Dissonance is not popular among jazz musicians today, at least not in any broad sense.  Think of other musics where twenty somethings are a vital audience (rock, hip hop, techno, the various metal musics, r&b and even pop to an extent) and that makes jazz an anomaly.  For the most part, dissonance in jazz is either used in the traditional way (as a dynamic way of returning to consonance) or it’s softened by couching it in reverberating timbres (think of most of the ECM records of the past 25 years).  Where dissonance does exist by itself, it’s often played LOUDLY and rarely does it contrast with less dissonant textures.  This is where I think Steve Lacy made some pretty thoughtful (and profound) contributions.  Building on the precedence of Monk (and before that Ellington, and before that James P. Johnson and contemporaneous with that Sidney Bechet), Lacy heard dissonance as a sound, a fairly compelling one and something that didn’t need much in the way of softening.

[N.B.  ‘Dissonance’ is a word that gets bandied about a fair bit without any real clarity of meaning.  Of course, like any frequently used word, it has a lot of meanings.  For the purposes of this essay, I’m using dissonance to mean this, this or this (scroll down to “Quality” and click on Minor second, Major second, Tritone, Minor seventh or Major seventh).]

I’ve selected five of what I consider some of Lacy’s most dissonant pieces.  I left plenty out, but these are pieces that range from the cryptically strange to the downright harrowing.  What they all share is that they are clearly the work of an exceptionally musical mind that has as deep an understanding of dissonance and its expressive possibilities as it does consonance.

The Forest [fragment]
SL – sop. sax., Enrico Rava – tp., Johnny Dyani – bs., Louis Moholo – dr. recorded live on Oct. 8, 1966 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Released on The Forest and The Zoo on ESP records.

I bought this CD after one of my first lessons with Steve.  At the time I had very few records that featured him (like two) and I asked him which of his records he really enjoyed.  He rubbed his chin with his fingers and then drawled, “Well, I like this one called The Forest and the Zoo.  I don’t know if you can still get it, but that one still holds up.”  Luckily, it’s been in steady circulation for the past ten years from ESP and it’s still one of the more idiosyncratic free records out there. In many ways, it’s a 60’s counter-culture counterpart to New Orleans Jazz.  Louis Moholo’s steady and forceful thrumming is quick, but not loud.  Simultaneous with this Lacy, Rava and Dyani throw down splotches of sound at a seemingly leisurely tempo.  What’s truly remarkable about all this is how calmly all four are inhabiting their own sonic universes, but still listening to each other.  It’s counterpoint in the sense of independent voices, but it’s also quite definitely dissonant.

The Woe [fragment]
SL – sop. sax., Steve Potts – alt. sax., Irene Aebi – vc.&voice, Kent Carter – bs., Oliver Johnson – dr. recorded live on Jan. 26, 1973 in Zurich, Switzerland. Released on Weal & Woe on Emanem Records.

Jazz as protest song.  The Woe was a four-part suite written by Steve to protest the Vietnam War.  He played it frequently in the late sixties and in fact, this recording is the final live performance of it after a solid two years of playing nothing but it at concerts (the peace treaty was signed the day after this concert).  Of the five samples, this is the most conventionally dissonant (it’s LOUDLY dissonant).  Still, the unique Lacyean hallmarks are still present.  The opening figure is a simple, almost nursery rhyme, up-and-down phrase voiced strictly in minor seconds by two saxophones.  It starts off prickly and by the eighth iteration it’s an all-out war with the instruments playing along to a homemade soundtrack composed of exploding bombs, rattling machine-guns and whistling missiles.  This is a five-minute fragment of a twenty-minute section.  While the events are a bit hoary, the sentiment is just as relevant today.  Take a moment now to realize that since the Vietnam War, the U.S. has always been involved in an armed conflict of some kind somewhere in the world.  The behavior Steve was protesting forty years ago continues to this day and has not significantly changed.  That’s a pretty disturbing (dissonant?) thought.

The Cryptosphere
SL – reed and sop. sax. (Ruby Braff on tp. in background). Recorded in Sep. 9-10, 1971 in Paris, France. Released on Scratching the Seventies on Saravah.

From violently aggressive to coyly mysterious.  “The Cryptosphere” is a solo multi-tracked piece from Steve’s first solo studio record Lapis. This is about “another music, hidden in the corner, on the ground and behind the furniture.”  The dissonance here is more cognitive than anything else, but still there is the irritant of controlled saxophone ‘kisses.’ It’s a piece inspired by Marcel Duchamp and the relationship is clear upon first listening.  Like one of Duchamp’s assemblages, it arranges a few discreet musical objects (a Ruby Braff record, a saxophone reed being run through his hair and lip buzzing done on a mouthpiece-less soprano) in front of the listener and invites them to create the relationship. And again, part of what makes this track so unique is it’s low volume level.  The listener’s participation is requested rather than demanded.

The Wire
SL – sop. sax., Steve Potts – sop. sax., Irene Aebi – vc., Michael Smith – pno., Kent Carter – bs., Kenneth Tyler – perc. Recorded Feb. 18-21, 1974 in Paris France. Released on Scratching the Seventies on Saravah.

For those that don’t know this piece already, this is a.) a musical portrait of the final moments of Albert Ayler’s life ticking away and b.) the piece from which the British-based music magazine gets its title.  The first time I heard this piece I was shocked and saddened.  The harrowing string glissandi (perpetrated by Irene Aebi and Kent Carter), the insistent piano clusters () and once again, two soprano saxophones with a child-like chanting voiced a minor second apart.  It all adds up to a pretty carefully controlled portrait.  There isn’t any need for this piece to rise above a mezzo forte or forte, it’s already plenty confrontational.  It also clocks in at a manageable 5:13, more than enough time to make its point, but at the same time leaving the listener dazed and wondering if it all really happened or was it just a dream.

Nowhere Street [fragment]
SL – sop. sax., Steve Potts – sop. sax., Irene Aebi – vocal & vln., Bobby Few – pno., Jean-Jacques Avenel – bs., Oliver Johnson – dr., Brion Gysin – words. Recorded Jan. 28-29, 1981 in Paris France. Released on Songs on hat ART records.

This is from 1981’s terrific collaboration between Steve Lacy and the painter/writer Brion Gysin.  Like the longer selections, I’ve abridged this one to make my point with a little more brevity.  So when the tune fades in, it’s halfway through the opening melody and just before the blowing begins.  All the hallmarks of mature Steve Lacy are now in place:  the embrace of dissonance for its own prickly sake, a regular and singable rhythm, and a harmonically ambiguous mode (it sounds Phrygian, but just how Phrygian is it?).  But added to this is a really thrilling and mature group dynamic.  Irene Aebi goes to town here.  She might not have the finest technique, but this has to be one of the most beautiful freely atonal solos committed to a recording.  Everyone gives her plenty of room, (Steve Potts carefully and periodically dumping a controlled squall, quiet whistles and moans from Lacy, prickly clouds of arpeggios from Bobby Few) and the combined effect is an excruciating portrait of Gysin’s Nowhere Street.

There was a time in jazz when dissonance like this was much more the norm.  So much so, that the aural landscape became over-saturated with ‘unlistenable’ sounds.  It makes sense that the cultural pendulum has swung back the other way in the past several decades towards the side of  ‘pretty’ music.  Maybe it’s time for it to swing back.  Not so much to a place of full-out assault, but to an egalitarian place where all sounds are treated and represented equally.

For those of you interested in hearing a more musical take on these matters (and a few others), Ideal Bread (js, Kirk Knuffke, Reuben Radding, Tomas Fujiwara) will be celebrating the release of their second CD Transmit on Cuneiform Records with a special Live In-Studio appearance on Sunday, June 6th at 58NorthSix Media Labs in Williamsburg Brooklyn.  Advanced tickets are available for $10 if you click here or $15 at the door. Free beverages and special advance-issue copies of the CD will be available.  We’ll be recording the evening’s events so come and be famous for a night (at least in our eyes).

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