LACY – Steve Lacy: Quartet, Quintet, Sextet, Octet – Steve Lacy, soprano sax; Misha Mengelberg, piano; Kent Carter, bass; Irène Aebi, vocals; Oliver Johnson, drums, et al. – Black Saint/Soul Note Records [Disc List follows] – 10-CD set

LACY – Steve Lacy: Quartet, Quintet, Sextet, Octet – Steve Lacy, soprano saxophone; Misha Mengelberg, piano; Kent Carter, bass; Irène Aebi, vocals; Oliver Johnson, drums, et al. Black Saint/Soul Note Records BXS 1033 [Disc List follows] – 10-CD set – About 8.5 hours (Distr. by Harmonia mundi) [11/11/14] ***½:

Steve Lacy (1934 –2004) was a soprano saxophone player with so much talent, he was as innovative as Sidney Bechet, as open to new forms as John Coltrane, and almost as populist as Jan Gabarek. Unlike these other soprano saxophonists, Lacy’s musical expanse knew no boundaries. His interests soared from traditional jazz to the avant-garde to contemporary classical music. He loved poetry and incorporated it sometimes in his work. I would have preferred to call him “the late great Steve Lacy,” but unfortunately, due to one bad musical choice, I’ll have to settle for “the late good.” More on this below.

Like all of the boxed CD reissues in this series, the cardboard sleeves are mini-album covers, front and back. If you’re lucky, they have program notes, but you may want to get out your magnifying glass. Note that this is volume two of Steve Lacy’s work with Black Saint and Soul Note Records; volume one contains his solos, duos, and trios.

His releases from the seventies tend to be more experimental, like Trickles (1976) and Troubles (1979), but that doesn’t mean they lack genuinely arresting openings, startling tandem passages, and meaty rhythmic concoctions, as in “Papa’s Midnite Hop” from Trickles.

Later he expanded his style and cut more “accessible” albums. Regeneration (1983) features the songs of Thelonious Monk (but not “Round Midnight”) and Herbie Nichols (but not “Lady Sings the Blues”). Lacy’s rendition of “Epistrophy” is short, but features fine ensemble playing and Mengleberg’s piano adds unique touches without trying to imitate Monk. The songs of Change of Seasons (1985) are all Herbie Nichols (still no “Lady Sings the Blues”) and are eminently likeable. The album features notable solos like George Lewis on trombone in “Spinning Song” and “Terpsichore.” This is a splendid album: tight, melodic, highly rhythmic, and expansive.

Dutch Masters (1987) is another dip into free jazz, but not 100%. There are experiments in atonality and dissonance that will leave you scratching your head and going back for another listen, as well as passages so well syncopated you can dance to them – “interpretively,” according to my wife.

These discs mentioned above are well worth your time. Before buying this set, you should know: it comes with a caveat. In my opinion it is diminished by Lacy’s inclusion of his wife Irène Aebi on five of the ten discs. Other reviewers have noted her voice is “an acquired taste.” I didn’t acquire it. The original songs on half of the discs are avant garde, but in a squeaky-gear kind of way. Like a budget digital camera, her voice veers in and out of focus, sometimes on key, sometimes off, and frequently with excessively wobbly vibrato. Not since Meredith Monk have I heard a voice with such high tiring speed. Other composers have successfully integrated their significant others into collaboration. Cathy Berberian and Luciano Berio, and Debbie Harry and Chris Stein come to mind. But on this set, be forewarned: Listen to Ms. Aebi first on Youtube to determine whether or not she’s your cup of expresso. [A familiar vocalist problem that ruins many otherwise great jazz releases…Ed.]

If she is, then by all means buy this set. Even the albums she sings on contain fine passages from a jazz musician who knew what and how to play, and (mostly) whom to play with.

DiscList:

Trickles

Revenue

Troubles

Regeneration

Change of Season

Dutch Masters

The Condor

The Cry

Vespers

—Peter Bates

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