The Whammies
Play The Music Of Steve Lacy Vol. 2

(Driff Records)

I was quite surprised when I found that a recently-released CD by an ensemble called The Whammies (I had a look at the line-up, saw that the names of those involved looked promising - just to anticipate my conclusion, I'll say the album is quite good) titled Play The Music Of Steve Lacy Vol. 2 (hence, I reasoned, there must be a Vol. 1, somewhere) was waiting for me in my mailbox. The list of the featured compositions printed on the CD cover showed me titles I was familiar with - Lumps, Threads, the Thelonious Monk-penned Shuffle Boil - side-by-side with stuff I didn't remember at all. Which is not terribly strange when it comes to Lacy: in fact, while the quantity of Lacy albums in my possession could be regarded as being "respectable", when compared to the hundreds of albums he released in his lifetime it appears to be on the "miniscule" side (I seem to remember that, being asked about the generous quantity of albums he released, Lacy replied that he hoped that his albums could at least be found in the shops of those nations in which they were released!).

But the composition whose title immediately ringed a bell for me was Art, 'cause I clearly remember the version I'm familiar with and the circumstances of my first listening to it. The album on which Art appeared is called Momentum (1987), the fine Lacy debut on U.S. Major RCA/Novus after decades when he recorded albums for tiny or medium-sized European labels. This version features - and highlights - the fine vocal performance of Irene Aebi, this version on first listening reminding me of European "rock" collective News From Babel, which featured the voices of Dagmar Krause and Robert Wyatt. The LP dust jacket featured an essay by the late, great Robert Palmer where the U.S. critic had to deal with the unenviable task of telling the U.S. audience who this Steve Lacy was (which in a way was not too difficult) and why they had never heard of him: Lacy "is Paris-based" (...) "and has been heard only rarely in the U.S., where jazz reputations are still media-made".

Which was something a bit funny to read for somebody living in Continental Europe, where for a couple of decades Lacy had been one of the musicians whose concerts one could easily attend, in a variety of styles, line-ups, and locations. And while I have beautiful memories of concerts he played in solo, and by his quartet, and his sextet, I have to confess I have a soft spot for the line-up (appearing on Dutch Masters, recorded in 1987, but released four years later) which performed on tour the Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk repertory: Lacy on soprano, Misha Mengelberg on piano, George Lewis on trombone, Ernst Re˙seger on cello, Han Bennink on drums.

I think the Lacy story - the one that's "told", of course, not the one that's "performed" - is splendidly represented by the exhaustive book of interviews edited by Jason Weiss and published in 2006 by Duke University Press under the title Steve Lacy: Conversations. A great volume which I didn't review, due to the fact of having ignored its existence for a full year after its original publication. Reading the book again now made me remember the fact that Lacy died in 2004: hence, 2014 will be the tenth anniversary of his disappearance. Which, I realize now, could at least partially explain the noise of engines that I've been hearing in the background in the course of the last year or so.

Here everyone will have to decide on their own whether Lacy's music really needs to be re-interpreted, and what those versions add/subtract to/from the originals, which for the most part remain available - and quite difficult for a mass audience. The contract with RCA/Novus expired in '92, after five albums, with not much commercial success. Europe becoming increasingly drier, in 2002 Lacy accepted a post at The New England Conservatory in Boston. His compositions were covered, back in the day, through prisms I'd define as being of the Braxton-Mitchell kind by ROVA Saxophone Quartet on the album titled Favorite Street: ROVA Plays Lacy (1984). It's funny to notice that Lacy, one of the first players to be perceptive enough to highlight Monk's stature as a composer, also championed his compositions after Monk was featured on the cover of Time magazine, while Lacy himself had a very low profile. But at the time the point was not making Monk more famous than he already was, but rescuing his composition from the sad fate of becoming nothing more than simplified, banal heads to Be-Bop jam-sessions.

I have to confess I was quite embarrassed when I noticed that those of The Whammies (the name derives from a Lacy composition, by the way) I am less familiar with are the two leaders, who also run "artist-run" label Driff Records: alto player Jorrit Dijkstra, who studied with Lacy at the time when he taught in Boston; and pianist Pandelis Karayorgis. My prodigious memory reminded me of Karayorgis with Mat Maneri on some CD by Leo from the mid-90s, of which - alas! - I don't seem to remember a single note. The same is true when it comes to Dijkstra, whom I only remember from a CD by Tone Dialing, which I reviewed here in favourable terms. I had a look on the Web, saw those about-fifty have recorded a lot of stuff.

Maybe I'm just lazy, by I still associate the names of double bassist Nate McBride and trombone player Jed Bishop with the work of Ken Vandermark. Completing the line-up, Han Bennink on drums, and, on violin and viola, Mary Oliver, known for her being part of the Instant Composers' Pool Orchestra. There's a certain "Dutch" air which is not too difficult to get here (Dijkstra is Dutch, too), at least when it comes to the timbral palette - Mengelberg's leadership would produce quite diverse results. One has to notice the skillful use of the lyricon, an old wind instrument that's interfaced to an analogue synthesizer, with fine results. The only criticism I have is that, particularly on certain tracks (Skirts, Lumps, and Threads), the whole sounds too congested in the low-medium frequency range when the whole ensemble is performing, so making the threads of the music a bit difficult to perceive.

Let's have a quick look:

Skirts. It opens with a clear phrase, jumping from alto, to violin, to piano. Cut, enter the ensemble, quite "swinging". The B section has the viola, with ensemble permutations. Han Bennink! There's a solo for alto, which reminded me of Steve Potts, an excellent 4/4 on the double bass, drums, violin. (As also in other parts of the album, after 3' I seemed to detect an alto overdub.) Fine violin solo, with backing by piano, drums, double bass. Then it's back to the "swinging" theme.

Pregnant Virgin. Here the piano starts the piece, with cymbals, and snare played brushes. Theme for piano, trombone with plunger, the lyricon emits a "space" high sound. Trombone solo, backed by an almost-Theremin, great work by Bennink. There's a piano solo that sounds quite angular-percussive, which reminded me a bit of Mal Waldron.

Lumps. A minimal arpeggio. Development for ensemble. I found the whole here sounding a bit cacophonous. Tutti! With more than a hint of I.C.P.

Art (a Madrigal?) is the European-sounding composition I talked about above. Piano and alto playing unison. Slow solos. I heard the sax on both channels, producing beatings.

Somebody Special. Theme, tutti, here the viola is the soloist, brushes. Tutti, explosive cymbals (echoes of Ellington's Caravan?). A trombone solo that reminded me of Roswell Rudd, with fine backing by double bass and percussion.

The Oil. An angular theme (two altos?), with sax and violin playing unison; it gets developed by the ensemble, I found it a bit too "obsessive"-sounding (though I get that's in the spirit of the composition).

Feline has a crystal-clear opening from the piano, the lyricon appearing to enunciate the theme in parallel, the synth playing overtones. The violin appears, adding an ambiguous timbral shading that's quite appropriate. The lyricon sounds like a clarinet, a fine idea. A minimal arpeggio from the right hand. Bravo!

Saxovision features two overdubbed altos. The theme sounds definitely Lacy-like, with echoes of those duos Lacy and Potts used to play. This piece makes very skillful use of both ends of the range of the instrument (with a touch of Braxton here and there?). Fine close, theme.

Threads has a very fine start with the whole ensemble, with violin and lyricon placed "below" the piano solo. There's a trombone solo, here more in the style of George Lewis. The theme features the lyricon.

Hanky-Panky. Cha cha cha! A "minimal" theme (remember Thelonious?). Trombone in the foreground, then it's time for a light orchestra. Trombone and alto going parallel (Roswell Rudd + Steve Lacy). There's a fine double bass solo, pizzicato on chords, fine snare drum. Swinging theme, close.

Wickets gives a percussive dimension to the theme, with great use of pedals. Non too distant from early Cecil Taylor.

Shuffle Boil. It's Monk time! Intro by double bass, cymbal, the theme is performed by the double bass. Enter the ensemble, with Bennink full force. Trombone, the bass in 4/4, walking, it's time for the alto to appear, in its high range, a bit ŕ la Lacy soprano, and a fine piano solo, halfway between Monk and Mal Waldron. Theme. Han Bennink on fireworks!

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2013 | Aug. 19, 2013