JJ 11/90: Steve Lacy – interviewed

Thirty years ago, the soprano specialist talked lucidly to Peter Gamble about a life in improvisation. First published in Jazz Journal November 1990

1733

‘Back in the fifties I started with New Orleans, Chicago style, Kansas City and New York. The whole history of jazz I went through really – sort of fast. I stu­died all of Miles Davis’ music, Charlie Par­ker, Sonny Rollins and Tadd Dameron. All the stuff I was too late for. I started in 1950. Bebop was the forties so by the time I got there it was over but I couldn’t ignore it. Years were spent learning all those tunes but at the same time I played with Cecil Taylor and still did the traditional things. You could do that then because there was a lot of freedom and jazz is really about freedom.

I don’t care whether its pop, bop, schmock, clop, mop, it doesn’t mat­ter. The category is unimportant; when the quality becomes magical, that’s important. I don’t care what it is

‘In the fifties, there was no music written for the soprano saxophone, no music in­tended for it and no tradition. In the mod­ern jazz school it did not exist. Bechet being the only tradition meant I had to find a way to go forward and some music to fit the instrument. Monk’s music fitted perfectly. A model, exemplary music, to play with, off and on, until I could eventually come up with my own stuff. I’ll always re­turn to it but in a way it has run its course for me. There are too many people dealing with Monk now. I’ve devoted years to it, gotten as far as I can. The music doesn’t need me now, although I still love to play it sometimes!

‘When I came to Europe to work with Don Cherry at the old Cafe Montmartre in 1965 my situation seemed hopeless. For­tunately the creative principles saved me. I had a round-trip ticket and a month’s work but instead of going back to New York, I went to Paris, which led to my working around France and then Italy. I played with my own group, exploring Europe for about a year, followed by a trip to South America. The group consisted of Enrico Rava, Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo and was cooked in Italy really, that pure “free” thing we had. I think that was one of the first completely free groups. The tour culminated with a record in Buenos Aires, The Forest And The Zoo, a com­pletely spontaneous music without cuts. By the time we arrived in New York we’d started structuring things, so the free playing only lasted a year.

‘In the late sixties, early seventies I made a bunch of records for little companies that disappeared – fly by night companies. Most of them are out of print fortunately, I don’t want to compete with myself. Some of the results were good, some had technical problems but they were important for the growth of the music and our survival, enabling the music to get out. Now I have a deal with Novus and one or two other things, that’s enough. It means more – less is more!

‘This is the first time we’ve had a reason­able shot at the whole thing, in other words, decent distribution and promotion behind us. It’s been going on for three years, the third record coming out this year. The records get around much more than ever before and it’s a feedback for us. Novus are a forward-looking label, doing a good job and it’s working out very well.

‘I’ve had more or less the same band for about 20 years now and it seems people are just beginning to get interested in it more. The records certainly help but it’s a gradual thing over the years as well.

‘You know somebody once offered me the chance to do Vivaldi with a rhythm sec­tion. A major company. I had to laugh. It just didn’t appeal to me. “Crossover.” Oh well! It’s always a fight with producers be­cause they always want you to do what they want to do. You have to meet somewhere in the middle, to bring out a record that you’re both happy with. It’s rare that a producer will give you an idea better than your own, but it does happen sometimes. “Cros­sover” is a word I don’t know the meaning of. What I’m interested in is magic and geniuses like Hendrix make magic – Stevie Wonder is a magician, Marvin Gave was a magician. People like that I’m in­terested in. I don’t care whether its pop, bop, schmock, clop, mop, it doesn’t mat­ter. The category is unimportant; when the quality becomes magical, that’s important. I don’t care what it is.

‘My friend Brian Godstone told me once that in Eastern Sufi music there’s a point where the dancers and the music come together and reach a point where there’s a perfume in the air. A divine perfume comes in the air and it’s a result of magic. The music gets so beyond and everything comes together with the people and it’s a magic carpet. Once in a while it happens for a musician but you can’t order or even try for it. You just forget about it, concen­trate on the music’s technical and emotio­nal problems. Occasionally magic is there. When the gods are smiling, they really are smiling.

‘I can do all kinds of things now that I never dreamed of or wanted to do back in the Taylor days. I think the basic sound was there from the beginning, certainly the quality and nature, but the quality is now more controlled. It’s more rich and in­teresting, tempered by experience. Every composition you go through involves a pro­cess of research, development and discov­ery. If you have a large collection of ex­periences, the playing itself becomes more informed. Even one or two notes mean more because of all the compositional ex­periences you’ve been through. Basically music is music – it’s just a different order. Music is a similar activity all over the world.

All my ideas for a larger ensemble came from Gil Evans. Also the Globe Unity experi­ence was very important but Gil was magic. A great friend, teacher and leader for me. Spiritually, musically and every which way. There’s nobody like that in the world. We all miss him. Miles misses him to.

‘I don’t play solo too often nowadays. Two solo concerts in a row is a lot for me. It’s an exceptional thing for me. If you want to maintain a group, you can’t do it because your sidemen will go away and get other work. Secondly it’s an unusual thing to play an evening alone like that. It can be done exceptionally well but it’s not the nor­mal order of things. You want a rhythm section, a drummer, a piano player or some kind of collaboration. I’ve done hun­dreds of solo dates over the years – nearly 20 years. You go crazy if you do too many, you get false, out of tune, out of phase and out of reality. In jazz, reality is the other musicians keeping you here on the planet, otherwise you get carried away. There’s only one solo performer I find interesting. An old man – a Japanese flautist called Watazumi Dozo, now named Roshi – he’s nearly 80, only plays alone and is amazing.

‘The sextet represents the basic minimal need for the type of thing we do but I like to add. Recently we worked with Glenn Ferris on trombone and I liked it better. If I had a trumpet or baritone, it could be built upon and would be even more ideal.

Sometimes I chop it down to a smaller unit. The sextet can be expanded but it’s not ideal. There is a question of economics. All my ideas for a larger ensemble came from Gil Evans. Also the Globe Unity experi­ence was very important but Gil was magic. A great friend, teacher and leader for me. Spiritually, musically and every which way. There’s nobody like that in the world. We all miss him. Miles misses him to.

‘The last thing I wanted was the situation in Italy now where about a hundred sop­rano players are on my case. Too many! Some of them are pretty good, they keep me practising. If they can hear what I do with the soprano now and start from there, they can go further than I did. But I ha­ven’t heard anybody like that. Basically those players are recreating. Evan Parker is a master, an original, a unique player and there’s nobody in the world like him. We’ve worked together a lot and I know he’s inspired me. It’s mutual. In Lol Coxhill’s case it’s recreation in the fun sense.

‘The soprano is like a horse that needs to be ridden. If you left a horse in the corral it would feel very strange and might come out and kick you. You wouldn’t be able to get on it again. The soprano is a very de­manding partner and you can’t put it down just like that. Not when you’ve reached a certain level. Also I’d lose my lip which has taken 40 years to build up. If I lay off for a couple of days it becomes dangerous physi­cally. You can’t do it. So you’re the master but a slave to it as well. Chained together!’