Steve Lacy,
Duets: Associates
(Newtone, 1997; 2003)

Steve Lacy has been a frequent winner in the soprano-sax category of Down Beat magazine's annual critic's poll. He's not as well known as most poll winners, partly because of the instrument but primarily because he's been an expatriate for the last 35 years. (He recently returned to live in New York City.) Lacy was greatly influenced early in his career by Sidney Bechet and started by playing Dixieland. After more evolution and continuous change than any other player I know of from his generation, he now plays everything from blues to avant-garde jazz in an intense style all his own. Those who already know and admire his work will appreciate this release. So will those unfamiliar with him -- if they like serious jazz with a hard, tough edge.

Lacy here shows he thrives on the duet format. His tone is strong and confident, sometimes even intentionally harsh. Especially on his own five tunes, he has a commanding drive and almost always dominates. The album includes 10 duets, recorded all over the world from 1982 through 1994. Lacy's partner is different on each track. Three play piano, two percussion, two trombone, one a guitar and one a sax. A vocalist makes 10.

The piano duets are the most immediately appealing. Bobby Few and Mal Waldron in particular stay with the sax player during his solos and then take terrific solos of their own. Few teams up in a fine original by Lacy called "The Rent." The duet with Waldron features "Epistrophy," one of two Monk tunes on this release. ("Pannonica" is the other.) Lacy includes Monk on most of his albums.

All the tracks are exceptional, but the release will appeal most to those who like their jazz at the cerebral end of the spectrum. Especially when there's no piano to provide a harmonic setting, it takes more concentration than usual to follow the soloists' logic, and Lacy's insistent soprano tone will have some wishing for the instrumental colors of a larger group. A couple of tracks are especially thorny. Robert Creely's "Train Going By" features a performance by vocalist Irene Aebi that has a lot in common with modern classical art-music. Lacy's "The Crust" has an atonal feel. His "Cliches" does include familiar phrases, but used in ways that belie the tune's name.

Fans familiar with Lacy's restless approach will want this one. Curious newcomers will be better off with the tamer sounding Sempre Amore, on which Mal Waldron joins him in a tribute to Duke Ellington. In any event, Steve Lacy deserves a wider audience and I for one was glad to hear he finally decided to return home.

- Rambles
written by Ron Bierman
published 28 February 2004

Buy it from