Most jazz fans might assume that a Steve Lacy repertory band would feature a soprano saxophonist front and center. In the case of Brooklyn-based Ideal Bread, that assumption would be dead wrong.
Why no soprano? Because Lacy was just too good. “Sitting next to [Lacy] and hearing him play the saxophone was one of the great experiences of my life,” says baritone saxophonist and bandleader Josh Sinton, 38, who studied with Lacy at the New England Conservatory of Music. “It’s one of the reasons why I’m never going to play soprano saxophone. I heard him and right away I knew there was no way I could put in nearly enough time on soprano to even approach that. It was a really deep, incredible sound. Hearing him play made me feel like I did when I was a kid and heard saxophone for the first time.”
Sinton was only vaguely aware of Lacy’s work when their paths crossed, but the impact on the student musician was immediate and long lasting. Their formal studies lasted only a single year, with an additional year of informal study before Lacy’s death in 2004. Sinton also worked as Lacy’s copyist and “ran occasional errands, just trying to be around him when I could.” In retrospect, Sinton says, it was often through talking with his mentor rather than playing that he learned the most. “The conversations just kind of meandered,” Sinton remembers. “He didn’t talk a whole lot, and there’d often be long pauses before he’d say something, but I’d still sit there patiently waiting to hear what he had to say. It was really interesting to watch him sort through things in his head. He was such a consummate improviser that he didn’t question what would pop into his head; he’d just start talking and leave it up to me to connect it. I liked that he wouldn’t prescribe a method for me to put these things together. He left it up to me to go and do the research.”
That “research” continues in the form of Ideal Bread, which recently released its sophomore CD, Transmit: Vol. 2 of the Music of Steve Lacy (Cuneiform). The quartet, whose name comes from a Lacy quote, began shortly after Sinton moved to Brooklyn in 2004, when he would routinely tote Lacy’s compositions to jam sessions. Trumpeter Kirk Knuffke and bassist Reuben Radding “were the guys who kept returning my phone calls,” Sinton says, and the three worked together for six months before drummer Tomas Fujiwara completed the lineup.
Ideal Bread’s take on Lacy’s material was inspired in part by Sinton’s classroom experiences with the saxophonist, in which written compositions were sacrosanct but complete freedom was encouraged during improvisation. He also looked to Lacy’s own interpretations of the music of Thelonious Monk, in particular the School Days quartet featuring trombonist Roswell Rudd. “His approach with that group was very utilitarian,” Sinton explains. “I’m not sure how they talked about Monk’s music, but I do know they learned his tunes directly from the records. Steve and Roswell got together a lot and worked on the songs by playing them over and over again, just trying to get inside them. I was interested in that approach to repertoire, a way of thinking purely in music rather than using words.”
Lacy’s investigations into Monk are reflected on Transmit, in tunes like “Flakes” that seem almost belligerently simple, their acute angles hectoring a listener but also insisting on being heard and remembered. Sinton and company respond, as Lacy always did, by following these odd pathways wherever they might lead. No matter how much the instrumentalists may diverge from one another and into abstraction, they somehow remain tethered to the written music.
The idea of digging deep into jazz repertoire is one that fascinates Sinton, who feels that the focus on playing original music that came into vogue with the 1960s avant-garde and free-jazz movements has left a wealth of rich material by composers like Anthony Braxton, Julius Hemphill and Cecil Taylor unexplored. “I’ve always thought it strange,” muses Sinton, “that while people will present the music of Duke Ellington, people will say they’re going to play the music of Albert Ayler and then just do a bunch of loud screaming the entire time. Never mind how you’re going to deal with the concrete material given to you by a Cecil Taylor or a Bill Dixon, some of the more sonically abstract people, where it’s harder to parse out the formal structures that are being presented. I don’t think we’ve done a good job of investigating the music of the past 40 or 50 years.”
Despite Sinton’s obvious appreciation for repertory, he refuses to keep Lacy’s music behind glass; instead, he seizes hold of the pieces and steers them along a fiercely off-kilter trajectory. On Transmit, “The Dumps” is the most obvious example of the band’s irreverent approach, beginning with all four members bellowing the title before stumbling into the head.
In the end, Ideal Bread has enabled Sinton to explore the lingering questions he has about Lacy’s idiosyncratic compositions. “In the same way that Steve could be awfully strange,” he says, “some of these pieces of music still completely puzzle me. Many of them are almost obscenely repetitive. I don’t like repeating myself when I talk, so I’ve had to really learn to discipline myself and get creative to deal with that limitation. But as odd as it is, it’s also incredibly clear, grounded music. There’s very little fat in the pieces. He worked the classic head-solo-head paradigm the same way that Shakespeare worked a sonnet, so it was a very comfortable, clear container for his thoughts.”