The only question about these two Steve Lacy archival releases on Emanem is: how brilliant are they? Seriously. There are a very few artists in the history of improvised music as consistently engaging and creative as Lacy. With his soprano saxophone and a stable coterie of musical colleagues, Lacy explored aesthetics, politics, spirituality and more across diverse formats (many of which involved multiple media). And yet for all that variation, the guy’s batting average was through the roof.
The Sun collects three unreleased tracks (the title being a very important 1968 setting for Irene Aebi’s voice and a Buckminster Fuller text) with a series of long out-of-print goodies from Roaratorio (two takes of “The Way” and two free improvisations circa 1968, from Lacy’s little documented Rome period) and a valuable 1973 solo date on Quark (previously reissued on Emanem’s The Weal and the Woe). Both “The Sun” and “The Gap” feature Lacy accompanied by Enrico Rava’s trumpet and Karl Berger’s vibes, giving the session a distinctive feel (he seldom used that instrument). With drummer Aldo Romano and bassist Kent Carter along for the ride, it’s bustling, rambunctious, urgent stuff, and its energies are in some sense distinct in the Lacy canon. The two takes of “The Way” are relatively staid – the suite from which this piece is lifted was only just taking shape at the end of the 1960s – but the free improvisations from Rome also features fairly “out” keyboard contributions from longtime Lacy associate (and key figure in Musica Electronica Viva) Richard Teitelbaum. One is gnarly, the other spacious and squeaky. Most valuable of all may be “Chinese Food,” a gruff, pointed trio for Aebi (declaiming from Lao Tzu in the context of Vietnam), Lacy here at his most sonically extreme, squeaking in concert with a harsh Teitelbaum (sounding like early Thomas Lehn). And The Weal and the Woe suite has lost none of its power.
Avignon and After, Vol. 1 puts together a pair of Lacy solo concerts. The 1972 Avignon date has also been previously issued on Emanem (alongside The Wheel and the Woe from the date above) and features Lacy entering his querulous, edgy, avian 1970s phase that’s so marvelously inquisitive and surprising. He shifts quickly and almost imperceptibly from total grace one moment to intense grumble the next. On “The Breath,” he conjures an almost serrated sound, while on “Cloudy” he hovers in the highest, most haunting and spectral of airs. As usual, Lacy brings an intensity of focus to these brief pieces, which are utterly free of clutter and refreshingly absent that “notebook of technical ideas” mentality sometimes plaguing solo performance (although he displays some of his conceptual preoccupations while playing riffing on West Side Story’s “I Feel Pretty” on “Stations” – he would regularly revisit the idea of subjectivity through multiple voices). At times, there is something laconic, even lyrically chastened in the probing soprano, its very spare qualities seeming to tell stories about paring away, about the discarding of experience as a mode of openness to surprise. (Hear this as Lacy gallops from the melancholy “Bound” into the sprightly “The Rush.”) And the intense five solo tracks from Clangs (Berlin 1974) are rarer still (some of the group part of this concert having just been issued on the FMP box), an especially controlled, heated series of meditations, and on comparably underrepresented tunes to boot (“Tracks,” “Dome,” and “The New Moon” stand out). Here, Lacy brilliant incorporates metallic squawks into the overall linear flow, using them not just irruptions within the line. He would later synthesize his approaches still further, so it’s valuable to have these documents of his (mostly) early 1970s playing.
So, getting back to that opening question. Both The Sun and Avignon and After are pretty damn essential. I can’t imagine Lacy fans not gobbling both up, and they’d also make for fine starting points for the Lacy newcomer.