Jazz Institute of Chicago

Steve Lacy at Unity Temple

Steve Lacy at Unity Temple
by Rahsaan Clark Morris

After a superb trio set at the Empty Bottle on Western Avenue, renowned soprano sax player Steve Lacy came to Unity Temple in Oak Park for a solo soprano saxophone concert. The austere setting complemented his spare instrumentation. Unity Temple is the Unitarian Church west on Lake Street designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, now in the process of restoration. On the surface of the chapel area proper, not much restoration needs to be completed, but around the edges and out of sight, the need for work may be evident. The acoustics in the performance area are surprisingly responsive, with a clean immediacy to the sound despite the vaulted ceiling and the greystone construction.

The audience sits all around the performance area in straight-back wooden pews which are more comfortable than one might assume. Directly center and raised a little in front is a dais with a pulpit, behind which are three high-backed chairs — for a speaker and deacons. On this night there was a lone piano on the floor in front to the right of the pulpit, and a small amplification and recording system set up behind the pulpit, with an overhead mic that I felt was unnecessary for anything but recording.

Steve Lacy has made it his work to play, among others, the music of Thelonious Monk as interpreted on the soprano saxophone. The first time I heard him was on Hal Wilner’s Monk tribute album from the early eighties, That’s The Way I Feel Now. I think Lacy contributed two tracks to that collection: one a duet with Elvin Jones on “Evidence” and a second with tenor sax Charlie Rouse on “Ask Me Now.” Lacy has also recorded more Monk music with Mal Waldron, the two of them sounding symbiotic in their translations.

This night, however, was a revelation. One would think that listening to a soprano sax in a solo context might end up being monotonous, but in the hands of a master, you could rest assured that there would be variety in the tunes and in the nuance, inflection, and ambience within each tune. Also, this type of performance allowed you to ruminate on each note and its placement; in other words, you could really hear what was going on. Many times during a band concert, there are various reasons that you cannot hear exactly what the soloist is playing, making you strain to take in all that should be aurally obvious. But this concert turned into an opportunity for meditation, something sorely missed in this high-decibel world.

It was meditation on some glorious music and, as it turned out, words. Beginning with “Evidence,” Lacy segued into “Ask Me Now,” playing with a slightly Nino-Rota-like phrasing. After a few unidentified compositions, he began to recite a poem on the nature of the music, leading to what I believe was a Rota tune from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

After a brief intermission, Lacy went over to the piano, raised the lid, and began to experiment with overtones from the strings as he blew the horn straight into the piano. Far from being discordant nonsense, his music achieved some remarkable harmonics. He finished the set with some more original music and then mingled with the crowd as they filed out. The concert demonstrated that you can indeed experience fully such creative music at Unity Temple.

Copyright ©2002 Jazz Institute of Chicago. All rights reserved.

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