Despite being one of the most singular voices to come out of jazz, and one of its most prolific and productive chroniclers, Steve Lacy may not be afforded the seminal status that his playing, composing and band leading warrants. Lacy was a specialist: He played only one reed instrument, the soprano saxophone. And although that horn gained great currency during the last quarter of the 20th century (and has maintained it), the soprano is still thought of largely as a doubling instrument. Even though Lacy is unquestionably one of the three most important soprano saxophonists in the instrument’s history (Sidney Bechet and Evan Parker are the others), his legacy will fall short of canonization. Still, it’s worth nothing that when John Coltrane wanted to take up the soprano, he went to Lacy for advice and instruction.
Live in Lugano features Lacy joined by the well attuned guitarist Barry Wedgle and the saxophonist’s longtime bassist J.J. Avenel. It’s a smart and edgy trio. Lacy’s powerful voice never threatens to topple the established group balance. The players use markedly different approaches to the music, but each listens closely. Lacy’s distinctive tone, unusually full bodied and always perfectly in tune throughout its entire range (the soprano is notoriously subject to going out of tune) contrasts nicely with the woody sounds of Wedgle’s acoustic guitar and Avenel’s bass. “On a Train Going By” begins with a standard Lacy compositional approach: a repeated figure, followed by melody simple and deliberately stated. Behind this, guitar and bass set up a resolute chugging pattern; the train is on its way. Lacy alternates between patterns, solidly-chosen melodic lines, and an astonishing array of “train” effects done through the use of harmonics and false fingerings.
It’s a virtuoso performance, and it’s followed by others: The glissando in the “Wickets’” theme is executed with jaw-dropping ease. Wedgle’s accompaniment here is cranky commentary that serves as an effective counterweight to Lacy’s increasingly fervent lines. “Clinches” features African thumb piano playing an ostinato figure as the soprano comes in, moving from off-mic toward the center, then backing away. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard, and it’s enormously effective. Lacy is back, front and center of “The Eye,” while J. J. Avenel sets up a dangerous sound pattern, resonant and dark, rhythmically tensile. Wedgle strums metallically, alternating this with dry, almost toneless sounding chords. Above this all, Lacy lays out the desolate theme. It’s yearning music of remarkable power.