Steve Lacy + 16



Franz Koglmann



Charlie Haden and the Liberation

Music Orchestra

Blue Note


Carla Bley



Kenny Wheeler



Freddie Redd



Thelonious Monk

Blue Note

Steve Lacy was the first soprano-sax player in modern jazz, around 35 years ago, when he worked with young piano radical Cecil Taylor; a few years later, when John Coltrane and others were taking up the soprano, Lacy was playing Thelonious Monk songs almost exclusively, adapting Monk’s piano phrases to his high, adenoidal horn. Since then Lacy’s soloed largely in free-jazz settings, from unaccompanied to ad hoc ensembles to his own well-rehearsed sextet, in music that ranges from hard-swinging jazz to utterly spontaneous free improvisation. His concentration on the soprano and, recurringly, on careful construction of solos by developing variations on small motives–not just brick by brick but molecule by molecule–has marked him an utter, and utterly tough, individualist. Despite all that, as his appearance at the Cubby Bear last summer made clear, Lacy’s music can also be graceful, melodic, and even exciting.

He is undoubtedly the most prolific jazz recording artist since Coltrane. Really, it’s almost impossible to keep up with him: Itinerary is the third new Lacy CD I’ve heard this year, and I know I’ve missed some. Itinerary is the first big-band session he’s led, and as critic Art Lange points out in the excellent liner notes, almost the first time Lacy has composed for big band–my only previous experience of his big-band writing was the long, dreary 1979 dedication to Ezra Pound, played by the Globe Unity Orchestra. Itinerary introduces a major new orchestral talent. Looking back, there are hints of Itinerary not only in Lacy’s soloing but in the many songs he wrote for small groups, with their reiterations and minute variations of motives.

Lacy recorded “I Feel a Draft” in a relatively free 1976 quartet version; here it breaks out in a multiplicity of ostinatos, each in a separate, simultaneous rhythm, played by three horn sections, harp, and rhythm players, each in its self-contained but complementary world; the original theme is hidden down in the trombones. Lacy’s acute focus on small elements and joining of many repetitious parts may suggest minimalism, but the vitality and many colors of “I Feel a Draft” are not minimalist. This track plus the plodding “Cloudy” and “Rain,” with instrumental pattering simulating a summer shower, make up The Precipitation Suite.

This CD is dedicated to the late colorist arranger Gil Evans, in whose bands Lacy played; at best Lacy makes a more urgent, forceful use of similarly subtle materials. The best example is the extended showpiece “Sweet 16,” with its rising/falling slow unison theme–a theme of Monkishly deceptive simplicity–over John Betsch’s wonderfully furious drum improvisation. Again, there’s the Lacy equation: simplicity squared equals complexity. The theme keeps recurring, progressively faster, each time subtly altered, each time ending in progressively longer collective improvisations. Then, for the only time on the CD, there are solos–wild, free-swinging ones, as if the players’ creativity had been unleashed after playing Lacy’s meticulous scores. It’s comic and harsh and liberating all at once.

“The Sun” is Irene Aebi singing a one-note melody while the band repeats a four-note figure under her. Her lyrics are a rhetorical poem (that’s something like a square circle) by R. Buckminster Fuller, and despite the oddness of the setting, the hope Fuller presents is a common one among free-jazz musicians.

Franz Koglmann arranged Lacy’s final track, “Itinerary.” Koglmann, whose own The Use of Memory has been recently released, is hardly as radical as Lacy–he writes bright, active music, with horn combinations continually moving and redeveloping within sometimes striking formal designs. At times the rhythm section rises to the level of modestly bouncy; the occasional soloists are modest; and the high, light sound of Koglmann’s ensemble–heavy on woodwind combinations of clarinets, sopranino sax, oboe, English horn–recalls the 50s jazz composing of the American, not the Canadian, Bill (William O.) Smith. Despite Smith’s partnership with Dave Brubeck, he has usually worked in classical music, and like Smith’s compositions, Koglmann’s suggest classical chamber ensemble works that somehow got diverted–too vital for salon music, too dynamically unvaried and understated for jazz.

The two previous recordings by Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra date from 1969 and 1983; Dream Keeper is their new one. Again Haden’s collaborator is composer-arranger Carla Bley; again the subject is the struggle for freedom; again much of the material is folk music, usually Latin American and Spanish, with an underlying deep blue (Moorish?) strain. For the excellent title work, Bley composed a choral setting of Langston Hughes’s poem “As I Grew Older”–and the combination of the lyrics with a slow, sorrowing melody and the sweet voices of the Oakland Youth Chorus is heartbreaking. Bley broke the poem into stanzas, which introduce a tango, an African-mariachi waltz, a work song built up from the sound of a wood flute, and the “Hymn of the Anarchist Women’s Movement,” from the Spanish Civil War, transformed into a lively march. The great Haden plays a bass solo, full of travail in its downward course, that seems to summarize Hughes’s poem. Otherwise the songs and improvisations are optimistic, including Tom Harrell’s darkly shaded fragile trumpet and a free duet for tuba and drums. Despite its diverse constituent elements, the long “Dream Keeper” is largely unified, by means of the recurring Bley-Hughes stanzas and the sound of trumpets, alone and in duet.

There are plenty of other delights on the CD. In “Spiritual” there’s the grand playing of pianist Amina Claudine Myers and trombonist Ray Anderson–less sensitive players could easily have turned this song into parody. There’s the anthem of the African National Congress in solemn hymn tones, with Ken McIntyre’s gnarled, frantic alto sax and Dewey Redman’s tenor solo–the CD’s high point. Redman’s solo begins as a folk ballad and becomes a riffing, crying, blues-drenched wail over terrific accompaniment by Haden and drummer Paul Motian. Interestingly, one of the arrangements on this CD is by Bley’s daughter Karen Mantler, who shows evidence of a similar talent.

Most of the characteristics of Bley’s composition are abundantly in evidence on The Very Big Carla Bley Band–her remarkable balance and range of textures, the continual contrasts of sounds, rhythms, weights. The side of Bley revealed in her collaborations with Haden–especially her elaborations of folk material–rarely surfaces in her own recordings. This new Bley CD represents her second return to the big-band medium, after a series of small group reveries in the 80s that were intimate to the point of opaqueness. Apart from the work of trombonist Gary Valente, tailgate kin to Chicago’s Ray Anderson and George Lewis, the many solos don’t satisfy; a tenor saxophonist, presumably Andy Sheppard, thrashes about especially incoherently in “Strange Arrangement.” Two of these tracks hint distantly at Thelonious Monk’s “Ask Me Now”; rocking-chair harmonic structures also show up. For all Bley’s considerable mastery, this album sounds curiously unfinished; the semisatirical sense of humor and nearly surreal perspective that once characterized her work have largely evaporated.

Kenny Wheeler, a Canadian-born Briton, has been a valuable trumpet player for the last two decades. His own big-band composing appears in three-quarters of the two discs of his Music for Large & Small Ensembles. These have a monolithic sound recalling 50s “progressive jazz”; paradoxically, the wordless song of a soprano voice in unison with the band lends the music an inhuman quality. Wheeler writes singsong melodies that at slower tempi have a pastoral lushness. And he hires some good musicians–for instance, the brilliant Evan Parker. His “For P.A.” improvisation begins in a lyrical John Coltrane vein and evolves into his own brand of fiendish against-the-grain lines and splintered tones. Yet in other pieces that begin adventurously, a cadence, a comforting resolution, “dreamy” harmonies, flute, and oozing guitar synthesizer are never far away. Such reassurance is quite different from Wheeler’s recklessly impulsive trumpeting in the small group pieces here.

In varying degrees all the CDs mentioned partake of the last 30-some years of free-jazz discoveries. But Freddie Redd’s happy Everybody Loves a Winner does not. Freddie Redd is the real thing, a veteran pianist-songwriter of the hard-bop 50s, joined by other veterans–not young hard-bop revivalists. He writes songs with original chord changes, and it’s no wonder that he’s often composed for the stage–his work has a Broadway kind of shape and tunefulness. Redd’s songs capture feeling, from the slow lushness of “Melancholia” to the title song’s pecking A strains and billowing bridge to the merry minor key of “So Samba,” whose tension arises from its rising and falling chord changes–it’s the sort of tune you catch yourself humming at odd moments. There’s nothing else by bop musicians like Freddie Redd’s songs.

His show-biz strain demands just the right interpreters to set it off. The severe blues lines of altoist Jackie McLean were perfect for Redd’s early 60s works (The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Freddie Redd, a three-LP Mosaic box). His partners in Everybody Loves a Winner are quite right, especially the two saxophonists. Behind the surface eccentricity of Curtis Peagler’s cubist blues alto lies subtle ingenuity–notice the rubber-band elasticity of his rhythm as he stretches phrases across the beat. Better yet, Teddy Edwards plays thoroughly no-nonsense bop tenor, all melodic line with no extraneous surface. His playing is as guileless and stripped-down as Redd’s piano playing–surely no other pianist of his generation is so far removed from the style of Bud Powell. This CD includes two themeless blues and “Fuego de Corazon,” a long piano solo with Latin accompaniment hinting at Errol Garner, Monk, and Herbie Nichols.

In discussing the current era of jazz Thelonious Monk’s name keeps coming up. The important news about the CD versions of Thelonious Monk’s Genius of Modern Music is that, unlike their LP ancestors, they collect his 1947 and 1951-52 works in the order in which they were recorded, including newly discovered alternate takes and in Volume 2 two previously unreleased tunes–one a major discovery. “Sixteen” is a 16-bar melody as full of chord changes as a conventional 32-bar song; it’s a three-note call, in flatted-fifth harmony, and a long line of unison 16th notes in response. It’s the sort of song that would have left bop listeners gasping at Monk’s audacity, a partner to his other early 50s masterpieces: “Criss Cross,” “Four in One,” “Straight No Chaser,” “Skippy,” and his pulverized revision of “Carolina Moon.”

All of these are in Volume 2, along with the once-in-a-lifetime sound of his 1951 quintet and some of the best interpreters he ever had–Milt Jackson (vibes), Lucky Thompson (tenor sax), and drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach among them. Monk may have been unconventional for his time; but the logic, the flow of his music is irrefutable, even more firmly founded than bop, with which he peacefully coexisted. Bop was like a rambling drive through the Rocky Mountains, but Monk–the pianist as well as the composer–was like a drive in a straight line over the mountains, over all the peaks and valleys. As later generations finally realized, of course, both Monk and bop got to the other side. Volume 1, from 1947, includes Monk’s own first versions of his standards, such as “‘Round Midnight,” “Well You Needn’t,” and “Ruby My Dear,” landmarks of modern jazz composition. Apart from the delights of the music–some subtle, some broad indeed–these two CDs exhibit a major development of the jazz sensibility; they should be among the basics of any jazz-recording collection.