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Steve Lacy Trio: The Holy la

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I’m pretty sure Steve Lacy has never made a bad album, and even if he did occasionally make a clinker it would certainly be obliterated by the many excellent records he puts out (with more frequency than the average saxophonist wets a reed). Lacy’s work is so consistent, there’s little point in classifying his recordings as good, better, best. It makes more sense to separate his work by context: solos; duos with close associates like saxophonist Steve Potts and vocalist Irene Aebi; quintets with Potts and rhythm; sextets with Potts, Aebi and rhythm; and large-scale works with his core group and guest stars.

Perhaps the most pleasing configuration to hard-core Lacy fans is the one represented here-his trio with bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel and drummer John Betsch. The stripped-down nature of this group allows one to hear Lacy at his purest and most expansive. The repertoire consists of familiar Lacy originals like “Flakes,” “Cliches” and “Inside My Head” (where the trio is joined by Aebi), as well as the requisite Monk piece. The placing of Monk’s riff-ish “Shuffle Boil” next to Lacy originals like “The Holy La” and “Flakes” throws into relief Lacy’s debt to the pianist. Lacy’s taken Monk’s tendency toward motivic reiteration and built his own distinctive concept around it-similar to, yet different from his model.

Lacy’s playing here is as lyrical and self-controlled as ever. The group dynamic is one of the more extraordinary in jazz; to my ears, John-Jacques Avenel’s presence on a Lacy recording is a near necessity. Avenel’s sound and technique are in many ways as important in defining Lacy’s group conception as the saxophonist himself. Betsch is typically fine, and the recording quality is good, if a bit too shiny. This album stands up to the rest of the Lacy discography, which to say it’s some of the best music to be heard anywhere.