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Steve Lacy Two, Five and Six: Blinks

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For the past three decades, Steve Lacy has predominantly performed in three settings: his late, great quintet/sextet; duets, primarily with pianists; and solo concerts. These four albums not only provide a solid cross-section of the soprano saxophonist’s accomplishments in these areas, but also shed some light on how Lacy is constantly reshaping his own compositions, and those of Thelonious Monk.

1997 marks the 40th anniversary of Lacy’s first recording of a Monk composition-the then seldom-heard “Work,” which Lacy included on his Prestige debut, Soprano Sax. Lacy’s distillations of Monk can be elegant (“Ruby My Dear” with Misha Mengelberg, one of five pianists featured on Five Facings); muscular (“Who Knows,” which opens the set with Waldron and closes the Monk set on the Silkheart solo disc), or abstract (the solo “Evidence;” the version with Mengelberg has an inviting, loose-limbed swing). Regardless which of Monk’s many moods Lacy chooses to tap, the common denominators of Lacy’s interpretations are his fealty to the thematic material, his attentiveness to Monk’s use of well-spaced phrasing and silence, and the harmonic implications of Monk’s subtle polyphonic structures (as on the solo disc’s “Shuffle Boil”).

Lacy’s own compositions have proved to be as portable and mutable as Monk’s. On the 2-disc hat ART set, the jabbing “Wickets” is a set-up for a slow gritty blues that altoist Steve Potts, Lacy, and bassist Kent Carter take turns bringing to the boiling point; Waldron gives the piece a more formal, gentle bearing. The loping “The Crust” and the meditative “Blues For Aida” are slightly astringent on the solo disc, whereas Marilyn Crispell, on Five Facings, highlights the bouncing cadence of the former and the luster of the latter. Lacy’s pieces often take on a new beauty in the bare-bones solo setting, as is the case with the ethereal “Prayer” (originally scored as a song with text by Galway Kinnell), Lacy’s solo feature on Communique


In addition to the interchangeable repertoire, these discs also underscore Lacy’s ability to thoroughly air several facets of his work within each setting. Blinks, which documents an ’83 Zurich concert, is a testament to the enormous canvas that was his working band, as the album contains a probing duo with Potts, extended jams with and without pianist Bobby Few and vocalist Irene Aebi’s swingingest version of what is arguably Lacy’s best song, “Prospectus.” In duos with pianists, Lacy can run the gamut; with Waldron, Lacy can fan the embers of the Mingus ballad “Smooch” to a penetrating glow, and traverse uncharted terrain with an expansive improviser like Belgian Fred Van Hove. And, the entirety of Lacy’s art is to be found in compacted form in solo concerts like 5 X Monk 5 X Lacy.