& Planning
(Paul R. Hellegeist)

During the period 1995-2004, Gilles wrote reviews of every Steve Lacy performance he was able to attend (from solo gigs to septet concerts).
This took him from New York to Washington DC to France and all the way to Japan...

All were published on Steve Lacy's website, and have been compiled in the Book Let's Call this... The Bath.

This section presents several excerpts from the book, as well as more recent ones that could not be included in the book's first edition. More reviews (with photos) will be added / changed on a rotation basis.

Click picture to ZOOMTHE CRY
American Premiere - Steve Lacy's jam opera "THE CRY"

At the Jewish Community Center, Washington D.C., 28 June 1998

Steve Lacy's musical innovations, from solo improvisations through unusual multi-instrument orchestrations to those involving theatrical works, poets and dancers, have long been recognized as the main driving forces of his career, besides his life-long passion for the music of Thelonious Monk, of course. But examining his ongoing considerable "oeuvre", it is plain that Mr. Lacy's fascination with words (what he calls "le flux du langage"), already evident in his sonic explorations of the late sixties/early seventies, has become more and more preponderant in his recent works.

His latest major endeavour, "The Cry", which premiered in the USA this past Sunday in Washington DC, is described by Mr. Lacy as a "jam opera". It appears as the logical evolution of his adventurousness in multi-media encounters, which can be broadly traced through albums such as "The Woe" (1973), "The Way" (1979, first ensemble version of the Tao cycle), "Songs" (1981, with Brion Gysin), "Futurities" (1984-85, based on verses by Robert Creeley), to the more recent major works like "Vespers" (1993), which focused on Blaga Dimitrova's mystical and clever poems, and "Packet" (1995), which presented songs about theatre, life, death, birth, aging, pain, wandering, being a woman, inspired by Judith Malina's "Poems of a Wandering Jewess".

In the making during all of 1996 while Lacy was in Berlin on a DAAD grant, "The Cry" has been an assiduous, lengthy and rather difficult (even tumultuous) endeavour since Taslima Nasrin's gripping poem, "Happy Marriage", appeared in The New Yorker magazine in September 1994. A journalist and a poet, Nasrin's outspoken feminism prompted conservative Islamists in Bangladesh to order her execution, forcing her to go in exile.

The poem immediately appealed to Lacy and inspired him to write music based on her biting words: the resulting song, renamed "The Cry", was first featured in New York at Sculptor Alain Kirili's AC Project Room in late December 1995 as part of a program entitled "Old Flames" (in duo with Irene Aebi). But, just as it was Irene's idea to set to music the poetry of Judith Malina, it was again her idea to make Nasrin's poems, which she could relate to her own politics and feminity, into an opera. The rest is now history.

First presented as a work in progress in Calais (France) on a bare stage in November 1996, "The Cry" necessitated serious security measures to protect Nasrin from renewed death threats made by fundamentalists. It had a relatively incident-free World premiere in Berlin (Hebbel Theatre) to a sold-out audience in January 1997. It was well received in March 1997 at the Women's Festival in Palermo (Italy) by an enthusiastic audience of some 800 spectators. However, its first French presentation / live recording in Paris (Théâtre Dunois) in April 1997 had to be produced by the artists themselves as a result of an unfortunate misunderstanding with the "Banlieue Bleues Festival" producer about the artistic integrity of the show, as Nasrin's physical presence on stage was no longer to be part of the show... Since then, it was played in Geneva and Bordeaux earlier this year. It thus took well over a year to organize the current North American tour in Vancouver, Washington and Chicago (see concert schedule).

The American premiere in Washington on 28 June (two performances, at 3 & 8 p.m.) was part of the capital's "Jazzarts '98" Festival, running from 07 June till 16 August. Despite an enticing announcement in the (usually) influential Washington City Paper presenting "The Cry" as THE event to see/hear on Sunday 28 June, and despite sizeable ads both in the local press and in national jazz magazines, attendance was puzzlingly shockingly poor : some 60 spectators only at the matinee and slightly less than 100 at the evening performance, where the unannounced presence of a very unassuming Taslima Nasrin and a small entourage (bodyguards?) was noted.

So what's wrong with American audiences? Two days earlier, in the Canadian city of Vancouver, the concert hall was packed. In the American capital, where gender issues are so prominently in the limelight, often measured with political correctness in mind, where "Women in Jazz festivals" have been fairly regularly organized in the last few years, one would have expected more interest in such noble artistic, almost "feminist" event. Sadly, there appears to be a general indifference in this country to anything not considered "pop" or immediately saleable or commercially profitable...

Variously and erroneously called by some critics and the press, "a jazz operetta" (there is nothing light or amusing nor any dialogue in it), a "mini opera" (maybe), and also "operina" (now what is that?), "The Cry" is best named as Mr. Lacy calls it himself, a "jam opera", with all that these two words imply. He describes it as follows:
"The words of a dozen songs tell the story of a woman from adolescence until old age, especially about matters of the heart, and the subjugation of women in society and their own bodies, and to men in particular and in general. It is the story of all women, transformed from poetry to song and jazz. The show is also about the nature of language, the power of words, the danger and the necessity of speaking out." .... "The musicians play an exhaustive score of some 40 pages of music and also improvise their own commentary."

"The Cry" is a moving musical portrait of a woman, revealing both her strength and her vulnerability, talking about love, pleasure, pain and aging. It is a rather unusual opera in every artistic aspect which had to be addressed in such adventurous terrain, i.e. its extensive musical score, its subtle orchestration, its gender sensitive personnel (four women and three men), its sober but powerfully effective decor, and its discreet but definitely appropriate costumes.

It is a very fresh piece of music in two parts. Each part, comprised of six poems, is played almost as a continuous piece, each poem literally flowing into the next one. The tension created by the last verse of "Aggression": "in tremendous fear I secretly go on living", finds its relief in a 15 minutes intermission which also serves to change the simple but powerful decors, designed by Wanda Savy, portraying two close-up views of a woman's face which reminds some of Modigliani's paintings. Each banner (one for each part) befits the nature of each series of six poems and reflects the woman's outlook on herself at different stages of her life : quite appropriately, the first focuses on the intense eyes of a young, strong and hopeful woman, marvelling at life, looking "droit devant" (as the second poem "Straight path" implies) bravely facing with innocence, surprise and courage the problems she encounters; the second shows her almost full face, more introverted, sort of sadly looking back with immense eyes, reflecting on her inner thoughts and dreams, on her desires, and on getting old (as the last poem "Rundown" so vividly depicts).

The costumes, created by Pia Myrvold, smartly combine fragments of the text and of the score, each natural linen vest worn by each musician (except Aebi, who has her own wardrobe) being a one-of-a-kind creation, making a strong visual statement about the power of the words and of their intelligently written complementing score.

Musically, "The Cry" has a genuinely new sound, what would be called in French "une sonorité inouïe" (= literally translated, a sound no one has ever heard before) blooming from a truly unconventional septet composed of double bass, harpsichord, accordion, latino percussions/ congas, sopranino saxophone/bass clarinet, soprano saxophone, and voice. Just think: have you ever heard harpsichord (played at times not unlike Cecil Taylor's famous "elbow" chords...) swinging with latino percussions rhythms? or a very feminine, dreamy accordion, so unlike Piazzolla's all too often imitated typical phrases? or the relatively "classical" set-up of bass clarinet/ harpsichord/ double bass, spiced-up with "modern" metallurgic harmonics coming out of a soprano saxophone? Simply put, the music is captivating in its great freshness, and fascinating in both its simplicity and complexity.

But it is Steve Lacy's writing for his voice - his wife Irene Aebi - which ties it all together. It is hard to imagine any other woman's voice capable of so poignantly conveying the most vulnerable traits and strong qualities of the woman who can be sensed and guessed through the poems, which are so difficult to sing. For now, Irene Aebi is plainly the only singer capable of performing those songs, as only her vocal assets have the humble quality of that "average anonymous woman" courageous enough to speak out, express her fears and dreams so openly, and smile and laugh in despair at the decrepitude of a woman's aging body :

"Once I had the body of a queen
Now it's lowly, decrepit, an old house
plaster falling off
Sad, but true"...

Her performance was a real "tour de force" at times reminiscent of some of the Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire stunningly difficult "Sprechstimme" vocal gymnastics. Despite what seemed like an unevenly adjusted sound balance, she impressively carried the weight of the powerful poems translated from Bengali by Carolyne Wright, and ironically expressed the profoundly cruel realism of the shattering "Rundown" ("Ambapali speaks" text of 500 B.C.) which concludes "The Cry"s invocation.

All in all, "The Cry" is a challenging and complex piece of music, which requires -- like most masterpieces -- sustained listenings to fully appreciate. Maybe, like Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, the best way to approach "The Cry" is to listen to the work's continuity, the shifting play and permutation of instrumental sonorities, and the progress and projection of the text, bringing speech and song into close harmony. With the profound meaning of the poems, these traits seem to be what makes "The Cry" new, abrasive, exciting, and frightening in the lesson it teaches the attentive listener about the life of a woman.

Gilles Laheurte, 04 July 1998


The adventure continues. Started in mid-1998 - first at the Dumaurier Theatre in Toronto (in June) then at the Caramoor Jazz Festival in Katona (in August) – Lacy’s association with Panamanian-born pianist Danilo Perez has been a happy and exciting relationship from their very first encounter.

At every reunion over the past six years, "Duets" has continually shown the deep chemistry that exists between these two brilliant improvisers, a chemistry that consistently results in inspired performances and renewed mutual vows to continue their musical association. Their first performances together a few years ago made the audiences react with warm enthusiasm. Last years’ engagement at Sweet Rhythm (in May 2003) was voted by several Jazz critics (All About Jazz/New York) as one of the best and most memorable gigs of the year. And this recent reunion at Zankel Hall probably will too.

The first part of the concert featured the Danilo Perez Trio, playing what appeared to be a recently composed suite comprised of five distinct pieces, almost entirely scored - judging from the abundant sheet music spread out in front of each musician - leaving very little space for solo improvisations. The audience reacted rather politely.

As the evening’s program was being performed without intermission, the transition to the much-awaited duo took place without fanfare… From the first few bars, it was clear this second part was going to be a very different musical experience. The fiery introductory piece, The Hoot (dedicated to John Gilmore), memorable for its repeated series of descending chords, immediately revealed the closeness of the partnership, both artists so in tune with each other, Perez totally attentive to every sound exhaled out of the golden soprano, Lacy attentively listening to Perez’ clever keyboard inventions based on wide-spaced variations of the main chords. After this initial fire, in contrast, gentle airy poetry flew out of Flakes, a disarmingly simple pentatonic phrase yet complex in its smart subtle changes, kind of obsessively repeated, that always allows Lacy to cover freely the full range of the soprano. This time, he blew out delicate little squirts, developing them into a luminous abstract solo turning into smooth, long phrases descending to a very soft and voluptuous low Bb, flying all the way back up there in the sky as snow flakes would in the wind, while in contrast Perez kept his counterpoints in a classical deconstruction of the tune, in which the spirit of Thelonious Monk could be felt.

Two tunes by Danilo Perez followed, gently announced by Lacy. The first (untitled) was played mostly in unison, with a short but very tender piano solo leading directly into the second tune, Love in Five, which featured a delicate and attentive interplay between piano and soprano, very incandescent and poetic.

For the next tune, Deadline (written in 1975 during his first tour in Japan), Lacy explained to the audience his choice for such title and how it came to be. Through eight accelerated repeats, he brought the intriguing piece to a medium speed only, before releasing its energy into quirky warped notes, full of humor, climbing up and down the soprano’s register as if on a ladder, letting Perez abandon himself into a sort of as-of-yet unexplored Debussian mood, caressing the keyboard with his left hand and stomping the floor with his right foot.

Esteem (for Johnny Hodges) surprised the audience with Lacy starting the piece walking on stage, playing off mike, away from the piano, soon bringing the tune to the soprano’s altissimo register in a single bounce (from middle E1 to high E4), a perfect jump and one of his most perilous technical trademarks on the instrument. Lacy’s solo was very solemn, shining like a bright light, full of reverence for its dedicatee, while Perez colorfully plucked the strings inside the gorgeous sounding Steinway, bringing into his own solo a few Japanese chords and scales, before they concluded the piece in an extremely soft and tender whisper.

To close the concert, the always energetic and rhythmic Blinks was quickly rephrased into bits and pieces of the tune shortly after the theme had been played, soon leaving Perez alone, buoyant in joyful right hand / left hand counterpoints, obviously stimulated by the challenge of Lacy’s insistent teasing squirts up to the reprise of the tune’s hopping rhythm, bringing the concert to a surprising close.

The music was captivating as always, and the two musicians were openly radiant – for very good reasons. So was the audience, or most of it. For the younger crowd and the real fans, thrill was in their words, with the outspoken commitment to not miss the next episode of this exciting “Duets” adventure. However, a small minority – definitely middle-aged (and above), visibly well-to-do, clearly attending the concert as part of their subscription series – was rather perplexed, and really did not know what to make of these brilliant yet seemingly unorthodox “Duets.” As a case in point, the following dialogue was overheard after the show between a few elegantly dressed senior citizens:

- What kind of music was that?
- Well, I think that’s what they call experimental jazz. And if this is what it was, well… that’s what it is…
- What kind of instrument was this guy playing, anyway?
- I am not sure. But I think it is called a soprano saxophone…

Obviously, these well-meaning patrons had not read the evening’s program – although short and to the point, with an input by Howard Mandel - and most likely may not have understood the beauty and originality of the music. But at least, they stayed through the entire concert and heard something provocative to their ears. Hopefully, all of these nice people will remember what a soprano saxophone looks like and can sound like. But… will they ever realize WHO was the legend they had come to hear?

© Gilles Laheurte, 14 February 2004

The Tunes:
Part 1 – The Danilo Perez Trio
Danilo Perez, piano; Adam Cruz, Drums; Ben Street, double bass
- 5 tunes, titles unknown (all by Danilo Perez)

Part 2 - Danilo Perez - Steve Lacy Duets
The Hoot (Lacy)
Flakes (Lacy)
Untitled, and Love in Five (Perez)
Deadline (Lacy)
Esteem (Lacy)
Blinks (Lacy)

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