The Whammies – Play the Music of Steve Lacy – Driff CD1201, 46:31 ****:
(Jorrit Dijkstra – alto saxophone, Lyricon, co-producer; Pandelis Karayorgis – piano, co-producer; Jeb Bishop – trombone; Mary Oliver – violin, viola (tracks 2-3, 6-7); Nate McBride – bass; Han Bennink – drums)
Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy’s legacy is being well taken care of. There are at least three tribute ensembles re-inventing his music (saxophonist Josh Stinton’s Ideal Bread; the Canadian outfit The Rent, founded by trombonist Scott Thompson; and most recently, The Whammies, with their debut, Plays the Music of Steve Lacy, on the newly-formed Driff Records). Lacy passed away in June, 2004, but his very modern music (greatly influenced by Lacy’s avowed hero, Thelonious Monk) lives on and remains an adventurous listen. Plays the Music of Steve Lacy can be purchased on CD, downloaded online or can be streamed. This review refers to the compact disc.
The Whammies (a sextet named after a Lacy tune which frequently showed up on subsequent live Lacy releases) consists of alto saxophonist Jorrit Dijkstra, a former Lacy student (Dijkstra also utilizes the Lyricon in unique ways on select tracks); pianist Pandelis Karayorgis (who, like Dijkstra, calls Boston his current home); bassist Nate McBride and trombonist Jed Bishop (both are participants in Chicago’s vibrant jazz scene, particularly with Ken Vandermark); Dutch drummer Han Bennink (who performed with Lacy in the 1980s) and, on four numbers, guest violinist Mary Oliver (who also adds viola), who is one of Bennink’s bandmates in the Instant Composer’s Pool.
The Whammies collaboratively coalesce on material from Lacy’s experimental sides from the 1970s. The Whammies open with “Bone (to Lester Young),” which Lacy often redid in various guises, including as a solo rendition, and in different group lineups. The piece, which generously quotes from Monk, commences with Dijkstra and Bishop twittering at each other, with Bennink’s drums laying a rhythmic base, and then the full group sways into an amiable swing, which becomes increasingly deconstructed and within a couple of minutes, is steered into some outsider jazz, with imaginative and intuitive solos from the horns. While the nearly nine-minute “Bone” showcases Lacy’s evolving compositional style (at times asymmetrical and repetitive), “Bone” also hits a confident non-combative stride.
There are several nods to when Bennink was with Lacy. The knotty “Ducks (to Ben Webster)” is a notably warped work, where sax and trombone replicate the quacks and squawks evocative of the number’s aquatic fowl. This is aggressive music, stamped with Lacy’s free-jazz vocabulary and emblazoned with avant-garde movements. More appealing is an extended cruise through “Dutch Masters (to Spike Jones and the City Slickers),” which also inclines toward Lacy’s Monk-like stimulus. This is another lengthier cut, which affords plenty of room for all involved: Karayorgis is appreciably displayed, mixing rebellious rhythms and bristly piano runs reminiscent of Lacy’s longtime accompanist, Bobby Few, with some discerning, Monk-like moves. Bishop and Dijkstra also bring in some warm but edgy solos, deftly shifting from cordiality to extemporaneously conceptual. Another, apparently painterly-induced, selection is “As Usual (to Piet Mondrian),” which adroitly renovates what Lacy produced with his sextet. Oliver recreates the smeared violin of Lacy’s wife, Irene Aebi (but wisely eschews Aebi’s often acerbic vocals): Oliver’s auditory daubs are mirrored by Bishop’s similarly smudged trombone tone, thus providing the antithesis of Mondrian’s famous rigid geometric shapes and interlocking planes, although “As Usual” does have moments of pure abstraction, which does fit with Mondrian’s artistic philosophy. Oliver also joins in on one of Lacy’s signature tunes, the uncompromising, “The Wire (to Albert Ayler),” which seems modeled after Ayler’s definitive free jazz turmoil, with unfettered contributions from Bennink and Oliver, and some otherworldly effects via Dijkstra’s Lyricon, which has an extreme range of pitches and dynamics which cannot be produced on a traditional sax. Changing aspects occupy an important function on “I Feel a Draft (to Mal Waldron),” where Dijkstra’s vintage analog electronics also execute an integral role: Oliver also supplies some prominent violin which sometimes swerves toward a processed quality. The tune begins with a light demeanor, and then advances into a swirling slant where the Whammies reach a condensed crush of dissonances and multifaceted melodic elements: when “I Feel a Draft” sighs to a close, it is like the liberation of pent-up passion into a single, drawn-out breath.
The Whammies conclude with the only non-Lacy composition, Monk’s “Locomotive,” which is an affirmation to Lacy’s many Monk homages he performed or taped over his extensive career. This is the most straightforward piece. Dijkstra swings on alto sax with skill and an attenuation of notes. At one point, Karayorgis places “Locomotive” into a freedom-spilling objectivity, but keeps himself in check so “Locomotive” never veers too far off the rails. Play the Music of Steve Lacy is a vivid re-examination of some of Lacy’s creative output. Luckily, there are more Lacy ventures which are equally interesting. Earlier this year, the Clean Feed label reissued the rare Estilhaços, which documents a 1972 Portugal concert which was previously hard to find; and other labels have reprinted several Lacy projects over the past decade, which will no doubt continue, since there are ample stage and studio efforts which have not seen the light of day in a long time.
TrackList: Bone (to Lester Young); As Usual (to Piet Mondrian); The Wire (to Albert Ayler); Ducks (to Ben Webster); Dutch Masters (to Spike Jones and the City Slickers); I Feel a Draft (to Mal Waldron); The Whammies! (to Fats Navarro); Locomotive.
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