Steve Lacy
The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy


4.0
excellent

Review

by robertsona STAFF
April 30th, 2019 | 17 replies


Release Date: 1961 | Tracklist

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.



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user ratings (1)
4
excellent

Comments:Add a Comment 
robertsona
Staff Reviewer
April 30th 2019


17517 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

ik this is trash but i'll fix it soon

robertsona
Staff Reviewer
April 30th 2019


17517 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

in before zero comments

notkanyewest
April 30th 2019


17 Comments


The guitar guy from the internet and that vampire weekend song also plays saxophone and put out an album in 1961? Cool

granitenotebook
Contributing Reviewer
April 30th 2019


966 Comments


good review, liked your thoughts on the way race plays into intellect vs emotion, something i haven’t really thought about before (probably because i have very similar qualifications to that paragraph’s last sentence)

robertsona
Staff Reviewer
April 30th 2019


17517 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Thank you! I understand a lot of Sputnik probably won’t share my views on the pervasiveness of racism but it was worth a shot

brainmelter
May 1st 2019


6695 Comments


nice

Digging: Evigt Morker - 1

TheLongShot
May 1st 2019


861 Comments


Great review! I jammed Lacy's '59 Monk tribute record some time ago and it was enjoyable without astounding me, this one was not on my '61 to-listen list but I'm a bit more inclined to put it on now (:

robertsona
Staff Reviewer
May 1st 2019


17517 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Thank you for reading! This wouldn’t be in my Core Collection but it’s really good and grows quickly. Def essential if you’re into the no-chord performance motif too

Get Low
May 1st 2019


6776 Comments


You're lucky that you're staff and that we share a mutual love for Same Trailer Different Park, or else I would neg the fuck out of this. Can't wait for the identity politics and "cultural appropriation" phase to blow over.

luci
May 1st 2019


11959 Comments


Nice review, thanks for making a genre I’m disinterested in interesting to read about.

robertsona
Staff Reviewer
May 1st 2019


17517 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

@Get Low I definitely only see it getting “worse” from here as minoritized groups look to redress injustice inflicted against them in every conceivable arena but thanks for the words. You too luci. I love all my children equally

robertsona
Staff Reviewer
May 1st 2019


17517 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

That said get into jazz bro u gotta u GOTTA

Winesburgohio
Staff Reviewer
May 1st 2019


2735 Comments


ehh jazz isn't analogous to hip-hop in the context this reviews purports it to be, largely because - as this review evidences - jazz often built on and eschewed what came before in search of a platonic ideal of jazz, in a very logocentric way. that meant you had performers who were much more concerned with the aesthetics and ethos of the music and sharing that ethos that other concerns (not to say they didn't bubble under the surface, or that this pertains to vocal jazz, a different kettle of fish entirely) were muted. i think that's largely the foregrounding a strictly adversarial notion of race politics where countless others exist, and this frightens me especially in New Zealand where tikanga Maori is in many ways inimical to said conflicted system: we here unfortunately subsume and sublimate our cultural norms from america and i'm fucking sick of it. but it's certainly a a retroactive one.

i'd also note that i suspect you're exaggerating the impact of Tomorrow is the Day!, as great as it is. the removal of piano represents a release of contractual obligation more than it does genuinely freeing the music, as The Shape did - TitD! is fairly conventional post-bebop.

i go on this bloviated diatribe bc i think u might think it interesting and if i'm wrong hm the hell up frankly!!!! great analysis elsewhere as per

Digging: Art Ensemble of Chicago - Les stances a Sophie

robertsona
Staff Reviewer
May 1st 2019


17517 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

hmm yes you are probably right about promoting a strictly adversarial notion of race politics although the things I've read about race that are most convincing to me on a large scale are highly "adversarial" about it indeed. it's not MY pessimism to have necessarily but I think pessimism sort of makes sense when you think of What Happened in the historical formation of racial hierarchies



for some reason I feel obliged to help out Tomorrow is the Question!'s reputation/perceived influence because it's sooooo deprecated in favor of The Shape of Jazz to Come--which might even reflect contemporaneous reception, you're totally right, but I feel like removing the piano was such a big deal in reshaping the timbre of the music as a whole and changing the style of improvisation even as a) sonny rollins did it first (did others? I can't lie, I'm not sure) and b) the songwriting motifs were indeed anchored more in typical bebop structures



on another note I can't believe U gave something else!!!! a 3/5 that album is complete fire

robertsona
Staff Reviewer
May 1st 2019


17517 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

thelonious did say “some of the guys tried to get me to hate white people and for a while I tried real hard. But every time I got to hating them some white guy would come along and mess the whole thing up.”

robertsona
Staff Reviewer
May 1st 2019


17517 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

always appreciated though fershure wines

Winesburgohio
Staff Reviewer
May 2nd 2019


2735 Comments


Gerry Mulligan iirc and years before Ornette did it!!! well probably not that many but jazz-time moved fast y'know. and yeah i've never really liked that iteration of Coleman for whatever reason - at the moment i'm increasingly drawn to Chappaqua Suite and The Empty Foxhole (where he enlisted his damn ten year old child to play drums lmao) but i reserve the right to call myself a complete moron when i revisit both in a couple of months.

I mean you're obviously right - it's trite, but that photo of Bill Evans taking direction from Miles Davis is groundbreaking for the time for that reason - and i'm definitely aware that a lot of this music played out against a divisive backdrop, and a rightly divisive one. that said... i think you'd be hard-pressed to say any jazz musicians appropriated black styles in the same way as hip-hop largely because *oh god wines get on with it* the whole ethos thing.

jazz was about finding a sound, paving a way forward; in that politic it was uncompromising while retaining a broad church of anyone who wanted to follow. and i mean did max roach ever get as angry at anyone as Ornette when he released The Shape? some analogies to modernism and Pound's "make it new" dictate here. the tight-rope of making it new while still honouring a genealogy required the best musicians, white or black, and i think this album is evidence of it

(oh yeah album is a straight banga btw goddamn)



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