The late soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy is better represented through recordings than almost any of his fellow jazzmen. The quality of the music is consistently high: Lacy may have recorded often, but he never recorded throwaways. His modus operandi was to assemble groups — quartets and quintets mostly — that stayed together for long periods of time. In some ways, alto saxophonist Steve Potts was Pharoah Sanders to Lacy’s John Coltrane: the untethered voice. Although Lacy and Trane were different types of players, both shared a preoccupation with form and structure. As their visions expanded, they needed to find ways break away from both the structure of the material and their own adherence to playing within conventional (if highly evolved) theoretical systems. Neither could quite bring himself completely let go in his own playing, so they found deputies with less formal understanding of the “rules” to disassemble parts of the music, moving it from “sense” to a realm of pure emotion. For Lacy, the wayward perimeter that he assigned to Steve Potts represented only one small part of the music’s whole. Because he played with his own deliberate, often non-swinging phrasing, Lacy thought it important to use a swinging rhythm section (in this instance bassist Kent Carter and drummer Noel McGhie). Doing this brought the music back into deep connection with its roots, even as Lacy himself and Potts moved it into the future.
Recorded in Lisbon in 1972, Estilhacos represents a high point in a career loaded with them. The band plays with near superhuman urgency, underscoring its political sympathies (Portugal was nearing its revolution at the time the album was made). “Stations” will melt whatever you wind up playing it on. Furious, joyous, and entirely sui generis, it’s characterized by equal parts of emotion and intellect. The rhythm section is augmented by a radio station tuned to an announcer’s voice, an unsettling element. If Potts’s solo is pure fire, the ice of Lacy’s following statement is no less furious for its searing intelligence. The mini-suite “Chips-Moon-Dreams” is an oddly configured theme: In addition to saxes, bass and drums, there are what sound like randomly played Indian bells and harmonica. These serve a similar function (although possibly a less polemic one) than the radio on the previous track, combining to thicken the music. Once cellist Irene Aebi switches to her primary instrument, the band bears down, first for another frenzied alto solo, followed by a Lacy tour de force. No one has ever coaxed the range of sounds from the instrument that Lacy did, and “Chips-Moon-Dreams” presents his entire panoply. I hasten to add that there is never a moment when a sound is introduced for novelty’s sake; Lacy has a radar for repelling excess or gimmickry. Characterized by its jarring minor 2nds “No Baby” was to become a staple in Lacy’s repertoire. Aebi sets up a buzzing backdrop for Potts’s powerful solo, as McGhie breaks the time down into jagged blocks. Lacy ups the ante dramatically, constructing a solo of stunning abstraction, surely one of his best on record. It is a model of concision and organization, but brimming with barely checked emotion. The album closes with “The High Way,” Kent Carter and Irene Aebi bring it in with an intense bowed cello and alternately bowed and plucked bass ostinato. Alto and soprano enter with an urgent SOS keening. It’s dark and disturbing music. McGhie pounds away underneath. “The High Way” rivals the music of Albert Ayler for its unbridled potency, but it’s not hortatory in the same way. This is music that emerges from moral unrest, and it’s impossible not to be shaken by it. As stunning as the leader’s “No Baby” solo is, nothing can prepare the listener for what he plays on “Estilhacos.” By the end of the piece, we are listening to a virtual inferno. This is music as social force, at times nearly unbearable to hear, yet impossible to turn away from.