergy of the whole is what marks Lacy as a master composer as well as improvisor.

Irene Aebi seasoned the broth with extractions from Chinese texts and cereal boxes, school notebooks and love poems of the samizdat. Her highly angular delivery is indeed a completely unique presence in this kind of setting, but that fact does not invalidate her stylings, which are a perfect foil to Lacy's unique architectonics. It is unfathomable that Irene Aebi is so frequently maligned by the jazz press. Perhaps people are stymied when a jazz vocalist so clearly does not descend from the legacy of Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald, but in a medium that is ostensibly about high degrees of artistic freedom, why must a woman still walk in the stylistic footsteps of the great torches and canaries to earn respect from the establishment? Aebi contributed a poetics to the first night's performance which was sorely missed on the second night, when she had reportedly fallen ill.

The band maintained a comfortable air, and never really broke a sweat. However, as Anthony Braxton has noted in his Tri-Axium Writings, "...the [critic's] reality of the sweating brow is not so much dependent on the actual music but instead on 'how' the actual 'doing' of the music looks." Sweat needn't be the sole measure of passion or intensity; the music must be taken on its own terms, and not on criteria of what makes for a good photograph. The sextet delivered on terms of careful, communicative poignancy that bordered on clairvoyance.

We were all taken by surprise in the middle of the first night when Cambridge mayor Kenneth Reeves appeared on stage, read a rather verbose accolade, and handed Lacy the key to the city in "appreciation for extensive contributions to the world of music." Lacy did not make an acceptance speech, but did say that this was a first in his career, and the crowd was visibly proud to see the conferral granted here in a city whose status as a home for great jazz has waned some in the past decade.

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