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Steve Lacy - The Beat Suite

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Artist: Steve Lacy

Album: The Beat Suite

Label: Sunnyside

Review date: Nov. 13, 2003

Having recently reviewed Lacy’s consummate trio disc The Holy La, the arrival of this fine disc spotlighting a different aspect of the Lacy oeuvre is a good opportunity to examine the master’s work from another angle. As long as he’s been playing, Lacy has been one of the most omnivorous of artists, conversant with visual, textual, and musical creations in roughly equal measure. And since at least the 1970s, Lacy has often set various texts to music, from the Black Mountain poets and Robert Creeley in Futurities to Brion Gysin in Songs, Lacy’s stripped-down brush-stroke music has always seemed wonderfully evocative in such settings. And though his partner here Irene Aebi’s voice strikes even many Lacy freaks as overly frosty – I dig her plenty, I must say – there’s no denying the powerful statements this merging of art forms often yields.

Long in the making, The Beat Suite is a marriage of Beat-era poetry with the unparalleled music of the Lacy quintet: Lacy, bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel, drummer John Betsch, vocalist Aebi, and the gloriously expressive trombonist George E. Lewis. This configuration of players has made some stellar music in the past, and Lewis is one of Lacy’s most sympathetic collaborators, sharing with the leader the unique ability to combine tonal/timbral experimentation with razor-sharp focus and directness. In these deceptively simply themes, Lacy perfectly matches the cadence of these poems – from leading practitioners like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Williams Burroughs, to lesser-known figures like Lew Welch, Jack Spicer, and Bob Kaufman. I’m not the hugest fan of this literature, but following along with the reproduced texts in the liners heightens my interest in this stuff. Plus, the chance to hear Lacy and Lewis cavort together again is enough to convince bith long-time Lacy fans and newcomers to his text-based work.

On performances like Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch”, the group ranges from elegant dances to rumbling menace; and on Corso’s “The Mad Yak” they plunge headlong into freeform abandon. It’s truly a group music, all voices blending as one even if the two horns and voices are obviously front and center (of course Avenel gets in some splendid arco flourishes here and there, and Betsch some tempestuous counterlines). And the mood of the poetry, filled as it is with twilight laments and wounded observations, is captured nicely. All in all, this music is filled with obvious joy and energy, but also with deeper, richer sentiments.

By Jason Bivins

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