Steve Lacy – Evidence
by Carl Schultz
Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy had a long and diverse career. Possibly known more for the projects he led in the second half of his life, Lacy also performed and recorded with many musicians associated with the ‘Trad,’ Bebop, and Swing styles. These included pianists Thelonious Monk, Mal Waldron, and Wynton Kelly, drummers Elvin Jones, Billy Higgins, and Roy Haynes, among others. Lacy’s career began during an era of change in modern jazz music and he was a part of this change, performing and recording with Cecil Taylor early in the pianist’s career. Evidence, the solo examined in this piece, is the title track from a 1961 recording featuring other musicians active in that time’s musical evolution.
The personnel for “Evidence”, Lacy’s fourth album as a leader, was Don Cherry, Billy Higgins, and Carl Brown. Other musicians used this ‘chord-less’ quartet featuring two of the four members of Ornette Coleman’s quartet in the 1960s such as John Coltrane. “The Avant Garde” , a Coltrane recorded in 1960, featured all the members of Coleman’s quartet with Coltrane replacing Coleman. The album also contained Coleman’s original compositions, unlike “Evidence” which is comprised of pieces by Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington.
Evidence, from the album “Evidence,” is a simple presentation of the Thelonious Monk piece. The performance begins with a short introduction of time executed by the drums and bass followed by a statement of the melody by the trumpet and saxophone. This is followed by two solos, trumpet and saxophone respectively, and the out head. It is worth noting that between the end of the saxophone solo and the out head one can hear what sounds like a splice. This may indicate that another solo or trading was cut for time or that the musicians spliced a better ending onto these particular solos.
One of the aspects of this recording that makes such a simple presentation so enjoyable to listen to is the way in which Cherry and Lacy solo so differently. A noticeable difference between the two solos can be heard in the time feel each player adopts. For the most part, Cherry’s solo makes use of a conventional, eighth note based approach to playing time. Unlike Cherry, Lacy plays as if he is hearing the time at half or quarter speed. Although it is not possible to definitively know the specific manner in which Steve Lacy was hearing, a brief survey of the rhythmic values that are prominent in the solo should indicate something quite distinct from Cherry’s aforementioned approach.
During his three choruses, Steve Lacy plays a total of 255 notes. Of these, 36.5% are notes of a duration one and a half beats or longer. This may not mean anything by itself but if this statistic is put into context through a comparison to other solos of the era one begins to understand that it is unconventional. Through the first four choruses of his solo on the 1959 recording of Giant Steps, John Coltrane plays 419 notes. Of these, only 3.4% are of a duration one and a half beats or more. Admittedly, that example is one taken from a solo known to be particularly eighth-note driven and should serve as an example of an extreme. However, Sonny Rollins’ solo on his masterpiece, St. Thomas also shows favoritism towards notes of shorter duration. In his first solo (Rollins takes a second, swing based solo after the drum solo), Rollins plays 320 notes. 4% of these notes are one and half beats or longer in duration. These examples stand in sharp comparison to Lacy’s 36.5%.
Analysis of the note density found in each formal section of the piece hints to something other than the time-feel employed, the arc of the solo (see Fig. 1). During each chorus of his solo Lacy uses more notes, specifically 67, 87, and 92 notes. This would seem to indicate that the solo builds continuously and explodes at its conclusion. This is not what one hears as they listen to it. First, the solo never explodes. Lacy’s intensity is always in check and even during its peak; the solo is simmering not boiling. This reserve is yet another contrast between Lacy and Cherry and provides the listener with more contrast within the single piece.
If one looks back to Fig. 1, the arc can be seen clearly. The section of the solo beginning with the bridge of the second chorus and ending with the second A of the third chorus has the highest concentration of note density. This section is roughly one third of the solo and contains 49% of the notes in the entire solo. Approximately 19% of these notes, comprising nearly half of the notes in the solo, are of a duration one and a half beats or longer. The final section of the solo, the bridge and last A of the third chorus, features a quick drop off in note density and longer average duration. This can be seen when comparing density percentages of 19% from the previous section with the 67% found in these final sixteen measures.
The contrast between the rhythmic language of Lacy and Cherry has been noted, but might there have been another reason for Lacy’s sparse playing? If one thinks of the attack of notes and not their duration, the melody to Evidence is considerably sparse. Most measures contain one attack (53.1%), some have two (37.5%), and no measure in the entire piece has more than three (9.4% have three attacks). When subjected to the same analysis, the last sixteen measures of Lacy’s solo bear similar figures as 62.5% have one attack, 25% have two, and 12.5% have three attacks. This sparse means of melodic construction may be a way for Lacy to relate his solo to the melody of the piece.
Alongside his rhythmic approach, the harmonic content of Lacy’s solo is also an area of interest. Throughout the solo, the techniques of motivic development and sequencing are used to great effect. Rarely literal, Lacy’s sequences are often motivic and allow him leeway within the piece’s harmonic framework. An example of this can be found early on in the solo during measures 9 – 14. This passage is actually comprised of two sequences with the first eliding into the second. The first sequence is based on the succession of two consecutive diatonic thirds. The material in measures nine and ten is comprised of a third (A and C) along with its lower chromatic neighbor, G#. This is followed by another third in measures eleven and twelve that is directly below the previous third when thinking of a scale diatonic to the piece’s home key. This portion of the passage includes the third’s lower chromatic neighbor, the F#, and is close to being a literal sequence. This passage’s first divergence from its predecessor comes in the rhythmic sense. The rhythms found in measures nine and eleven both emphasize beats one and three but in the first instance, beat one is short and three is long. This is reversed in measure eleven. Alongside this alteration is a melodic change found in measure twelve. On his way up from the third’s lower chromatic neighbor, Lacy plays a G# instead of a G natural. This alteration allows him to retain the general shape of the sequence while redefining the function of this specific note. It is no longer a chord tone but instead serves as the lower chromatic neighbor to the downbeat of measure 13 and allows Lacy to flow into his next sequence.
The first two notes in measure 13 serve to relate new material to what came before it. In the previous example, two consecutive diatonic thirds were shown. If one were to follow their direction the next third in the sequence would contain the first two notes of measure 13 in the order that they appear. Measures 13 and 14 serve as an example of motivic development, the least literal version of a sequence. Just as in the example shown above, the rhythms found in these two measures are similar, in fact they are identical but the harmonic content of these measures is clearly not sequential. The pitches of longest duration are found on a strong beat (beat three) and both are guide tones but the material leading to and from these pitches are obviously not sequential. It is the shape of the figures that resemble one another and it is this similarity that the listener hears. This type of motivic development occurs frequently throughout the solo and can been heard at measures 33 – 36, 41 – 44, 49 – 54, 57 – 59, 60 – 63, and 73 – 78. These passages do not feature literal sequence. Instead, they use melodic contour, partial transposition, and rhythmic devices to develop the initial idea.
These few ideas only serve as an introduction to this solo as there is a lot more here. However, the concepts discussed are ones I hear in other periods in Lacy’s career. His solo concerts make use of slow, motivic development and shifting or distinct approaches to time-feel. This is one means by which he keeps these programs interesting. If one listens for it, the hearing of these concepts can bring a different experience to the listening of Lacy’s music.