April 9, 2015
A Needlessly Long and Pointlessly Late Review of Sands by Steve Lacy
Sands - Steve Lacy - (Tzadik Records, USA, TZ 7124, 1998, cd/mp3)
This album was released in 1998 but the music on it didn't come to my ears until April, 2015. Although a review at such a late date is useless for promotional purposes, it might nevertheless serve a useful role in terms of guiding listeners to the music, which still exists and is still commercially available.
It's probably a bad idea to google reviews of an album before writing one's own review. Knowing what others have written may help one to avoid redundancy but is more likely to alter the review one would have written in ignorance of the reactions of others. Nevertheless, I found one review that described "Sands" as a practice session, in which students of soprano saxophone technique would find interest, and another review that high-lighted its relevance to Radical Jewish Culture, the name of the series in which it appears on John Zorn's Tzadik label. Well, I had already listened to the album several times and it had not occurred to me to think of it as either a pedagogical demonstration of technical proficiency nor as a document of Jewish influence.
Still, I was alarmed by the idea that this album could be described as "a practice session". For those who find interest in improvised music, especially solo improvisation, the lure is not (at least for me and for many I suppose) in the technical proficiency of the artist but in the subversive influence of the music. The music communicates a message through the ears of the receptive listener to the brain, prompting one to step outside the conventional mindset and experience an alternative perception, fulfilling the most basic function of art. The medium for this communication process is both emotional and intellectual, but the emotional content cannot be entirely stricken from the equation. However, can one "practice emotion"? Can there be genuine emotional content in a practice session? The intuitive answer is no. Anecdotes reveal that the non-idiomatic improvisational guitarist, Derek Bailey, preferred not to rehearse at all before a live performance with a collaborator with whom he had not previously worked, allowing instead for the magic to be born in the moments of authentic exploration.
Therefore, my ability to appreciate "Sands" now hinged upon being able to reject the idea that it was a "practice session". To better answer that session, I listened in a back-to-back comparison between "Sands" and tracks from two other records. First, I chose "November" (Intakt Records Intakt CD 171, 2010), a recording of Steve Lacy's final solo live performance, which is rich in emotional content. Second, because there are no tracks in common between "Sands" and "November", I also listened to "Avignon And After Volume 1" (Emanem 5023, 2012), which contains one track, "The Dumps", also present on "Sands".
Playing two versions of "The Dumps" back to back revealed that the recording is crisper on "Sands", a document recorded in 1998 in Lacy's home in Paris than on "Avignon and After", recorded live in 1972. That clarity may give "Sands" a little more polished feel. The playing itself may be a little more precise in the at-home setting than on stage, but only modestly so. My thought here is that if one were asked to identify which version is live and which is studio, the decision would be based largely on recording quality and not on the playing. Since we (at least this reviewer) accept the emotional content of the live performance as a given, then by comparison a similar content exists on the version of "The Dumps" on "Sands". Conversely, the only way one might see "Sands" as a practice session is if one viewed all of Lacy's solo playing as a demonstration of technical proficiency on the soprano sax. (Certainly, the intent of this review is explicitly not to suggest the indefensible position that Lacy lacked technical proficiency on the soprano saxophone.)
Comparing the playing on "Sands" to that on "November", one hears that Lacy is a little more wild and wooly (relatively speaking) in the live setting. Still, the difference does not seem so great as to relegate "Sands" to the status of "practice session". What I, with my ignorant ear, heard was the same careful, soulful solo saxophone that one hears in live recordings of solo Lacy. His message is still communicated. One simply has to be in a frame of mind in which one is open to the idea that these sounds from an unaccompanied soprano saxophone are capable of possessing a beauty. That beauty emanates in equal parts from the particular shape and sequence of acoustic waves that are generated by the speakers playing the music as from resonances between the totality of the combined experiences of the human being who created and performed the music and the human being listening to them long after Lacy has passed away.