Steve Lacy-A View Of The World From Behind The Soprano Saxophone

Steve Lacy-A View Of The World From Behind The Soprano Saxophone

It is difficult to know where to start when trying to approach the recorded musical legacy of Soprano Saxophonist Steve Lacy.  His discography at his Wikipedia site lists well over a hundred recordings as a leader, and another forty as a sideman.  In 1975 he is listed as having recorded ten albums as a leader alone.  Have a look at this Wiki site for a good overview of Steve Lacy……

As I’ve said before with other jazz artists I’ve profiled, this Wikipedia site is a good starting reference point, however more detailed information about Mr. Lacy’s life and work can be gleaned from a reading of Steve Lacy-Conversations, edited by Jason Weiss, 2006 Duke University Press.  This book is a collection of many interviews that Steve Lacy gave over a period of 40 years, and the first paragraph of the Introduction on Page 3 fully illuminates the scope of this document.

“Steve Lacy gave a lot of interviews.  For well over four decades people sought him out, and he was always generous with his time and had much to say.  He was thoughtful and wise, humble and amused, and constantly aware of the living traditions that he was part of as an artist in his time.  He was a perceptive listener, to questions posed as well as questions implied.  Just as he could appreciate a vast range of music and the play of individual musicians in a given moment, so he recognized the quality of searching in all its guises.”

My own personal quest to unravel the music of Steve Lacy began thirty years ago in the later 1980’s while I was an undergraduate music student at San Francisco State.  Somehow I knew that Lacy was steeped in the Traditional and Dixieland jazz that I was discovering and learning about at that point, and I knew that he had pursued the soprano saxophone like literally nobody else.  It is true that Lacy dedicated his life and music to the sole pursuit of the soprano saxophone, and even prior to the work of John Coltrane on soprano, Lacy had begun the difficult task of bringing the soprano to the forefront of jazz.  My initial purchases of Lacy recordings were Soprano Sax, his first solo recording, and Reflections, his second.  Both recordings are on the Prestige label, and together they form the basis of the modern soprano saxophone canon, if you will.  True enough, and Lacy acknowledges this, Sydney Bechet and Johnny Hodges had done significant work with the soprano in the decades prior, but Lacy was the first to really modernize and adapt the instrument not only to bebop but to the looming avant garde movement that was soon to follow.

Soprano Sax, Prestige P-7125 as originally issued, was recorded on November 1st, 1957.  Lacy, who’s early career playing Dixieland with many of the heavyweights of that genre is documented in his Wikipedia entry, changed directions into this initial recording right as the bep bop movement was about to give way to the freer music of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and the other leaders of the avant garde.  Soprano Sax features some typical jazz on the standards Alone Together, Rockin’ In Rhythm and Easy To Love, and does not give much of a hint as to what’s to come from the still maturing Steve Lacy.  Since this was the first Lacy on record that I heard, it was not so much a revelation as something that aroused my curiosity about his work.  The familiar piano work of Wynton Kelly marks this recording, and keeps it grounded firmly in the jazz genre of the day.

In order to satisfy my curiosity a bit further I next purchased Lacy’s second recording as a leader, Reflections, Prestige NJ -8206 as originally issued, recorded on October 17, 1958.  Subtitled Steve Lacy Plays The Music Of Thelonious Monk, and featuring pianist Mal Waldron as well as Lacy, this recording really does usher in the beginning of the mature Lacy style.  Much has been made of Lacy’s relationship with Monk, and his lifelong dedication to performing and recording Monk’s music.  Here the intersection of Monk’s music along with the formation of what would be a lifelong relationship with Waldron mark the beginning of Lacy’s determined pursuit of the soprano sax.  This recording has been cited many times as a high water mark and an incredibly influential document on the thinking of subsequent generations of soprano saxophone players.  The propulsive drumming of Elvin Jones and the unique pairing of Lacy with Monk’s compositions foreshadowed a trend in jazz that still resonates today, the mining of great compositions of not only Monk but of the many jazz masters that contributed during this fertile era of cross pollination of harmony and rhythm that existed at this time.

My interest in the forward thinking music of Steve Lacy continued, and led me to Evidence-Prestige NJ-8271 as originally issued, recorded on November 1st, 1961.  By this point in the evolution of jazz the contentious influence of Ornette Coleman’s music was being felt throughout the jazz community,  and this recording features the presence of trumpeter and Coleman collaborator Don Cherry.  Furthering the Lacy practice of recording Monk compositions, this superb quartet recording also features Coleman’s drummer Billy Higgins.  At this point I was starting to get it, hearing the freedom and the discipline these master’s showcase while working their way through this challenging and startling material.  Again, pairing the front line of two horns with just bass and drums, a Coleman trademark, Steve Lacy brought not only his soprano saxophone but his conception up to date with the avant garde, and set the stage to usher in his later original music and small group constructs.

I did not pursue Steve Lacy’s music further for a long time.  Graduate studies, making a living teaching, playing a lot of golf……the 1990’s went by in a blur, and it wasn’t until just before the year 2000 that I began to get back to his music again in earnest.  I could not believe my luck when a Steve Lacy Trio concert was announced at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, in Santa Cruz California, my hometown and where I happened to be living at the time.  I cannot recall the exact date, but my tragically unreliable memory would put it at 2001 or 2002.  I think it was rumored that he was in fact suffering from cancer at this point, and I do recall being aware that he was also teaching at New England Conservatory at this time.  A search of the Internet turned up this article from 2000, however I don’t believe this was the show I was at, seeing as I do not remember Roswell Rudd being there.

The trio show I saw around this time was a serious mind blower.  The depth of Lacy’s artistry, the full impact of his compositions and the telepathic communication of the musicians all made this a memorable and influential night of music for me.  I remember one solo soprano saxophone piece that truly took my breath away.  I remembering leaving that night with a renewed interest in his music, and sadly he would be gone in only a couple of years after this fine performance.

Of course another ten years went by, and around 2010 I got serious about learning more about Steve Lacy’s music.  This is when I purchased Conversations off the Internet, and as a result of reading that I became aware that Lacy had written a book entitled Findings-My Experience With The Soprano Saxophone, detailing his methods for learning and teaching, his original compositions, and his over arching musical philosophies.  Published in 1994 by Outre Mesure, this book is for serious musicians and saxophone geeks, particularly soprano geeks, to savor and learn from.

At the same time I was delving into Findings I had become intrigued with a fabulous Lacy solo recording on the Tzadik label entitled Sands from 1998.  My ears had been giving me a sense of his compositional style, and I dug into two pieces on this recording, learning parts of them by ear on my horn.  In no time I transcribed what appeared to me to be the basic compositional outline of Steve’s tunes Gloompot and Who Needs It from this recording.



Who Needs It

Between my own investigations of these two solo works, and the information combined in Findings, and by devouring the contents of the Solos, Duos, Trios Box set, I began to hear what Lacy was doing when he was playing solo.

It was through the first two discs in this set that I began to zero in on what was so special about Steve Lacy.  The first disc, Only Monk, is, well, a solo soprano saxophone rendering of only Monk tunes.  The second disc, More Monk, is well, yeah, more solo Monk compositions.

I recall that I came to the realization that Steve Lacy had single handedly created and developed his own compositional and solo style to express his singular voice on the soprano saxophone, and that the work of his small group recordings was not only revolutionary, but that it combined the elements of through composed music with improvisation in a manner that was staggeringly logical.  Thinking back to the piece I heard at Kuumbwa Jazz Center years earlier, I had that “AH HAH!” moment that I’d been searching for regarding his music.  The logical extension of using Monk’s work was then to go on and develop an original style, making unique statements both compositionally and in your improvisations, which is exactly what Lacy did.  It became apparent to me this was what he was getting at with Sands and the Monk solo recordings.   

At this point I was getting pretty familiar with the material in Findings; within Findings there are many great secrets and ideas that Lacy built upon and obviously worked diligently at to bring his concepts to fruition.  A particularly interesting one on Page 52  that I show students is his explanation of Monk Arpeggios and how  he adapted them to the saxophone.


Findings contains two Compact Discs that are very interesting; I don’t believe this material was released on any of Lacy’s other recordings.  In many instances the tracks are demonstrations of many of the techniques he outlines in the book.  In addition to demonstrating Long Tones, Harmonics, the Altissimo register, Intervals and Scales, there is a track called Sax Can Moo where he imitates animals and nature.  It is a startlingly unique track that will blow your mind, I did an audio triple take when I put this on the first time.

Findings also contains some interesting quotes that Lacy obviously used as a mantra to motivate himself, and most likely later in life when he was doing a fair amount of teaching he was likely passing these on to his students to ruminate upon…..

“Intonation (getting in tune and staying in tune) is a lifelong problem with the soprano saxophone.”  Pg 29

“Dynamics are the life and death of music.”  Pg 31

“I believe in making it difficult on yourself, but not in boring yourself: like training with weights, but in an interesting manner.”  Pg 60

“Personally , I prefer a music that is both written and improvised, with a coherent structure and a clear way to play on it, so the whole thing makes sense, inside and outside, the beginning, the middle, and the end.”  Pg 73


Probably the most illuminating aspect of Findings is found in the latter part of the book, where Lacy prints many of his original compositions.  Here you will find not only copies of his handwritten work from his own notebooks, but the reformatted versions done on a computer.  One can see here how he was structuring his compositions and what he was thinking with respect to how he was going to improvise over them.  This type of writing is a departure from the usual standard form type composition common to jazz, and shows how Lacy was integrating classical compositional techniques with his own ideas about improvisation that were rooted in traditional jazz styes but looking at it through a 20th Century classical lens.

This piece, Drawls, was written as a duet for Steve and the great clarinetist John Carter, and according to Findings was only performed once.  I wonder if a recording exists of that somewhere in someone’s private bootleg archive?

Drawls Pg 1


Drawls Pg 2


Here is another solo piece called Saxovision that can be found in Findings….

Over time all the listening to solo soprano saxophone works began to generate ideas in my mind about trying to compose and perform something in this demanding form myself.  It must be noted here that not only Steve Lacy but the works of David Liebman, particularly his The Loneliness Of A Long Distance Runner recording, were a source of inspiration that led me to start composing something I then called Echoes #1 for Soprano Sax Alone.  I soon came to the conclusion that this challenging form, solo saxophone, took a lot of thought and creativity to execute.  A careful look at Echoes reveals the direct influence of Lacy on its construction.  I had been deeply and irretrievably influenced, in the best possible manner.

Echoes #1 For Soprano Sax Alone

Echoes was eventually recorded in San Carlos Cathedral in Monterey, California, and released on my recording Universal Truths.  I retitled the composition Soprano Shape Shift, to better highlight the new texture that the improvisation section featured.  I worked out a track for the improvisation that added some electronic effects to my soprano saxophone sound, and I recorded the improvisation while hearing the effects in headphones.  The improvisation is a direct reflection of my interaction with the electronically pulsating sound that was captured.  The effects were not added later but had been used as an integral part of my improvisation.  This, to my mind anyway, made it a logical and organic extension of the composition.  I am pleased with the results, which can be found on Youtube via this link……

Mark Sowlakis-Soprano Shape Shift from Universal Truths

The music of Steve Lacy is not for the faint of heart.  It is a challenging listen, and a huge catalog.  In addition to the above mentioned recordings, which I feel are essential to understanding the foundation from which Lacy started, I particularly like a recording called Paris Blues, with the great Gil Evans on piano and Fender Rhodes piano.  Lacy is at his lyrical best here, the compositions are some you may recognize, and the solos are not too long or adventurous.  The stark piano accompaniment is a perfect background that highlights Lacy’s sometimes rough tone and brilliant improvisational mind.  The two musicians on this recording never overshadow each other, but dare to listen intently, and interact constantly.  While some folks don’t always appreciate this recording, I still find it to be very satisfying listen.  Here is a link to a short review of Paris Blues at that illustrates my point.  Notice the Allmusic rating of 1 and a half stars versus the User rating of 4 and a half….

Another interesting and approachable recording is Steve Lacy/Eric Watson, Spirit of Mingus-Free Lance records FRL-CD 016, recorded live in early December 1991, in Paris.  There is much virtuosity on display on this terrific disc.  The ensemble work on the tricky Mingus compositions is virtually flawless, and the interplay between Lacy and Watson is superb.  Because of the familiar nature of this material, to Mingus fans but likely to jazz fans of all persuasions, this recording is a very pleasant and challenging window into the sonic landscapes of Steve Lacy.    

I came across this very interesting article at Jazz Times on Lacy, have a look…….

Here is an interesting Youtube clip of an interview of Steve by Frank Browning of NPR from 2002 that provides some further background on Mr. Lacy, his artistic vision and his struggles as a working musician.  Fascinating stuff……

Finally, a couple of Lacy solo pieces on Youtube for your perusal….

Wasted, Paris 1982

Coastline, Paris 1982

I have barely scratched the surface of the musical world of Steve Lacy.  While I have chosen to present mostly his solo saxophone vision in this blog post, Lacy’s recorded legacy is a rich, vast and varied catalog of personal statements that define his achievements and illustrate his artistic vision.  In addition to these solo saxophone works Lacy developed all sorts of larger ensemble pieces and concepts.  Steve Lacy took the soprano saxophone to new heights and to places it may never be taken again.  His lifelong dedication to this instrument is a magnificent testimony to his personal dedication to his craft.  Delve carefully into Mr. Lacy’s recorded legacy and you will be continually challenged with a good deal of significant, stimulating, and rewarding listening.

  • Heath Watts
    Posted at 19:00h, 03 November Reply

    Very nice. Thanks for writing this. The world needs to know more about Steve Lacy.

  • John Veylupek
    Posted at 22:05h, 19 October Reply

    Thank you for the interesting article. ‘The Rent’ is my favorite of the 7 or 8 Steve Lacy albums I own. It is an exciting live recording from 1997 recorded in Portland, OR. You can hear that the crowd is really into it; he even recites a cool poem.

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