When soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy first heard the music of Thelonious Monk on record in 1953, the 19-year-old reedman was immediately taken by the music’s swing, humor, craftsmanship and elements of surprise. Then in 1955, he heard Mr. Monk in a performance at a small Manhattan jazz club and was astonished. “I flipped,” he recalled. “It was so wonderful; the music was sublime and very droll.”
At that time, Mr. Monk was still regarded by all but a few jazz visionaries as an eccentric pianist who composed awkward and idiosyncratic tunes. During the next decade the jazz world came around and embraced Mr. Monk as one of its most innovative composers and performers, and now his compositions rank him alongside Duke Ellington in the jazz pantheon. His music is a cornerstone of any jazz education. Meanwhile, Mr. Lacy has established himself as one of jazz’s greatest saxophonists, and he is the premier interpreter of the Monk repertoire. His second recording in 1958, “Reflections: Steve Lacy Plays the Music of Thelonious Monk” (New Jazz/Original Jazz Classics), was devoted entirely to Mr. Monk’s music and he has led several important ensembles devoted entirely or substantially to that catalog. This Tuesday night, he will present a new group, Monksieland.
Iridium, midtown Manhattan
March 16-March 21
The band is a quintet, and it features the renowned young trumpeter Dave Douglas and three longtime associates of Mr. Lacy, trombonist Roswell Rudd, bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel and drummer John Betsch. For Mr. Lacy, now 69, the group harkens back to a quartet he and Mr. Rudd led in the early ’60s that was devoted entirely to Mr. Monk’s music. “At first the music can be very intimidating and you have to be very formal with it,” said Mr. Lacy. But he added “after you know it very well, you start to find a freedom on the other side.” That freedom reminded Mr. Lacy of the Dixieland bands that he grew up on, hence the “ie” in the name of the new band.
He said that idea grew in part of his work on the faculty at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. “My students are very interested in Thelonious’s music,” he said. “But we’re playing it like Dixieland and they are not so used to that.” Mr. Lacy said that his students were more accustomed to free jazz ensembles where everyone plays at the same time. “I’m trying to get it back to a more traditional, complementary form like the old jazz where the songs were treated in a very loose manner; that’s still the spirit of jazz that I love.”
Mr. Lacy’s career has traveled a circuitous path. His instrument was primarily a staple of older jazz styles such as swing and Dixieland when Mr. Lacy emerged and established a role for it in both the post bebop of the ’50s and the free jazz movements of the ’60s. In contrast to the long, keening, ecstatic lines that highlighted the work of Sidney Bechet, a master of swing, Mr. Lacy’s style was terse and pithy. His solo style is very precise, full of staccato figures that often release into long but controlled lines. Mr. Lacy’s interpretations of Mr. Monk’s music inspired John Coltrane to take up the soprano, and he used the straight horn on his rendition of “My Favorite Things,” one of his best-known performances. The Lacy-Rudd quartet never entered the studio, though “School Days” (HATology) documents a 1963 concert by this splendid group.
In 1962, Mr. Monk hired the saxophonist for a six-month stint in his band. “It was like a crash graduate course from the master,” said Mr. Lacy of his tenure. “It was a little over my head, but I think that Monk realized I was so into his music that I needed a session like that.”
In the late ’60s, with employment opportunities in America on the decline, Mr. Lacy relocated to Paris, where he lived for nearly three decades. While there, he fell in with the European free improvisation scene, and he recorded frequently with members of that circle. In addition, he and his wife, violinist-vocalist Irene Aebi established a pioneering group that created a repertoire for the jazz art song. It was also during this stage of his life that he began a long, fruitful association with pianist Mal Waldron, another Monk aficionado, with whom he often performed in duet and quartet settings through the ’80s and ’90s.
After a brief stint in Berlin, Mr. Lacy returned to U.S. in 2001 and took a teaching position at the New England Conservatory of Music. Since returning to the States, he has been especially active, performing in duets with pianist Danilo Perez, and leading a group called Beat Suite, a quintet devoted to putting the words of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs to music. In addition, he’s been especially impressed with what he calls the Brooklyn school, musicians such as Douglas and pianist Uri Caine. He feels he’s returned to a vibrant jazz scene.
“It’s highly eclectic,” he said. “There are all kinds of styles going on. It may still occupy a small percentage of sales, but the number of people involved is huge. There is such a vast array of possibilities.”
Mr. Johnson last wrote on Luther Vandross.