Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 25, 1999
Head: Steve Lacy
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Steve Lacy brought the soprano saxophone into contemporary jazz, and in the estimation of many critics is the best soprano player in jazz.
Early in his career, he apprenticed with jazz traditionalists and avant garde-ists. Since the mid-'60s, he's lived mainly in Europe. He's currently on an American tour.
Before we hear from him, let's listen to one of Lacy's compositions featured on his recent CD "Baya" (ph). This is called "The Hoot."
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SOPRANO SAXOPHONIST STEVE LACY PERFORMING "THE HOOT")
GROSS: In 1997, I asked Steve Lacy about the qualities of the soprano saxophone. I asked him to compare it to the tenor and alto.
STEVE LACY, SOPRANO SAXOPHONIST: Well, of course it's higher up and it's smaller and it's more -- more to the brain, really.
GROSS: To the brain -- what does this mean?
LACY: Yeah. It's like at the head of things. It's the, you know -- in the treble clef. It's not down below in the chest. It's up in the head, really. It's like a soprano singer, really, compared to a tenor singer.
GROSS: Now, you came at the soprano after having played clarinet first. A lot of musicians come to soprano after playing another form of saxophone. Do you think coming at it from clarinet affected your approach to soprano?
LACY: Well, I really came out of the piano. I played the piano when I was a kid, very poorly, but with interest, especially when I discovered jazz. I tried to play jazz on it. And I play it foolishly myself, still, but not in public. So the piano is really very important to me. It's at the center of my musical thinking. But the soprano sax is my working voice, really.
GROSS: You've said that certain parts of the soprano's range are inherently out of tune with the rest of the horn. What part of the range is that and why is that so?
LACY: Well, there are notes here that are too flat and others that are too sharp. It's a little bit -- maybe because it's conical, rather than cylindrical. And it's sort of a bastard instrument, in a way, that it needs to be doctored personally.
You have to really favor certain -- but I mean, this is true of a lot of instruments, really. Alto also has funny regions that you have to favor; that you have to, you know, push up and push down and compensate for the inherent difficulties in the instrument itself.
GROSS: Does this mean that you need to have a really good ear for pitch in order to play the soprano? And, did you have to work hard to develop your ear?
LACY: You have to suffer.
Or I had to suffer, really, some really hard periods where it was really out of tune; where I just -- I just couldn't fix it, really. This was years and years ago in the '50s, when I was struggling with the instrument. It was very difficult at that time to get it in tune.
And now after all these years it's much easier, but I have to watch it all the time.
GROSS: But how's your sense of pitch? Do you have perfect pitch?
LACY: No, I have relative pitch, but I have a perfect internal pitch so I can -- I can compose music from inside. But I don't have perfect pitch at all.
GROSS: Now, the soprano has a naturally nasal and shrill sound in its highest notes. Is that something that you feel like you fight against or try to exploit?
LACY: It doesn't have that at all, really. It doesn't need to have that at all.
LACY: I mean, that's just poor playing, you know. Even John Coltrane, when he first played the instrument, he had trouble up there, and it sounded -- it came out nasal and all that.
But after a while, it opened up. It's just like your nose, really. If you breathe through your nose -- it's all about breathing, really, and it's also about conception. And when you have experience of the horn, it opens up and it doesn't have to be nasal there at all.
But that's one of the reasons I don't play the other saxophones because I really want to just be faithful to that one, really.
GROSS: What was your role in inspiring John Coltrane to try soprano saxophone?
LACY: Well, I was sort of the model. In other words, he heard me play it and he thought -- it was like he was shopping and I was modeling.
He heard me with -- I was playing with Jimmy Giuffre at the Five Spot and he came in and he heard me play and he was intrigued by the instrument, and he asked me what key it was in, and I -- when I told him it was B Flat, he said, "oh, yeah?" And then a couple of weeks later, Don Cherry called me from Chicago, and he said, "listen to this" and he held the telephone up and I could hear Trane playing the soprano.
GROSS: What'd you think of what you first heard of his playing?
LACY: Well, I had to laugh, really. But wow -- I thought "wow. It's nice to have some company."
GROSS: You're not saying what you thought of the playing.
LACY: Huh? Well, no, I mean, it sounded intriguing to me. I liked it, really. It sounded good -- I mean, you know. If Don Cherry calls you up and said "listen to this," it's probably going to be good.
GROSS: Steve Lacy, who else was playing soprano when you started to play in the '50s?
LACY: Nobody, really. It was in complete disuse. It had gone out of phase like the musicians had considered it -- you know, people played it in the '20s and the '30s, and it went -- by the '40s, I mean, even Johnny Hodges stopped in 1942.
And from that point on, it disappeared because it had a reputation for being out of tune and arrangers didn't know what to do with it. And it just fell into disuse.
I think the only person that I knew of playing it was a student of Bechet's who was Bob Wilber, and he was playing -- playing exactly like Bechet, really, and that's all.
GROSS: And, and...
LACY: ...nobody else was playing it.
GROSS: What were the pros and cons of feeling like you had the field to yourself?
LACY: Well, the advantages were many. I didn't compete with anybody. I didn't threaten anybody else's job, so that I was welcomed into all these traditional bands that I played with. And my teacher, Cecil Scott, took me around and had me sit in with the likes of Red Allen, PeeWee Russell, and all these people.
After a while, I started getting hired and working with all these original masters who were at the peak of their form, really. They were in their 50s and 60s. I was 19, 20. And that's how I cut my teeth, really. I learned from playing with these people. And it was the New Orleans school and the Chicago school and the Kansas City school.
GROSS: And the disadvantages?
LACY: And the disadvantages were that nobody hired me after a while.
GROSS: Because they didn't know what to do with you?
LACY: Well, the traditional -- yeah, I stopped playing the clarinet, see. I was working with Max Kaminsky regularly and I was playing soprano and clarinet. And it was very -- it was working very well. And I decided to concentrate only on the soprano at that point because I think I was starting to play with Cecil Taylor also.
And when I told Max I'm not going to play the clarinet anymore, he said "you're crazy. You won't get any work at all." And it was true. Those people -- I stopped working with them and I started to play with Cecil Taylor.
GROSS: Let me play something that was part of your recording debut. This was made -- it was 1954, when you were I believe 20 years old, and kind of, you know, traditional jazz group led by Dick Sutton.
GROSS: And you played both clarinet and soprano in this. We'll hear you on soprano on a recording of "Liza." Do you want to say anything about this session before we hear it?
LADY: Well, that was a young band. They called it progressive Dixieland. It was Dick Sutton's conception and it was influenced by Mulligan and by Bix Beiderbecke and Miles -- it was like a hybrid movement. It had some freshness to it. It was good.
GROSS: An interesting concept and interesting music as well. So this is "Liza," with my guest Steve Lacy on soprano saxophone recorded in 1954, his recording debut.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SOPRANO SAXOPHONIST STEVE LACY PERFORMING "LIZA")
GROSS: A 1954 recording of "Liza" with Steve Lacy on soprano saxophone. We'll talk more with Steve Lacy after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Back with soprano saxophonist and composer Steve Lacy.
A couple of years after playing modern Dixieland in the mid '50s, Steve Lacy joined a group led by avant-garde-ist Cecil Taylor. I asked Lacy about that shift in his direction.
LACY: Well, yeah, it was a radical change that's for sure. But Cecil had very strong traditional roots also, and we both had a shared interest in the Ellington line. And that's like a line that covers a lot of ground, really, and goes through -- see, I was playing with Don Frye (ph) at Jimmy & Ryan's (ph) when I met Cecil. And that was like the Ellington, James P. Johnson line -- all that. That's traditional.
And Cecil also comes from, like, the Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk and Bud Powell -- and this is another tradition, but in a way they're the same. It's the same story. It's just one ocean of jazz, really.
GROSS: You continued to play in different styles of jazz and to pick up from different periods. And you still play free, sometimes, and you play standards and you play a lot of original compositions.
GROSS: What do you think now about free improvisation? What are -- what do you like about doing it? What do you think are its limitations?
LACY: Well, it's -- it was very important to have done that, and some people are still doing that, and I do it once in a while and it's at the heart of what we do. It depends who you're playing with. That's the -- the answer is, it depends who you're playing with.
When I play with Derek Bailey, there's no paper. There's no -- there's no words said. There's nothing to say. We just get up and play. And when I -- there are several other people that we play like that with, and -- but normally I prefer a more structured situation where there is a composed part and an improvised part, and there is a form and there is a content that is partially prepared. That's just my own metabolism. But as I say, it depends who you're playing with.
The thing is, you want to get the best results out of the other players that you play with. So you have to turn them on.
GROSS: Cecil Taylor took you to hear Thelonius Monk. And that, I think, really changed your music, too. When you heard Monk and became very excited by his harmonies and his rhythms -- his odd rhythms -- I'm wondering how you translated some of that to soprano.
For example, a lot of Monk's music is based on these really unusual, interesting harmonies -- very often dissonant harmonies. And you're playing a single-line instrument. You can't -- you can't make chords on a soprano saxophone.
So how did you -- is there a way you feel you were able to apply some of his harmonic thinking into your horn?
LACY: Well, first of all, I play the piano as a laboratory. And I learned all his tunes at the piano, really, with the -- you know, with the chords and everything; with the sounds; with the intervals and the voicings as much as I could.
And then working on my horn, you can't play a chord all at once, but you can delineate it. You can outline it. You can -- you can express it. There is a way to express everything on everything, if you can find it. It's a question of imagination.
GROSS: Monk invited you to join his quartet, making the group a quintet for the four months that you were there. Do you have any idea why he asked you to join? I mean, obviously, he liked what you were doing.
LACY: Well, I think he was intrigued with the sound of the horn, the novelty of it. And he found something -- and also he knew me -- I knew him for a few years, and I was really on his case. I was recording his music and coming to see him all the time, every night and talking, you know. So, he was familiar with me. He knew me and all that.
And he knew I was really not an expert, but an aficionado of his music. And maybe he thought I needed the experience. That's what I like to think. I like to think that he gave me that opportunity to really see what was happening from the inside.
GROSS: And what did you learn seeing the music from the inside? What are some things you got from actually playing with Monk and talking with him?
LACY: I learned to stick to the point and to not -- not lose -- not lose the point, and not get carried away. And to play with the other musicians, and not get all wrapped up in my own thing; and not to just play interesting notes just to be interesting, you know, or weird notes just to be weird.
He mostly told me what not to do. He never told me what to do. But he told me what not to do when I did something that bothered him. For example, when I played -- when we were playing together, sometimes he would play something on the piano and I would pick that up and play that on my horn. I thought I was being slick, you know. And he stopped me and he said, "don't do that. That's -- you know, I'm the piano player. You play your part. I'm accompanying you. Don't pick up on my things."
You know, I -- he got me out of the thing of trying to be too hip. I was trying to be too hip and it wasn't swinging sometimes, you know. Then he told me, "make the drummer sound good." Because I was playing some things that confused the drummer, because I was confused myself. And so the drummer was not swinging, you know. And Monk told me, "no, make the drummer sound good."
And that was an enormous help to me, really. It stopped me cold, really, and changed my focus. And Monk's thing -- he told me, "let things go by. Let certain things go by. Don't play everything. Just play certain things. Let other things go by." It's what you don't play that's very important, really, and that's extremely important.
GROSS: The kind of intervals of laying out -- of space.
LACY: Space -- using the space as time.
LACY: And using time and digging time as space.
GROSS: You've been recording Monk compositions throughout your career, and I want to play one of the duets from a recent album called "Five Facings." And it's a series of duets with five different other jazz musicians. And I want to play one of the duets that you recorded with Misha Mengelberg, a Dutch pianist who's also very influenced by Monk.
Let's hear your recording of Monk's "Off Minor" -- a duet with Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg, and this was recorded in 1996. It seems to me on this -- it's as if you, on the soprano saxophone, are playing the right hand and Misha Mengelberg on piano is playing the left hand.
LACY: Well, that's -- yeah -- in a way -- I mean, I am a melodic instrument. All I can do is a single line of melody, and Misha has all the harmonic equipment down there -- the armaments. He's armed to the teeth, really. He could do all that stuff. But he's got the taste and the discretion and the knowledge of Monk to complement what I do. And we always hit it off well together.
GROSS: OK. Well, this is "Off Minor."
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SOPRANO SAXOPHONIST STEVE LACY AND PIANIST MISHA MENGELBERG PERFORMING "OFF MINOR" COMPOSED BY THELONIUS MONK)
GROSS: Steve Lacy and pianist Misha Mengelberg from Lacy's recent CD "Five Facings." We'll talk more with Lacy after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Back with composer and soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy.
A few years ago, you did a kind of exercise book with a series of short essays.
LACY: Uh-huh, right, yeah.
GROSS: That elaborated some of your thinking about studying the instrument.
GROSS: You have one exercise you call the "no, baby" exercise. Would you explain that for us?
LACY: Well, that comes from a piece that I wrote, oh, a long time ago. It was originally intended as a portrait of Sidney Bechet, who I imagined was talking to his girlfriend and he was saying, "no, baby. No, baby. No, baby! No, baby!!!"
Like that, and that's how that piece began, really, and then I wrote a melody to go with that which was a sort of a blues in unusual harmonies. And we played that for years and years and recorded and everything.
And the idea of the exercise coming from that is the dynamics -- the way of saying something each time louder. And the way of corresponding your saxophone to your own speech.
GROSS: So in other words, learning the things we already intuitively know about...
GROSS: ...speech, and applying that...
LACY: ... it's about language...
GROSS: ... to the instrument.
LACY: It's about language. My fundamental thing is about language, really. I deal with language.
LACY: Jazz is language. The saxophone is language. And a lot of the music I write is based on literature and texts and language.
GROSS: You recommend trying to sing and play whatever you hear.
GROSS: Do you sing a lot as part of your exercise?
LACY: Well, yeah, that's very important. The connection with the voice, the ear, and the saxophone is fundamental; is something I learned in Japan, actually, from a Zen master -- a flute player who gave me a couple of lessons. And that was the first lesson he gave me was the connection with the ear, the voice, and the instrument, and the breath. And that was a huge revelation for me.
GROSS: What was the connection that he made clear that you hadn't thought of before?
LACY: That my own voice was my own ear was my own breath was my own sound. That it was all one. That it -- the conception that it is -- it's just one thing. It's got to be like one thing.
GROSS: I wonder how it feels playing a horn whose range is higher than your vocal range.
LACY: Mmm-hmm. Well, that's a good question. But it's a question of the imagination and compensation, and again, as I said before, I have a good inner ear.
LACY: In the inner ear, there's no problem of hearing much higher. The -- I don't have to sing it outwardly. I sing it inside. So the inner mechanism is just as good as the outer. You don't have to -- you don't have to actually sing sometimes. You can hear it singing inside.
GROSS: A few years ago, you gave up smoking after, I think, about 30 years of a pack a day.
LACY: Yeah, that's right.
GROSS: Are you still not smoking?
LACY: That's right. Yeah, no, I never started -- I never went back to them -- nicotine.
GROSS: Was there a kind of breaking point for you, where you thought, like, "I can't do this anymore."
LACY: That's right. That's right. It was -- well, actually, that same lesson from this Japanese, who I might as well name -- Watazume Doso (ph), who died a few years ago. He was the absolute master of the schakohachee (ph) flute, and that was part of the first lesson that he gave me. He said stop smoking, you know.
But that was 1976, I think, and I didn't stop smoking for five more years.
GROSS: Oh, so it's been a long time that you haven't been smoking. And did you use any technique? Or did you realize...
GROSS: ...the importance of stopping so much that you were just able to do it on your own?
LACY: I had a good time stopping. I didn't find it difficult. I found it fun, and it made me very nervous and I sort of had the heebie-jeebies for a while, but I enjoyed them because at least it was new. I like -- you know what? -- I strive for some kind of freshness; some kind of quality of newness, and even in life, too.
And there was a situation where I stopped smoking all of a sudden and it was a shock. It was weird. It made me nervous. It made me -- but I was in a hotel room. I had a couple of days off on a tour I was at. And I decided not to start. I didn't stop smoking. I couldn't stop smoking. But I could not start. I just kept delaying. I didn't buy any and I just stayed in a hotel room and had the heebie-jeebies for a while. And I enjoyed that, you know, and then the whole day went by and I said "wow, whew."
And I went to sleep and then woke up the next morning, and I said "wow," you know. And I -- it was very -- I didn't find it difficult. I found it fun, really.
GROSS: Steve Lacy, recorded in 1997. Lacy lives in Paris. He's now on an American tour. Tonight, he plays on Long Beach, California and then he goes on to San Diego, Berkley, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Eugene, Carmel, Tuscon, Alberquerque, Austin, New Orleans, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C., Cambridge, Worcester, Buffalo and Erie.
I'm Terry Gross.
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Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Steve Lacy
High: Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. He's on a North American tour with his trio through the end of August. Lacy is considered the foremost interpreter of Thelonius Monk, and in fact trained and performed with Monk when he was in his mid 20s. Lacy is also known for his unmistakable sound as well as being one of the most prolific sax players performing today.
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; Steve Lacy
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
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End-Story: Steve Lacy
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.