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Steve Lacy - Esteem

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Artist: Steve Lacy

Album: Esteem

Label: Unheard Music Series

Review date: May. 17, 2007

It warms my heart that, more than two years after the sad passing of the great Steve Lacy, the recordings are still coming. The soprano sax specialist was a documentarian exceeded by few. This release apparently marks the first in a Lacy Cassette Archive series, yet another reason to heap praises on Atavistic (and let’s hope this series is a vigorous one).

Of course the sound quality isn’t ideal, but given that it was recorded to tape over 30 years ago, it surpasses expectations in that area. This date – a gig at La Cours des Miracles in Paris, February 26, 1975 – was from a period when Lacy was gigging very regularly, patiently building his work and his group sound from the serious abstractions following his initial departure from the USA in the late 1960s. The group here is the first version of his great quintet: Lacy’s joined by Steve Potts on alto and soprano, Irene Aebi on cello and violin, Kent Carter on bass and Kenneth Tyler on percussion (he would soon be replaced by Oliver Johnson).

The music has a churning, bustling quality to it that’s comparatively rare for this vintage. The sound isn’t quite as organic, the players don’t hew as closely to the themes, the transitions and the group language not quite as refined. I don't mean to imply that I’m looking for music with no chances, but just that – at this point, and as a major Lacy freak – I have a certain set of expectations that I bring to each period of the man’s music. Perhaps, then, that’s why this is such a valuable document: it represents a group and a music in flux, in the process of becoming.

And there are wonderful moments all over this date. Potts in particular sounds fiery on the opening “The Crust” and on an especially ethereal version of “The Duck” – 20 minutes of rustling, clattering, sawing sound, with Lacy patiently honing small cells and phrases (only with gruffer edges and wispier directions, given the time period). Indeed, one of the joys is studying the variations between these performances of stock Lacy pieces with others in the canon. “Esteem” here is given a ringing, resounding, droning lyricism. The quirky, pinched version of “Flakes” stands out, with exuberant cello. And who can resist the sass of “The Uh Uh Uh”? This version is one of the best I’ve heard, as in its middle a wild polytonal funk emerges and the music begins to sound like the sawing strings of Albert Ayler’s late bands fused with Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time. There are also some lesser heard tunes as well, like the brief punch in the chops, “The Rush.”

All in all, another fabulous slice of vintage Lacy. Whether you’re a newcomer or a junkie for his stuff, this is a helluva disc.

By Jason Bivins

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