Steve Lacy 1934–2004

A sax man's perfect pitch, from Dixieland to the avant-garde

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"It's only when you see the totality of someone's work that you understand what they were doing," Steve Lacy once said about a posthumous retrospective of the European avant-gardist Brion Gysin. The obits for Lacy, following his death from liver cancer on June 4, led with his having been the first modernist to play soprano saxophone. This alone would have made him a significant figure; he may have given Coltrane the idea. Lacy had perfect pitch, an asset in controlling a notoriously difficult horn but also in negotiating the steep intervals he favored in his solos, which were also pitch-perfect in channeling restless intellect and refined emotion. But there was more to Lacy than his choice of horn. He started off as a trad revivalist in the early 1950s and wound up accompanying Cecil Taylor before the decade was over. In the 1960s, well ahead of the jazz repertory movement, he led a band dedicated to the compositions of Thelonious Monk, and remained Monk's keenest interpreter through the decades. As a European expatriate for over 30 years before taking a teaching job at the New England Conservatory in 2002, he did as much as anyone to popularize the solo saxophone concert—and more than anyone else to establish its artistic validity. A late-blooming composer ("I had to go through Monk's music to get to mine," he once told me), Lacy specialized in the interdisciplinary, collaborating with painters and dancers and devising settings for texts by writers as separated by time and place as Herman Melville and Taslima Nasrin. "With age, art and life become one," Lacy said when he was still in his twenties, quoting Georges Braque and looking ahead. But even on Lacy's earliest recordings, you can hear life not waiting.

 
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