Favorite Street: Steve Lacy Remembered

ROVAIt’s hard to believe Steve Lacy passed away 10 years ago this week. Doesn’t seem that long ago.

For many musicians in the Bay Area, Lacy was a contemporary, a peer, a mentor, a correspondent, and even a fan. They knew him and admired his work, and his passing at the age of 70 was like a color dropping from the spectrum.

So when the members of ROVA Saxophone Quartet arranged a commemorative concert, it also served as a 10-year wake and a community catharsis. Held at the Community Music Center in San Francisco, back on June 6, the show was a celebration of Lacy’s music, a chance to share memories, and a repainting of Favorite Street, ROVA’s 1984 album of Lacy compositions. (The CD is even back in print, part of a re-emergence of the Black Saint record label, although ROVA noted it might be hard to find in stores.)

Steve Lacy and Don Cherry: EvidenceI wanted to see the show not just for the music, but to learn a little more about Lacy and his influence.

Bruce Ackley did a lot of the talking for ROVA, explaining how Lacy’s influence had crept into their musical lives. ROVA members would attend many a Lacy show — and he would attend theirs in turn. (Lacy, a native New Yorker, spent most of his career in Paris and was a frequent Bay Area visitor. ROVA probably encountered him in both places.)

Ben Goldberg talked about the album Evidence, which he and ROVA both mentioned as a key influence. It’s got Steve Lacy and Don Cherry, but more importantly, it came out in 1961, when Lacy wasn’t as well known. His records weren’t numerous and were hard to come by. Evidence was a portal into a new sound world and a revelation, to hear the musicians tell it.

Ben Goldberg: The Door, The Hat, The Chair, The FactYears later, Goldberg received the news of Lacy’s death just days before a previously booked studio date. That album — which would become The Door, the Hat, the Chair, the Fact — was meant to be an homage, songs Goldberg assembled upon hearing Lacy had cancer. It turned into an emotional therapy session, as the whole community was rocked by Lacy’s passing. One track is a brief, classically styled song, “Cortege,” where the lyrics are the text of a fax Lacy sent Goldberg. The concluding line is a casual comment by Lacy that becomes poetic in its new context: “I am hardly here these days.”

Darren Johnston, Doug Stewart, Kjell Nordeson, Aram Shelton

The Concert

The first act was a variation of the quartet Cylinder, with bassist Doug Stewart sitting in for the traveling Lisa Mezzacappa. They started with a thundering take on “Trickles,” a fast-moving free-jazz rendition propelled by Kjell Nordesson’s drums and percussion. Aram Shelton (sax) and Darren Johnston (trumpet) took the lead voices, spelling out Lacy’s melodies — which have always struck me as simple and playful, but bent with a foreign accent of a country only Lacy’s mind could inhabit — and spiraling into solos inspired by the music. Johnston, in particular, seemed to be working the Monk-like strategy of using the melody to overtly build a solo (Monk being a fascination of Lacy’s, of course).

Michael Coleman and Ben Goldberg, ready for their close-upWhere the Cylinder group presented Lacy in a jazz context, the duo of Michael Coleman (piano) and Ben Goldberg (clarinet) showed off a more classical-oriented side, more akin to a recital-plus-improvisation. It turns out they were, in fact, playing Lacy’s etudes, a book of intentionally difficult exercises called Hocus Pocus. For much of the set, Coleman and Goldberg played the melodies in unison, the piano following the same fractally linear paths as the clarinet. Coleman expertly darted and dodged his way through, sometimes tripping up but always able to jump back in within a couple of sixteenth notes; it was all very impressive.

On a few occasions, Coleman had arranged chords to go along with the themes, adding unexpected and dramatic effects. “Herky Jerky” took on a deep ocean-waves color; it didn’t remind me of McCoy Tyner but it was that same monumental spirit. “Hustles,” dedicated to Niccolo Paganini, got a brief passage of insane circus music (at least, I’m pretty sure it was the Paganini piece and not the one dedicated to Karl Wallenda).

Bruce Ackley and Jon Raskin of ROVADuring ROVA’s set, I found myself suddenly paying attention to rhythms. This might have been because they opened with the funky bassline of “The Throes,” with Jon Raskin chugging away at the baritone sax. Several pieces also broke the group into a 2×2 format, with duets playing counterbalancing themes — again, tickling the ear’s sense of rhythm. While they played the songs from Favorite Street, some of them got new interpretations. (I know that not because I’m a brilliant Lacy-ologist, but because Steve Adams contributed some arrangements, and he wasn’t in ROVA in 1984.) It was a joyous set that ended with a new arrangement of “Cliches,” a track that’s not on the album.

It was a concert, a remembrance, and an education. I’m glad I was able to be there.

12 thoughts on “Favorite Street: Steve Lacy Remembered

  1. I think Steve would certainly appreciate the tribute, by Ben and friends but also here. I wore a KKUP Guthrie t-shirt today at Palo Alto Street Music Fair, to hear Palo Alto Jazz Quintet, in front of a chain-gated Varsity Theatre, and contemplated wearing my Steve Lacy shirt –use of which I am strictly rationing — but if I had seen this before I would have most definitely broken out that old SL magic…

    Mind if I re-blog this to my site?

  2. Reblogged this on Plastic Alto with Mark Weiss and commented:
    I think Steve would certainly appreciate the tribute, by Ben and friends but also here. I wore a KKUP Guthrie t-shirt today at Palo Alto Street Music Fair, to hear Palo Alto Jazz Quintet, in front of a chain-gated Varsity Theatre, and contemplated wearing my Steve Lacy shirt –use of which I am strictly rationing — but if I had seen this before I would have most definitely broken out that old SL magic…
    Mind if I re-blog this to my site?

  3. A funny or embarrassing thing about putting on a Steve Lacy show at Cubberley Theatre is that it took me two attempts: the first time, which was actually his trio, reuniting with Roswell Rudd, the basis for a new cd and a tour that started here, kind of, and finished at Iridium in New York City, I was afraid it would “stiff” at Cubberley so, perhaps idiotically and certainly quixotically saved the $500 rental fee of Cubberley by booking the show into my sound guy’s storage space in San Carlos; the second show, a year or so later, was a duo with his wife Irene Aebi and featured Will Bernard Miya Masuoka duo as opening act. Steve and I also visited Foothill College to do an interview at KFJC; I remember discussing the avails of a Danilo Perez show and Steve encouraging me to go for it — which in itself turned out, for a variety of reasons, to be one of the most satisfying jazz concerts in the Earthwise run. Not that anywhere but here would Danilo be a footnote to a Steve Lacy anecdote; I also remember drinking at the Carlos Club with Steve and his band — the one with the big neon sign – but being chased away when the karaoke crowd came in, ironically enough. San Carlos should put a plaque on the sidewalk there. Steve Lacy the genius grant winner (MacArthur Foundation, 1992) who was too big a mensch to call me a schmuck; who was the first besides Monk himself to play a program of Monk, “how many soprano motherfuckers do you think I know?”, Monk himself wondered, or so I read. Steve’s agent told me that he appreciated those two shows. (that’s from “plastic alto” blog and a long essay about history of jazz in palo alto if that is not too shameless way to try to steal, even in steve’s name, your sophisticated and tasteful readers)

    I also once wrote a long essay about Don Cherry a tiny piece of which was published in the Dartmouth Alumni magazine, about a course Cherry taught at that College in the 1970s, partially because that same night, as I was like Steve Lacy Trio’s driver — in San Carlos — and Steve, JJ and JB were gabbing away and I was not following the conversation,at that bar, and Steve turned to me and said, explained “We are talking about Don Cherry” — it was almost like a seance — it chilled me, and so I tried to write about Don later.

    Anyways, feel free to delete or not or edit as is the protocol of this column.

    what’s kinda weird is that proof-reading above to get Jean-Jaques Avenel on bass and John Betch on drum — that is a lift from a 1990 New York Times article where they too botch John Betsch’s name.

  4. when I say “Ben and friends” I mean also “Bruce Ackley and ROVA and all their friends” — I had heard about these shows from a very thoughtful Ben Goldberg list-serve…reading Wedge’s account is the next best thing to being there

  5. Hi Mark — Thanks for the anecdotes and the history! Certainly you can post the stuff to your blog — cool to know you helped Steve Lacy get some gigs going here in the Bay Area!

  6. here’s video of the evening’s closer, Rova playing Steve Adams’ arrangement of Lacy’s “Cliches”:

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    Post by Rova:Arts.

  7. caught up to ROVA at Chapel of the Chimes solstice event, and have reservations for dinner at Duende Oakland July 11 so as to catch ROVA Lacy there, if we survive our ambitious Independence Day-Week ritual, which, lord willing and creek don’t rise, would also somehow include Bill Frisell and Joshua Bell.

    What about a supergroup featuring Bill Frisell, Joshua Bell (who is Liberty Ellman’s cousin, maybe by marriage, step-cousin), ROVA?
    I am the one who pushed from two sides to see a Dave Douglass Bill Frisell collab.

    Did I mention above that Steve Lacy show in Palo Alto featured a first tme and probably never duplicated Will Bernard Miya Masaoka duo? And that Steve would not let them soundcheck or rehearse because he needed the moment to do so himself. He said “A lot of these things work out better if they don’t rehearse”

  8. Mark — Wish I could have made it to Chapel of the Chimes, since the solstice fell on a weekend. Had to be out of town, alas.

    Not familiar with Joshua Bell. But him + Frisell + ROVA, I don’t know … Frisell and ROVA tickle different parts of my brain, and I haven’t been willing to go deep with Frisell’s Americana excursions…

    I don’t think you’d mentioned the Bernard/Masaoka story above. Interesting stuff – were they upset about it, or did the set truly work out better?

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