Steve Lacy | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Steve Lacy 

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Forty years ago saxist Steve Lacy became the first musician to seriously investigate the music of Thelonious Monk; in so doing he anticipated the eventual reassessment of the bearish pianist by a jazz establishment that originally wrote him off as an eccentric primitive. To this day Monk's spirit guides Lacy, a born iconoclast who spent the 50s mastering the soprano saxophone. A decade before John Coltrane adopted and popularized it, Lacy treated the notoriously difficult horn as more than a novelty, achieving the rough-hewn tone and texture associated with Monk's piano. In developing his powerful improvisational style, Lacy has built upon other Monk-ish attributes: a respect for the melodic quirks and structural integrity of his themes, and the ability to worry a knotted motif into full-blown flight. Don't get me wrong--Lacy's oeuvre is distinctive in its own right. His melodies still echo Monk's in their angular skips and plunges, but they throw off the harmonic shackles, spinning off into shapes molded by free jazz and employing some rule-breaking improvisational strategies. Genius at work? The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation thought so, awarding him a grant a few years ago. Best known in recent years for leading a confrontational sextet, Lacy will perform in two more-intimate formats here. Wednesday he'll play with bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel and drummer John Betsch, who have formed the core of his bands since the early 80s and who complete the trio on his lovely recent album Bye-Ya (Free Lance). Thursday he'll perform solo. Wednesday, 9 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western; 773-276-3600. Thursday, 8:30 PM, Unity Temple, 875 Lake, Oak Park; 708-383-8873. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Lauren Deutsch.


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