Steve Lacy

One of the most important soprano saxophonists of all time, Steve Lacy (1934-2004) was a major force in reviving the instrument in modern jazz. His career found him exploring nearly every jazz style.

Early on, Lacy played Dixieland and swing with Max Kaminsky, Jimmy McPartland, Rex Stewart, Henry “Red” Allen, and other veterans, doubling on clarinet. In 1955 he made a giant leap forward stylistically, exploring early free jazz with pianist Cecil Taylor for two years and dropping the clarinet to concentrate exclusively on soprano at a time when hardly any musician other than Sidney Bechet was playing the horn. Lacy also worked with Gil Evans on and off starting in 1957.

Soprano Saxophone from that year is neither Dixieland nor free jazz but a quartet set with pianist Wynton Kelly that features Lacy playing swing and bop including “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” “Easy to Love” and Thelonious Monk’s “Work.” His next album, Reflections, was Lacy’s first of many full-length explorations of Monk’s music. Few other musicians were playing any but the most famous of Monk songs but Lacy, pianist Mal Waldron, bassist Buell Neidlinger, and drummer Elvin Jones dig into such material as “Four in One,” “Skippy” and “Hornin’ In.”

Lacy had the opportunity to join Thelonious Monk’s quintet for four months in 1960 (unfortunately no recordings resulted) and it led him to form a pianoless quartet with trombonist Roswell Rudd whose repertoire was comprised entirely of Monk compositions. In 1961 Lacy recorded Evidence, a quartet outing with trumpeter Don Cherry that consists of songs by Monk (including “San Francisco Holiday”) and Duke Ellington (most notably “The Mystery Song”).

Steve Lacy continued to evolve throughout his career, playing with trumpeter Enrico Rava in a free quartet in South America, moving to Europe in 1967, freelancing in avant-garde settings, and in 1977 forming a sextet with alto and soprano saxophonist Steve Potts. Lacy’s relaxed scalar approach became influential and, up until the end of his very productive life, he explored complex yet melodic originals, art songs, and the music of Thelonious Monk.