Mention the soprano saxophone and most people think first of Sidney Bechet, Lucky Thompson, Pony Poindexter, John Coltrane and Dave Liebman. But in the 1950s and beyond, the artist who did more to demonstrate the instrument's versatility across multiple jazz styles was Steve Lacy. He began in the early 1950s as a New Orleans-style player, using the instrument as a clarinet. Then he shifted to progressive jazz in the mid-1950s before becoming an early pioneer of avant-garde jazz with Cecil Taylor starting in late 1956. Lacy also was smitten with Thelonious Monk and was among the first to feature an album of Monk's music. He recorded Monk's songs on many of his albums.
Lacy's first two albums in 1954 were with trumpeter Dick Sutton. The first was Jazz Idiom and the second was Progressive Dixieland. His next series of albums were with bassist Whitey Mitchell and Tom Stewart, who played the tenor horn—a smaller version of the baritone or euphonium that sounded like a valve trombone.
Lacy's first collaboration with Stewart and Mitchell was on Tom Stewart Sextette/Quintette, recorded for ABC-Paramount in February 1956. Let's Get Lost featured Tom Stewart (tenor-hrn), Steve Lacy (sop), Herbie Mann (alto-fl,ts), Joe Puma (g), Whitey Mitchell (b) and Al Levitt (d).
On Some of These Days, These Are the Things I Love and Spain, Will Bradley, Jr. (d) replaced Al Levitt. And on Fidgety Feet, Out of Nowhere, Potatoes, Rosetta, Gee Baby Ain't I Good to You? and My Heart is a Halo, the band consisted of Stewart (tenor-hrn) Lacy (sop) Dave McKenna (p) Mitchell (b) and Levitt (d).
The second album was Whitey Mitchell Sextette, also for ABC-Paramount, in April 1956. The band featured Don Stratton (tp) Tom Stewart (tenor-hrn) Steve Lacy (sop) Joe Puma (g) Whitey Mitchell (b) Gus Johnson (d) Neal Hefti (arr). On a bulk of tracks for this album, Osie Johnson replaced Gus Johnson.
Lacy also recorded two tracks with Stewart and Mitchell in June '56 that wound up on a compilation, Modern Jazz Festival. The band featured Tom Stewart (bar-hrn), Steve Lacy (sop), Herbie Mann (ts), Joe Puma (g) Whitey Mitchell (b) and Herb Wasserman (d).
The piercing reedy sound of Lacy's soprano sax against the mellow sound of Stewart's tenor horn is particularly textured and engaging, especially on Potatoes and Let's Get Lost. The album overall, led by trigger-happy bassist Whitey Mitchell, gives everyone an opportunity to solo. Most interesting are the arrangements by Hefti. They're taut and swinging, and tailor-made for the ensemble.
Give Me the Simple Life by Puma's group has a hip energy, with Puma leading the way and comping with beautiful guitar chords behind the soloists. On this one, Herbie Mann plays a big, smokey tenor sax.
Lacy was a fascinating player who stretched his intellectual side throughout his life, often foregoing songbook standards for brave new works and letting his curiosity seek out cutting-edge players. Throughout his career, Lacy had an eye for the visual arts and poetry, which became important sources of influence. During his lengthy career, Lacy collaborated with painters and dancers in multimedia projects.
Steve Lacy died in 2004.
JazzWax note: Soprano saxophonist and educator Bill Kirchner sent along a link to a marvelous piece that Whitey Mitchell wrote for Down Beat in 1961 (go here). According to Bill, after this article was published, comedian Lenny Bruce wrote him a fan letter. He persuaded Whitey to leave music and pursue a career as a TV comedy writer, which he did. His work as a writer/producer included My Mother, the Car.
JazzWax clips: Here's guitarist Dick Garcia's Potatoes...
Here's You Stepped Out of a Dream, arranged by Neal Hefti...
And here's Give Me the Simple Life...
A special thanks to David Langner.