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Steve Lacy Trio - The Holy La

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Artist: Steve Lacy Trio

Album: The Holy La

Label: Sunnyside

Review date: Oct. 30, 2003

The Holy La is a welcome re-release of one of Lacy’s finest recent trio sessions, originally issued on Freelance several years ago. The esteemed soprano specialist’s discography is now so massive that it must be among the most daunting for newcomers. And having spent so much of the last four or five decades – can it be that long? – exploring similar repertoire in similar configurations, one might reasonably wonder what distinguishes one session from another.

Let me say at the outset that, in my opinion, another Lacy trio record is – despite the fact that it may appear superficially similar to any number of other recordings – always worth the time and patience far more than just about any other album. That’s because Lacy is always working on his music in the most concentrated, subtle of ways. Sure, he may have done “Shuffle Boil” any number of times with his trio-mates bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel (who also sounds great on his kalimba feature “Clichés”) and drummer John Betsch, but listen to how he almost imperceptibly alters his phrasing – the shades of gruffness he adds to his tone; the super-subtle counterpoint he evolves amid the gentle flow of the improvisation. Such moments, such details are what make Lacy music, and what confirm his status as a master.

From his solo performances to large ensembles, for every work in progress, there is a centering force to his dedication to both instrument and material; perhaps it is the “holy la” of this disc’s title, the A-Natural that musicians tune by. Regardless of the materials being integrated, the decades-long partnership and commitment shared by these musicians results in a never-ending musical flow that is almost without peer in the music today.

They navigate key changes, gnarled phrases, rhythmic shifts, and the tiniest inflections with almost unconscious facility. Old pieces like 1971’s “Flakes” or the early ’70s protest piece “The Wane” are charged with new energy. No matter how many times I’ve heard these tunes, these fellows always seem to be taking them someplace new (just listen to the wild swan-diving soprano on “Flakes”, for example). And for those who need just a slight change of pace, some new spice to the pot, look to “Inside My Head”, with lyrics by Robert Creeley and sung by Lacy’s partner Irene Aebi (as is “The Retreat”, with lyrics by Thomas Gainsbourg). Lacy, pure and simple, pure and complex; it doesn’t get much better.

By Jason Bivins

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