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Chronology: Steve Lacy and the Influence of Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk

Mark Stryker listens to two of the soprano saxophonist's albums from the 1950s

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Steve Lacy in 1957 (Photo: Esmond Edwards © CTSIMAGES - all rights reserved)
Steve Lacy in 1957 (Photo: Esmond Edwards © CTSIMAGES – all rights reserved)

Steve Lacy was once a brilliant bebop player. Yet conventional wisdom says the opposite. Many have long argued that a key to the innovative soprano saxophonist’s stubborn originality over a 50-year career was precisely the fact that he never played bebop, the common-practice language of jazz since about 1950. 

The Lacy creation myth unfolds like this: Born in New York in 1934, he fell in love with the soprano sax as a teenager after hearing Sidney Bechet, cozied up to pre-bop elders like his teacher Cecil Scott, and made his first records in 1954 at age 20 in quasi-trad/swing bands. Shortly thereafter, iconoclastic pianist and composer Cecil Taylor plucked him out of revivalist waters and threw him into the avant-garde ocean. 

Lacy then discovered his lifelong guru, Thelonious Monk, whose idiosyncratic music shaped bebop harmony and structure but also created a sound world askew from bop conventions. With Monk as his avatar, Lacy was alone playing modern jazz on the soprano until Coltrane took it up. He forged a singular legacy from myriad strains of modernism until his death in 2004: free jazz, solo concerts, multimedia works, and small groups committed to his tart compositions, often rooted in texts ranging from Melville to Robert Creeley. 

Missing from this account is the profound role that bebop, particularly as embodied by Sonny Rollins, played in Lacy’s formative years. Proof is all over his first two recordings as a leader in 1957-58, Soprano Sax (Prestige) and Reflections (New Jazz). Rollins’ shadow looms as large over these records as Monk’s, and it’s their twin influences working in tandem for about three years that pushed Lacy into maturity. 

He moved swiftly. By late 1960, when he recorded The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy (Candid) at age 26, he was leaving bebop behind and pruning the rococo ornaments of Rollins’ style from his solos. But the concern for thematic improvising, melodic and rhythmic rhyme, drama, and humor—lessons Lacy absorbed from Rollins, who had earlier absorbed them from Monk—remained integral to his DNA. He also received an advanced degree in tone production by practicing occasionally with Rollins on the Williamsburg Bridge during the tenor saxophonist’s sabbatical.

“Back then Rollins was my idol,” Lacy told me in 1994. “He was No. 1. He was champion of the world. He was the strongest, the most interesting, the most swinging saxophonist in the world after Charlie Parker died and until Coltrane got to his full strength, and then they were evenly matched.”

Here’s Lacy in a 2002 interview with The Wire: “I didn’t skip over anything. I learned all of Charlie Parker’s tunes and Benny Golson’s tunes, Sonny Rollins’ tunes … I went through all that pure bop stuff. No, that’s a myth that I skipped over bebop.”

Lacy inaugurated his Rollins phase most definitively with four swinging choruses on Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love” from Soprano Sax in November 1957. You hear it in the loosey-goosey vibe created by his leisurely rhythmic displacements on the melody and behind-the-beat phrasing. Like Rollins, he keeps Porter’s theme in the foreground while improvising.

Rollins’ shadow looms as large as Monk’s over Lacy’s first two recordings as a leader, Soprano Sax and Reflections.

Witty curlicues embellish flowing eighth-note lines that thread the changes. That’s bebop Sonny side up! 

You don’t need to know a whit of theory to follow Lacy’s narrative, but the inverted major, minor, and augmented triads that often appear in bars 5 to 8 of each 16-bar half-chorus help organize the solo into a gestalt. Alas, bassist Buell Neidlinger and drummer Dennis Charles (Lacy’s bandmates in Taylor’s group) sound clunky, un-swinging. Pianist Wynton Kelly’s jaunty gait tries to rescue the groove, but he and Lacy deserve a more authoritative beat.  

Taped a full year later, Reflections is one of Lacy’s most rewarding recordings and a landmark: the first LP devoted solely to Monk’s music aside from those led by the composer. Four of the seven songs had not been recorded since Monk introduced them: “Four in One,” “Hornin’ In,” “Ask Me Now,” “Skippy.” 

While Reflections documents the peak of his Rollins infatuation, Lacy now has such a deep understanding of his idol’s conception that he personalizes it without sounding like a copy. Sidestepping licks, he carves fresh shapes derived from the formal structures and emotional moods of Monk’s compositions.

The band is almost perfect. Pianist Mal Waldron gets Monk innately. Drummer Elvin Jones’ rapturous polyrhythms lift the bandstand. Neidlinger remains overmatched, but Jones, strong as a bull, puts the bassist on his back and carries him. (Wilbur Ware was supposed to be on the date, but when he didn’t show for the rehearsal, Lacy called his former colleague.) 

Every area of Lacy’s playing has leapt forward since Soprano Saxophone: sound, technique, intonation, time, ideas, execution, articulation, individuality. His tone is broader, warmer, balancing a reedy expressiveness with the brassy punch of a trumpet. He’s also downright loquacious. Never again would he solo so volubly—a stark difference from the almost Webern-like distillation he favored by the late ’70s.  

Lacy attacks the daedal melody of “Four in One” like a lion tearing into prey and solos with uninhibited ardor. When he returns later for a second solo, he picks up the bassist’s hee-haw figure and chews on it humorously. Then he launches into a dazzling 10-bar snake that carries him well into the bridge. He grabs a quick breath and, like Houdini slipping out of a straitjacket, escapes the labyrinth with a furiously descending figure of oscillating intervals. Ingenious. 

There’s one more tip of the hat to Rollins in the third bar of the last A section. He hammers the quarter notes on beats 2 and 3: BAP! BAP! Sonny is the king of aggressive articulation, and Lacy’s startling homage is the sound of a gifted apprentice becoming a master.

Further Listening

Gil Evans: Gil Evans & Ten (Prestige, 1957)
Frisky and purposeful solos on “Ella Speed” and “Just One of Those Things” find Lacy starting to lean into Rollins.

Steve Lacy: The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy (Candid, 1961)
A masterpiece: No weak links in the pianoless quartet (Charles Davis, John Ore, Roy Haynes), a stimulating program (Bird, Monk, Cecil Taylor), and Lacy playing past his influences.

Steve Lacy: Evidence (New Jazz, 1962)
A buoyant quartet (Don Cherry, Carl Brown, Billy Higgins) tackles Monk, Ellington, and Strayhorn. The added weight and range of Lacy’s sound surely reflect his sessions on the bridge with Rollins.

 

Mark Stryker

Mark Stryker is the author of Jazz from Detroit (University of Michigan Press), named Jazz Book of the Year in the 2019 JazzTimes Critics’ Poll. Inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame in 2020, Stryker covered jazz, classical music, and visual arts for the Detroit Free Press from 1995 to 2016. He also grew up working as a jazz alto saxophonist.