b. Steven Norman Lackritz, 23 July 1934, New York City, New York, USA, d. 4 June 2004, Boston, Massachusetts, USA. Few modern jazzmen have chosen the soprano saxophone as their main instrument; Steve Lacy was probably unique in choosing it as his only one. Reputed to be the player who inspired John Coltrane to take up the soprano (after which, thousands followed!), Lacy was ultimately responsible for the renaissance and popularity of the straight horn. He may also be unique for a career that took him through virtually every genre of jazz, from dixieland to bebop, free-form and total improvisation.
As a child Lacy started piano lessons, then changed to clarinet and finally soprano saxophone. Inspired initially by Sidney Bechet, he began his career playing dixieland (two 1954 sessions led by trumpeter Dick Sutton were reissued under Lacy’s name as The Complete Jaguar Sessions in 1986). Then, in an extraordinary switch, he spent the mid-50s working with avant garde pioneer Cecil Taylor (In Transition) and by the end of the decade had also played with Gil Evans (Pacific Standard Time), Jimmy Giuffre and Sonny Rollins. His own 1957 debut, Soprano Saxophone, featured Wynton Kelly and the follow-up, Reflections: Steve Lacy Plays The Music Of Thelonious Monk, marked the beginning of a long, and continuing association with Mal Waldron. Both albums also included several tracks by Thelonious Monk, by whose music Lacy had become increasingly beguiled. In 1960, he persuaded Monk to hire him as a sideman for 16 weeks, and between 1961 and 1965 he and Roswell Rudd co-led a group that played only Monk tunes - ‘to find out why they were so beautiful’. (This fascination remained with Lacy throughout his career -School Days, Epistrophy, Eronel, Only Monk and More Monk were all devoted to further exploring, in group and solo context, the great man’s compositions.)
In 1965, Lacy moved to Europe, where he worked with Carla Bley in the Jazz Realities project and co-led a group with Enrico Rava, with whom he also toured South America in 1966. In this period, influenced in part by earlier collaborations with Don Cherry, Lacy was playing mostly free jazz (Sortie and The Forest And The Zoo). The focus of his attention would later shift back towards jazz compositions, especially after the mid-60s when he completed his first major piece, ‘The Way’, a suite based on text from the ancient Chinese Tao Te Ching. Lacy maintained an occasional involvement with total improvisation, most notably on records with Derek Bailey (Company 4) and Evan Parker (Chirps). In 1966, he revisited New York and played in a quintet with Karl Berger and Paul Motian but, finding work scarce, he returned to Europe in 1967, settling in Rome with his Swiss wife, Irene Aebi, who sang and played cello and violin on many of his albums. Three years later, he relocated to Paris, which became his home base until a move to Berlin in 1997. His return to America in 2002 to teach at the New England Conservatory of Music was greeted with much joy by the American jazz fraternity. Sadly, Lacy succumbed to liver cancer barely two years later.
Leading his own group (usually a sextet), Lacy built up one of the most impressive and diverse recording catalogues in jazz, hitting a peak in the 80s with a series of albums - Prospectus, Furturities, The Gleam and Momentum - which showed the group honing to perfection the intricate dialogues and seamless blends of invention and discipline so typical of their music. Important group members over the years included Steve Potts (saxophone), Kent Carter and Jean-Jacques Avenal (both bass), Bobby Few (piano), Oliver Johnson (d. 6 March 2002, Paris, France; drums), guest George Lewis (trombone) and - perhaps most crucially - Aebi, for whose severe, lieder-style vocals Lacy created what is virtually a new concept of jazz songwriting. Lacy often set texts by modern writers - Sons was a collaboration with Brion Gysin, Futurities a series of poems by Robert Creely - but Tips was more unusual still, with Lacy shaping his tunes around extracts from the notebooks of painter Georges Braque. Outside of his regular group (one of the most adventurous in jazz), Lacy’s projects included duos with Potts, Ran Blake, Waldron and Evans; plus tributes to Monk and Herbie Nichols (Regenerations, Change Of Season and The ICP Orchestra Performs Nichols - Monk) in the company of Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink, who also collaborated on the Dutch Masters recording.
Lacy was also one of modern jazz’s outstanding practitioners of solo saxophone music. Inspired by hearing the solo work of Anthony Braxton, he began to develop his own soprano saxophone repertoire in the early 70s and later developed this over a succession of solo concerts and recordings, the latter including such notable examples of the genre as Hocus Pocus, The Kiss and Remains. Incredibly prolific, Lacy released over 100 albums under his own name and probably appeared on as many again as a sideman: paradoxically, 1991’s Itinerary was his first-ever release as leader of a big band.
A brilliant composer and improviser, Lacy will be remembered as one of the most significant jazz figures of the era, his music sure to stand as an enduring treasure. He was, as well, simply an enchanting player. To quote Graham Lock’s 1983 comment: ‘There are few sounds as distinctive or as lovely as Lacy’s soprano, with its comet-trails of bare bones lyricism.’