Forty years ago, Thelonious Monk went to New York's 5 Spot club to hear a young soprano saxophone player named Steve Lacy; a few months later, he added Lacy to his quartet. "It was a very generous step for him to take," Lacy recalls in the Monk bio Straight, No Chaser. "I had been on his case for years. I was working on his music since the mid-'50s. I recorded the first records of his music that had ever been done. He couldn't not be aware of me." After working with and befriending Monk, Lacy formed a group with young trombonist Roswell Rudd that focused exclusively on Monk's compositions -- the only recorded remnant of which is 1963's School Days.
Lacy went on to become the premier soprano sax player of his generation, most famously introducing Coltrane to the instrument, while Rudd starred with Archie Shepp and others during the '60s. Both of their careers have been marked by continuing musical research and the quest for freedom through discipline they first learned playing Monk's tunes. Now the two have reunited for this important album, which shows that their virtuosity and incredibly deft interplay haven't been dulled by the passing years. From the first bars of the opening title track they display an almost telepathic connection, trading riffs and playing off each other in a way that can't help but recall the amazing exchanges between Monk and saxophonist Charlie Rouse on the original recordings. With the longtime Lacy rhythm section of Jean-Jacques Avenel (double bass) and John Betsch (drums), the album serves as an excellent survey of the paths Lacy has mapped out over the course of his career.
"Pannonica" is the only other Monk tune included, while Lacy standards "The Rent" and "The Bath" show how Lacy has adapted Monk's dissonant ideas to his own offbeat style. "A Bright Pearl" and "Traces," meanwhile, represent Lacy's continuing fascination with Eastern philosophy, previously visited on such albums as Remains, and his desire to wed poetry with music. They're also the only tracks on which vocalist Irene Aebi appears; Aebi, Lacy's wife and longtime collaborator, has a beautiful voice, but her operatic trilling is an acquired taste. These songs also display Rudd and Lacy at their most "out there," showing once again that Lacy's disciplined ear allows him to play with more freedom than most supposedly "free" musicians.
The Steve Lacy/Roswell Rudd Quartet plays Saturday, March 18, at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. at Noe Valley Ministry, 1021 Sanchez (at 23rd Street), S.F. Tickets are $16-18; call 454-5238.