Today marks the second anniversary of the death of Steve Lacy, pioneer of the soprano saxophone, composer and teacher. As time passes, days like this become less overtly significant, but for me no more pleasant. Since his death Steve's music certainly continues- I've been to half a dozen gigs in the past year where Steve's music was featured without making a big deal of it, notably by Jeremy Udden and Monikah (for my money the best interpreter of Steve's songs who wasn't married to him). Dave Douglas likewise has incorporated some of Steve's work into his bands' book, and his "Blues for Lacy" on the new Meaning and Mystery is the best tune on the record. Hopefully, Steve's music one day will occupy a similar place in the "canon" (uggh, that word) that Monk's does.
One of the main attractions of attending New England Conservatory (well, one that wasn't named Brookmeyer) was the chance to study with Steve. I was not exactly a huge fan, but I knew that when it came to the soprano, he was THE guy. (From no less than Wayne Shorter- "Anyone who plays soprano orientates himself on Steve Lacy".) Ditto for the art of solo saxophone playing, along perhaps with Braxton and Evan Parker. The difference with Steve's solo playing was, Steve never abandoned song form, making records of solo performance of Monk or his own music rather than of improvisations.
Steve was a very particular guy. He did things a certain way, played a certain way, and wanted music the way he wanted it. Unlike a lot of particular people, however, he wasn't the least bit imposing or egotistical about it. If he didn't like something, he'd just shake his head and say "no, man, that part just isn't it! Doesn't go where it needs to go." (I remember his specifically saying that about the bridge to "The Nearness of You." Like the tune, just not the bridge) And that by itself was enough to make you want to fix it. In talking with Ryshpan, he said something similar. He was watching Steve rehearse a student group paying free improvised music. Every time Steve played, the music was very focused. When he stopped, it fell into chaos. Steve didn't have a center of musical gravity, he WAS the center of gravity.
Studying with Steve was a great joy, though it wasn't exactly studying in the traditional sense. After the first lesson, where he went over some very simple ways he "tamed" the soprano (which, coincidentally, still form the first chunk of any practice session for me), he said, "well, what do you want to do?" And that's how every lesson went. It wasn't that Steve was shy or selfish, he wanted you to fish out of him what you needed. So, I learned to come with a laundry list of questions, or tunes, and we'd go from there. Vivid memories- he said Monk had taken off the top of his piano, and put mirrors on the ceiling of his practice space, so he could look up and see what was happening as he played. He talked about playing a gig with Roscoe Mitchell where they played while walking around some kind of maze, doing certain things at certain locations. I still have tapes of some of the lessons, and I have to go back through them.
Steve died well before it was time. When I worked with him he was very active and only becoming more so, using NEC as a springboard for a lot of new work, and overdue recognition of some of his old work. His diagnosis of cancer the summer after I studied with him was a shock to everyone, and in the months before his death he'd seemed to have made a remarkable recovery, and was playing and writing as much and as strong as ever, which made his rapid decline and death that much more painful. Irene Aebi, his wife (and THE interpreter of his songs) says that he's still here, his music is still vital and his spirit is still strong. And I know what she means. But I for one, wish he were here, and miss him, especially today. There's so much more to say, but for now, onward, Steve.