Throughout his career Steve Lacy paid tribute to Thelonious Monk, and even dedicated numerous albums to Monk’s music. A lot of great jazz musicians feted Monk and were clearly influenced by the master pianist/composer, too, but perhaps not with the zeal of Lacy. In the years since Lacy’s death in 2004, he’s been adulated himself among practitioners of out-jazz and the respect is even reaching the point of tribute bands being created expressly to perform his quirky, original compositions. One of these, Ideal Bread, got our attention for its bringing to life Lacy compositions Lacy himself didn’t get to introduce before his death. This time, though, there’s a debut record by a new ensemble dedicated to spreading Lacy’s legacy through songs that built that legacy.
The Whammies, as it’s called, is a group pulled together from the progressive jazz scenes of Chicago, Boston and Amsterdam, instigated by alto saxophonist Jorrit Dijkstra and pianist Pandelis Karayorgis. Jeb Bishop plays the trombone, Nate McBride is on acoustic bass, Han Bennink, a legend himself, is behind the drum kit and for half of the tracks, Mary Oliver performs on violin and viola. The name “Whammies” comes from a Lacy composition, one that starts with a slightest kernel of a repeating, rapidly descending note pattern and explodes out in all directions from there. That song and six other Lacy songs get revisited on The Whammies’ debut, Play The Music Of Steve Lacy.
In paying tribute to their hero, these guys go beyond playing Lacy’s songs, but also adopt much of the easy going nature and humor that belies serious musicianship prowling just under that carefree surface. They seemingly are on a mission to portray (accurately) Lacy as someone who loved old jazz — going all the way back to Dixieland — but using that music as a launching point into the jazz that leaps forward into original sounds and structures falling far outside of convention. A fowl-like racket appear on a couple of tunes, like “Bone,” which begins with Dijkstra and Bishop chirping like birds before breaking out into an old time swing that quickly deconstructs, leading to crisp inside-outside solos by each of these horn players. More overt in its reference to feathered creatures is “Ducks,” where, surprise! the sax and trombone are squeaking and honking like mallards.
Bennink is a living link back to Lacy, as he’s performed with him back in the 80s, and Bennink’s playing on this record could even be heard as a direct extension of Lacy’s concept to the drums. His intelligent use of space and subtly impactful hues as he has one foot in tradition and the other into the abyss helps to crate this warped blues found on “As Usual.” Bennink controls the shifting moods on “I Feel A Draft,” through the steady building of tension and release.
One noted departure from Lacy’s approach is Dijkstra’s passion for vintage analog electronics, carried out here through is occasional use of the wind synth instrument, the lyricon. We hear the lyricon combine with Oliver’s viola to create odd noises, with Bennink’s jittery pattern accompanying them along the way. This vintage electronic instrument reappears for “I feel A Draft,” used this time to eek out Morse code-like bleeps that competes with Bishop’s and Oliver’s own random dissonance for attention.
The long shadow that Monk cast on Lacy is felt on this album, too: “Dutch Masters” is a Thelonius type strain that’s almost vaudevillian before Karayorgis steers it to a Cecil Taylor type strain. The final track is even a Monk tune, “Locomotive,” which is a straightest played track on the whole album. Dijkstra swings on his alto with an adroit economy of notes. Karayorgis threatens to go off deep end and send the song into freedom, but pulls himself in just as you think he will drive the song off course.
The music and heritage of Steve Lacy is probably not forgotten by any avant garde jazz musician of any caliber, but The Whammies are making sure that the fans of this music form don’t forget about one of its most important practitioners and composers since the of the last three decades, either. By capturing the spirit — and not just the music — of Mr. Lacy, The Whammies put together a tribute album I think Lacy himself would have been proud of.
Play The Music Of Steve Lacy went on sale last October 16, by Dijkstra and Karayorgis’ new imprint, Driff Records.