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Steve Lacy: Time To Book

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 28 June 2002 - "It's time to book," Steve Lacy said; a traditional road expression for let's move out. During a recent 10-day farewell engagement at the Sunset / Sunside duplex - Paris's premier jazz club - Lacy was proclaimed a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture. He was already a Chevalier, a Knight. Under the circumstances, it was an ironic promotion.

He is leaving France for a day gig that includes artistic freedom, a generous salary, social and medical benefits, miscellaneous perks and three-month vacations.

When he first came to Paris 32 years ago, the soprano saxophone, had been out of favor for a generation - since Sidney Bechet's heyday. It was a lonely instrument then but the originator of the soprano's post-Coltranian popularity has been winning US jazz polls for many years now. Laid back, sensitive, Lacy gives the impression of continuing to play the instrument despite its popularity.

His fat sound has an instantly recognizable hoarse, purring, contemporary warmth to it; reminiscent of a finely tuned vintage sports car. The highly-strung and unpredictable instrument attracts players such as Lacy who like challenges. The relative ease with which he could cross musical boundaries in Europe has had a lot to do with his success here.

Interviewed in his lush garden outside the attractive pavillon near the Telegraph metro station he will soon be leaving, he started to summarize by saying he'd "played dodecaphonic music, chance operations, free improvisation, dixieland, Chicago blues, standards, bebop and controlled chaos" with "clowns, strippers, singers, magicians, painters, poets, happeners and all sorts of radical experimenters and it's still going on."

He worked with early formations led by Cecil Taylor, Gil Evans and Thelonious Monk and co-led - with Roswell Rudd - an ahead-of-its-time quartet in the 1960s that performed only Monk compositions. At the same time, he was free-lancing with a mixed bag of stylists from Pee Wee Russell and Oran "Hot Lips" Page to Jimmy Giuffre and Don Cherry. By now, he has lost count of his recordings; there have long been three or four a year, mostly on European labels.

He has come to feel stalled, "local," taken for granted in Europe. So he accepted an offer he couldn't refuse in Boston. A contract to teach at the New England Conservatory. Before the start of the next school year, he and his Swiss born wife and singer Irene Aebi and their two cats will move to Massachussetts. The Lacys are having trouble finding a landlord who will accept the cats, and he is aware that, "the transition will be hard. I have mixed emotions. But I've had it with Paris. I want to go home. I've been here too long. You have to follow the music. That's why I came here in the first place. The expat thing is over."

This coming from America's leading jazz expatriate might just signify the end of an era. However, given Lacy's geographical promiscuity, the future cannot be called clear. After being stranded in Buenos Aires in 1966, he moved to Rome and in 1970 from Rome to Paris (it was the height of the Viet Nam war and his band was performing only one extended number, "The Woe," which he calls "our war song") and from Paris to Berlin in the 1990s - a move that was also supposed to be definitive. In Berlin, he was quoted as saying: "There's nothing happening in Paris any more but football." It caused him a certain amount of woe when he did in fact return to Paris.

Having written more than 200 songs, mostly for Aebi, who performs with him much of the time, he will work with vocalists as well as composers, saxophonists and improvisers at the New England Conservatory, where teachers like George Russell and Gunther Schuller have the freedom to create much of their own syllabus. The resulting cross-pollination includes classical musicians taking improvisation, jazz musicians studying world music and both disciplines attending Ran Blake's courses in "Earobics." A perfect environment for somebody who once defined a jazz musician as "combination orator, singer, dancer, diplomat, poet, dialectician, mathematician, athlete, entertainer, educator, student, comedian, artist, seducer and general all around good fellow."

There is another reason to move. "The 'fisc' is on my case," is the way he put it. The French equivalent of the IRS "wants money I never made. I have three lawyers working on it. It's expensive and boring and it keeps me from concentrating on the music. There's a guy there who thinks I'm a big American fish with bank accounts everywhere. I always manage to keep busy but basically I run at a loss. I kept it going on deficit financing from my mother's stocks and the MacArthur."

In 1992, Lacy was awarded a $340,000 fellowship - popularly known as a "genius grant" - by the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. (He says he paid taxes on it in the US.) It was spent subsidizing his intellectual, often austere and classically and ethnically oriented projects celebrating Monk, Charles Mingus, the poet Robert Creeley, composers Henry Cowell and Charles Ives and writers Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs and others.

He takes a sort of perverse pride in being a sloppy record-keeper. Having trouble proving his losses, he finds himself paying for all those scorned receipts: "Like I can't drive a car and I can't play chess, I can't keep books. Not everyone can do everything. Fortunately, I can write music and play the saxophone okay."

Steve Lacy plays in Trio with Jean-Jacques Avenel (bass) and John Betsch (drums) at the Iridium in New York from 6 - 11 August 2002

Related: Steve Lacy's Web Site

The Sidney Bechet Society, Ltd. Web Site.

Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Zwerin is currently writing a book called "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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