Ackley-Chen-Centazzo-DeGruttola-Kaiser-Manring

Ackley-Chen-Centazzo-DeGruttola-Kaiser-Manring "Two Views of Steve Lacy’s The Wire" CD

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Let’s not claim that the performers on Two Views of Steve Lacy’s The Wire are making history. No matter how fine the music is here, it’s still a re-imagining of an historic moment: that time when the American composer and soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy went into a Tokyo recording studio with some freshly made Japanese friends, where they recorded a lost classic.

Lacy’s 1977 album The Wire was groundbreaking; this is merely magnificent.

But what saxophonist Bruce Ackley, percussionist Andrea Centazzo, pianist Tania Chen, cellist Danielle DeGruttola, and bassists Henry Kaiser and Michael Manring are doing with their tribute is effectively curating history. With this reprise of The Wire, now a hard-to-find and expensive (currently $500 for an LP copy) collector’s item, they’re doing their part to ensure that their mentor, inspiration, and friend does not get lost as memories fade, CDs lose their metallic sheen, and vinyl records accumulate dust.

As Kaiser notes: “Steve Lacy must never be forgotten. His contributions to the music are humongous and multiplex."

Granted, Lacy—who died in 2004 but would have been 90 this year—is assured at least a small place in jazz legend. Sometime in the late 1950s he showed a rising-star tenor saxophonist that their instruments could be played using the same fingering. John Coltrane went out and bought a soprano sax, and a few months later “My Favourite Things” turned him into an international sensation and afforded him a base for his ever-more-radical explorations.

Lacy also devoted his 1958 album Reflections to the music of Thelonious Monk, the first time that the great pianist was so honoured. At the time of its release, ‘Monk was widely seen as an out-there anomaly rather than the Bach of jazz, and Reflections met with limited success. Now, of course, it seems prescient.

There are other aspects of the saxophonist’s life that are in danger of being forgotten, including his own considerable compositional gifts, which drew on Monk’s asymmetrical phrasing and broken rhythms. His body of work remains a largely untapped resource for today’s improvisers and interpreters—but not for Ackley, who studied and collaborated with Lacy for decades. In fact, Two Views of Steve Lacy’s The Wire is the Rova Saxophone Quartet mainstay’s second major Lacy project. Together with Kaiser, electronic musician Kyle Bruckmann, and his Rova bandmates, Ackley tackled Lacy’s suite for improvisers, Saxophone Special, for the Clean Feed label in 2017.

“Key to the success of a tribute….in which we revisit our heroes’ works is speaking with an authentic, original and spontaneous voice, and at the same time embracing the source of inspiration,” Ackley said about the Saxophone Special Revisted sessions. “Also important is the innate design of the tribute work to be explored, and the approach the interpreters take to realizing it.”

With Lacy, part of that “innate design” is surprise—for the composer, for the performers, and for the listeners—and one of his strategies was to use unconventional instrumental combinations and unfamiliar collaborators. Saxophone Special saw Lacy working with an all-star cast of Europeans; The Wire, as noted, involved their Japanese counterparts. Throughout his life, the peripatetic Lacy—who was born in New York City but spent extended periods in the Bay Area, Vancouver, Rome, and Paris—acted as a kind of emissary for the American jazz avant-garde, spreading new thoughts about improvisation world-wide and bringing others back home.

The Italian-born Centazzo, who made a number of scintillating duo and trio recordings with the saxophonist, speaks to Lacy’s role as a mentor and inspirational sparkplug.

“I remember vividly the first time I met him in Milan for an afternoon rehearsal,” he told journalist Mariana Velichkova in 2009. “I was used to following the rules rigidly, being the sideman and reading a score. So before we could start since we had no scores, nor did I know what we were going to play, I timidly asked ‘Steve, what do you want me to do?’ And he looked at me and placidly said: ‘PLAY WHAT YOU FEEL!’ I never forgot that moment.”

Lacy’s generosity extended to his compositional strategies. His written scores are generally spare indications of melody; sometimes accompanied by specific performance instructions or dedicated to a specific person, but even then they’re left open to personal interpretation. “All my pieces are dedicated, but I don’t always say it,” he told the Dutch saxophonist Jorrit Dijkstra in the early 2000s. “That blocks the listening if you have too many things in mind.”

That’s why Two Views of Steve Lacy’s The Wire includes two separate renditions of Lacy’s score. The written parts set out the general parameters of the work’s six segments, but leave room for spontaneous small-group interplay, for sudden departures from the plan, for the feeling in the room, even for the unspoken influence of mood and weather.

Lacy was deeply serious about the necessity of “playing what you feel”, and that’s felt here in another surprising way. When Ackley and Kaiser decided to replicate the instrumentation of the 1975 The Wire sessions, they made one small change: swapping in electric bass guitars for the acoustic upright basses of the original. This posed an intriguing artistic challenge: Kaiser is not really a bassist, while Manring is one of the most accomplished working today. How would they fit together?

Just fine, it turns out. By playing what they feel, and because what they feel includes a deep love of Lacy’s inspiration, their low-frequency conversation extends outward to the entire group and the whole picture resonates with love, joy, ferocity, and mutual respect. Lacy’s own ensembles always embodied those qualities, and in this he remains a contemporary inspiration even 20 years after his passing.

Forgotten? Not likely.

Tracklist:

SET ONE
1 The Twain 5:33
2 Esteem 7:42
3 The Owl 4:29
4 The Wire 7:20
5 Cloudy 5:52
6 Dead Line 6:28

SET TWO
7 The Twain 8:44
8 Esteem 7:14
9 The Owl 4:00
10 The Wire 4:56
11 Cloudy 5:50
12 Dead Line 6:06

Credits:
Bruce Ackley, soprano sax & Bb clarinet
Andrea Centazzo, percussion
Tania Chen, piano
Danielle DeGruttola, cello
Henry Kaiser, bass
Michael Manring, bass

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