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Steve Lacy/Roswell Rudd Quartet - School Days

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Artist: Steve Lacy/Roswell Rudd Quartet

Album: School Days

Label: Hat Hut

Review date: Apr. 23, 2003

A Matriculation in Monk

School was in session at a small New York City café on a spring day in 1963. Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and trombonist Roswell Rudd, abetted by bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Denis Charles, were the teachers. A seven-song snapshot of Thelonious Monk served as textbook, and a small, extremely fortunate audience constituted the student body. Thankfully a tape machine was in attendance and taking audio notes that eventually took the form of School Days. Lacy’s affection and erudition toward Monk’s music is today widely known and lauded. But back in the early Sixties he was one of a modest minority who recognized the pianist/composer’s music as means of individual expression. Finding a Monk tune, other than the ubiquitous “Round Midnight” on anything other than a Monk-led album was a difficult task. Lacy’s brief residency with the composer/pianist in 1960 at the Jazz Gallery solidified the life long musical love affair. He would devote a substantial sidebar of his career to the compositional intricacies of his mentor.

Grimes, presumably late for the gig, is conspicuously absent on the opening jaunt through “Bye-Ya.” Thanks to Charles deftly rolling polyrhythms he’s hardly missed. The drummer mixes clicking rims, tumbling toms and bright cymbal washes to paint propulsive rhythmic scenery for the horns. Lacy advances the theme, improvising melodically down the middle and experimenting with subtle pitch variants. Rudd rifles back to the roots of his instrument, trading in plungered slurs and whinnying snorts in true tailgate tradition. In the closing minutes Charles meets the horns head on through a series of tight exchanges that are rightfully the stuff of improvisational legend. Grimes stout plucks further propel the action beginning with the devilishly elaborate “Brilliant Corners,” and he soon switches to a portly lope in support Rudd’s unctuous ensuing solo. Lacy’s straight horn has an insightful say and then it’s the bassist again in a lengthy string-torquing workout laced with his own moaning vocalizations.

Next up the band tackles the signature eccentricities of “Monk’s Dream” and “Monk’s Mood” in succession. The first piece leaves little initial room for the rhythm section and forces Grimes into a walking role. But his nimble digits make this usually constricting job something special, and he breaks out for another knuckle-busting solo mid-stride. Charles also shirks the shackles of steady beat, trading in combative cycle of choruses with the horns. A steady stream of absorbing solos from all save Charles further buoys the ballad tempos of the second piece. Rounding the final stretch with the lengthy rendering of Monk’s bouncing “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are” Rudd plants mute in bell and spreads the tonal grease on thick with textured smears. Lacy’s flittering trills contrast sharply adding airborne melodic salvos above Charles’ steady cymbal bulwark. Grimes restless fingers once again aim to please with an extended pizzicato exposition flanked by Charles cymbal splashes. Finally it’s the drummer’s turn and he stamps out a brief sortie of press rolls broken by the horns expressive exhortations. Brief versions of “Skippy” and “Pannonica,” the latter sans Grimes, deliver the final goods and the band dissipates into a silence that would sadly prove everlasting.

Captured by a single vintage microphone the music suffers from a sketchy sound countenance that has gone through several mastering makeovers in its circulation history. The original vinyl edition on the Emanem label released in 75’ received a thorough sonic scrubbing by engineer Peter Pfister for the Hat Hut cd reissue of 93.’ But as a sad victim of label’s financial woes and subsequent catalog slashing, the session soon languished in out of print limbo. Several years later Pfister took another crack at the tapes, significantly improving the sound for this freshly minted Hatology version. Judged in the context of the historical and artistic weight of the recording relative fidelity becomes largely superfluous.

Lacy and Rudd would reconvene at various points over the years to revisit Monk’s work along with that of Rudd’s own pianist muse, Herbie Nichols. But something about this earliest surviving meeting surpasses all future endeavors. It’s a shared and palpable blend of youthful brio and daredevil risk-taking born out of a Zeitgeist that has yet to be equaled in creative improvised music. Whether they had any inkling of the impact their association would have the collaboration remains one of the classics and should be savored by anyone with ears open to adventurous sounds.

By Derek Taylor

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