Review Summary: Lacy and Davis' dual improvisations are moored less in affective outbursts and more in wry acknowledgements of the melodic theme, situated somewhere between the avant-garde and the traditional, heeding to the dictates of neither.
Jazz, more than any other genre of popular American music, is often taken by seasoned theorists and casual listeners alike to be inherently metaphorical. Native to the intricate interplay of individual and group in the improvisatory environment of this music, so the logic goes, is a formalized conception of democracy, teamwork, perhaps the entire practice of living with other people. The impulse to metaphorize jazz is easy to understand. Given the genre's uniquely absorptive relationship to Western European and
African performance structures, its volatile big-band-to-bop-to-free-jazz history, and its fundamental balance of group-generated sonics with individual bravado, cultural critics of all stripes have practically been handed a social analogy on a silver platter.
This impulse, however, is faced with a two-pronged dilemma. The first regards the autonomy of art, the battleground on which New Critics like I. A. Richards and Cleanth Brooks did contend. A social metaphor, especially when the thing being metaphorized is a formal object like a jazz song or album, serves in some sense to deprecate the autonomous function of that thing--a metaphor points our attention "somewhere else". Does the pleasure we as listeners receive from jazz substantively relate to its supposed function as a mirror of our society, or does music play by its own set of rules? The second problem comes from the opposite direction: if we take jazz to be a metaphor for (American?) democracy, does this equation help to neutralize the resistive force that jazz improvisation held and continues to hold for the oppressed class of black musicians who collectively ushered in the various performance and composition motifs that make up the highly varied sonic landscape of that genre? Racism and in particular anti-black thought underwrote the conceptual framework of American politics from its inception, and jazz music has posed a challenge to that framework, that thought--aesthetic and political in equal measure, jazz was and perhaps continues to be the material from which black musicians could fashion an image of freedom.
Where does an album like Steve Lacy's The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy
come into this counterargument to jazz as metaphor? Regarding the second of my two objections, readers will immediately notice from the austere cover art that Lacy, the soprano saxophonist who leads these sessions, recorded in September of 1960 and released the next year, is white. It's easy to wonder if the historical schema I established in the previous paragraph--jazz, historically speaking, as a specifically black
art form, the telltale sonic attributes of which were assembled in response to centuries of oppression--allows Lacy to have only a distended or purely abstract, perhaps even voyeuristic, relationship to the music he so loves. If we go back to the first
objection, the one about aesthetic autonomy, race seems not to be an issue: music is entirely self-sufficient, and how it sounds is what matters. The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy
sounds very good to my ears. This stuff is complicated.
Let's think about Ornette Coleman for a second. In 1959, two years after Sonny Rollins' piano-less cowboy fantasy Way Out West
and his similarly constituted dates at the Village Vanguard from the same year, Coleman released Tomorrow Is the Question!
in a quartet format, also sans piano. The removal of an instrument that could play chords sent a shockwave throughout the diffuse assemblage of listeners and players we might call "the jazz community". Unlike his and others' later forays into free jazz, Tomorrow Is the Question!
and its more well-known follow-up The Shape of Jazz to Come
did not do away with traditional harmonic structure, but they did require the improvisers to cover more melodic ground and freed them up to explore the conceptual limits of the "heads," or choruses, over which they soloed. Jazz without piano is hard to get into--it sounds raw, often unpolished, sometimes alien. Yet Coleman consistently anchored his melodic and improvisation material in the most fundamental human emotions, guided along by his timbre, which sounded more like a human voice than anyone else in the jazz game at the time. Fear, yearning, loneliness--as Mark Rothko later claimed to do in painting his abstract expressionist "glowing fog banks of color" (Alex Ross), Coleman created music that was wholly expressive of internal turmoil and ecstasy. This was music that came from the gut.
The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy
, like Tomorrow Is the Question!
and The Shape of Jazz to Come
, lacks a piano: it's just Lacy on his soprano sax, Charles Davis on the baritone, the little-known John Ore on bass and the well-known and still-living (94!) Roy Haynes on drums. If pianolessness serves, as I argued, to generate improvisational material that is less anchored in traditional harmony and more subject to the melodic whims of the improviser, Lacy and his crew turned up this dynamic to its breaking point. Lacy's strategy for doing so is multifaceted. First, he chooses only the twistiest of jazz choruses: two by Cecil Taylor (a badass choice in 1961, I must say), three by resident jazz genius and king of the twisty chorus Thelonious Monk, and Charlie-Parker-or-was-it-Miles-Davis' utterly impossible "Donna Lee". Second, Lacy and Davis' dual improvisations are not emotive in the manner of Coleman; they are moored less in affective outbursts and more in wry acknowledgements of the melodic theme, situated somewhere between the avant-garde and the traditional, heeding to the dictates of neither. This "neither-ness" extends to the performing forces themselves: whether it be the solid, un-explosive drumming and bass-strolling of Haynes and Ore (one only imagines what would have went down with, say, Elvin Jones behind the kit or Mingus on the bass) or the lopsided juxtaposition of soprano and baritone, Lacy appears to desire the suppression of exposing internal states, pointing up instead something more intellectual, something cryptic and hidden.
We return to race, then: elaborate enough on the supposedly "intellectual" qualities of a white improviser like Lacy and you start sounding like the hordes of so-called basketball analysts who burst with breathless praise for the putatively high "basketball IQ" of white players like Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic and then turn around to condescendingly remark on the "aggressive physicality" of black players like Marcus Smart and DeMarcus Cousins. The reflexive association of black jazz musicians with unbridled emotion and of white jazz musicians with its knowing opposite does a disservice to both, albeit moreso to the black musicians, who have historically strained against the vast collateral damage inflicted by their prima facie
linkage with unthinking passion and rage. I hear what I hear, but my hearing as a white music critic is conditioned by legacies of oppression and stereotyping that I can't pretend to step outside of, that I will never perceive or comprehend in their totality.
The key to unlearning racism is to continue to hear what you hear and see what you see, but to complicate at every step the precepts of the racist thought that got you there, so that you can simultaneously see where you stand and
move past it. I'm not trying to flagellate myself in public; I really think this is important. One of the most crucial lessons I've learned, in jazz criticism and beyond, is to look closely at the multidirectional flow of influence--too often are we conditioned to presume that white America and/or Western Europe serves as the sole head of a river from which minoritized artistic tributaries flow. Steve Lacy provides a fitting counterexample: the severely brainy improvisational techniques of Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker serve as his ultimate source of inspiration, and his soloing resonates with utter respect for that bebop tradition.
As with modern-day rappers like Eminem and Macklemore, the relationship of a white jazz musician like Lacy to a cultural phenomenon whose roots in social opposition they can never properly access is always a fraught one. Yet one can't in good faith accuse Lacy of thoughtlessly appropriating culture when he's doing so much to honor the craft: clever like Monk and effortless like Parker, Lacy at least makes one want
to believe that aesthetics exists separate from politics, so charming and smart and racially nonspecific--or, again, so one hopes--are his improvisation and arrangements. Getting in a tizzy whenever one encounters a white jazz musician or rapper isn't a game I have much patience for, even if I desire to get in that tizzy publicly just this once. Listening to music critically, with an ear pointed toward the society which generated that music and to which it returns, is certainly a dictate of mine. But art is ultimately about likes and dislikes, right? How could it be otherwise? I will listen to an album over and over if it is good. I will tell other people to listen to it over and over if it is very good indeed. As of now, The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy
lacks not only a review but a single rating on this website. Give it a spin. You tell me.