Michael Coleman + Ben Goldberg – Practitioner (2018)

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Tributes to soprano saxophone great Steve Lacy don’t come as creative as this one does. Even down to the baseball cards (more on this in a minute).

Practitioner, now out on BAG Production Records, is a track-by-track cover of Lacy’s sadly out-of-print LP, Hocus-Pocus. Arranged in nearly the same running order as Lacy’s 1983 solo soprano sax showpiece, it features Lacy protégé Ben Goldberg, a clarinet player of pretty great stature himself, along with Michael Coleman on various electronic keyboards.

There’s a personal connection of Hocus-Pocus to Goldberg; when Lacy was done giving the then-fledgling Goldberg some lessons in Paris one afternoon in the mid 80s, the teacher gave his student a copy of this then-new release. Lacy himself had described these recording as “pieces…written for my own use, as exercises and studies for the saxophone. Deliberately made so as to be hard to play, they also contain many of the characteristic ‘licks,’ which comprise the language that I use, in the different kinds of improvisational musics that I perform in.” Put another way, it’s the essence of Lacy.

Staying true to his spirit, Coleman and Goldberg follow the master’s calisthenics with the aura of improvisation, such that it’s impossible to separate that from what is charted and it hardly matters, anyway. A deep dive into the title song is typical of how the duo keeps Lacy’s ideas intact but transfigures it by adding new ones: Goldberg’s clarinet follows Lacy’s odd, circular patterns, but looping, sampling and Coleman’s decayed electric piano sounds shadow him. Goldberg ushers in another act in this sonic play by swapping out his clarinet for the burly contra-alto clarinet and Coleman counters with softer, glowing tones. With Goldberg back on the B-flat blackwood, Coleman plays a sort of calypso figure on what appears to be a prepared piano. All throughout, Lacy’s figures remain at the center of the performance; Goldberg and Coleman are merely demonstrating how to use them as the foundation for further ingenuity.

Elsewhere, Goldberg is dubbing over himself and unleashing bellowing dirge-y drones when not tackling Lacy’s tricky progressions sometimes in unison with whatever circuit-bent contraption Coleman chooses to deploy. At times, the music veers close to chamber jazz and then goes out to the electro-acoustic badlands, broken up by celestial moments of peaceful contemplation. All within a single track. Practitioner wouldn’t be possible without Lacy but at the same time, there’s really nothing like it anywhere.

Oh, and about those baseball cards included with the CD: in honor of Lacy’s love of baseball, artist Molly Barker was called in to draw portraits for cards original poems on the back. Lacy, Goldberg, Coleman, others involved in making the record, plus a few other artistic luminaries like Sonny Stitt and high wire king Karl Wallenda(!) are featured. But as a one-time student of Lacy and a restless alchemist himself, few living souls understand the true nature of the man than Ben Goldberg. One can’t help to think that Lacy would have loved the originality Goldberg and Michael Coleman brought to these personal expressions of his.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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