It may seem strange that public displays both of anger and of joy should greet soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, 65, and trombonist Roswell Rudd, 64, when they returned to San Diego to play at the Neurosciences Institute on March 23. But their quartet proved to have retained its controversial quality a full forty years after they first started publicly to play innovations of Thelonious Monkıs music.
When the Athenaeum Music & Arts Libraryıs program director Dan Atkinson took the stage to introduce them, a happy clique of students in the audience, apparently avant garde enthusiasts from UCSD, called out pianist Sun Raıs slogan, "Space is the place!"
Atkinson explained Lacy and Ruddıs music has a kind of a Zen quality. "A kind of an enigma and a profundity and that gets hold of you and doesn't let you go." But, from the back of the auditorium, an angry voice shouted, "You got me again!" This heckler, believed to be a swing trombonist resident in the area, led his party of four out of the hall as if the eveningıs lineup had been sprung upon him in some kind of ambush.
This seemed especially odd given Lacy and Ruddıs long and distinguished reputation. Their names can be found in many of the books that claim to be a guide, or a companion to jazz. Lacy won the MacArthur genius prize in 1992 and his virtuoso playing of the soprano saxophone is credited with inspiring the late great John Coltrane to take up the instrument. Rudd also has been described as a giant of post-bop jazz. Several weeks ago their latest CD, "Monkıs Dream" was released in the US.
The quartet opened with "Shuffle Boil."
"Monk wrote it fifty years ago." Lacy said, dryly, of the riffy composition he had recorded in Rome back in 1965 for his "Disposability" album. Only last year former Police guitarist Andy Summers released a cover version on his Green Chimneys CD on RCA.
Ruddıs exaggerated leg movements reflect the generous swoop of his trombone slide.
Aside from the avant garde quality of their music Lacy and Rudd bring a theatricality to their performance that seems to borrow from traditional clown theater. Lacy, his khaki windcheater buttoned up as if for the street, looked like he might be a professor of engineering.
He is the Auguste, or straight man, playing his instrument with distracted concentration while Rudd, the white clown, or the Louis, takes the low-status role of the buffoon and seems to bring disruption to the proceedings. But itıs not even as easy as that. Comedy, like music, is all about timing; and these guys can play.
With droll solemnity Lacy introduced "The Bath," a perennial favorite of the Lacy repertoire.
Rudd, dressed entirely in white except for his tie and a little green brimless cap, ostentatiously scratched himself during Lacyıs solo and delighted the audience by singing an improvised soap commercial into the bell of his trombone.
After "The Bath" they played "The Rent," another favorite, during which Rudd declaimed, "Eighteen landlords in eighteen years!" apropos nothing much. Drummer John Betsch grinned from behind his cymbals as Rudd stomped and clapped up stage and down stage right while the man who might be the worldıs greatest soprano sax stylist worked as if oblivious at stage left.
The point is that this behavior is not competitive. There is complicity, and thatıs why itıs funny. The stomps and the claps were never as random as Rudd would have the audience believe. And he remained fully in command of his instrument despite the apparent recklessness with which he swung it about.
They played "Blinks," a track by Kid Ory that features on the Steve Lacy Trioıs CD, "The Rent."
As if bored by the other musicians, Rudd waved a white napkin upstage. Lost it offstage; drained the spit out of his trombone; stamped at just the right moment during Lacyıs complex solo.
In a wild improvisation Rudd played quotes from "American in Paris" and "California Here I Come," obviously remarking on Paris-resident Lacy having traveled all this way to play the Neurosciences gig. Judging from the applause at the end of the evening an overwhelming majority of the audience was grateful these masters of their craft had made the trip.
The Athenaeum's next jazz presentation is Sunday, May 14 when local avant-garde group Cosmologic performs at a special CD release party. Trombonist and composer George Lewis is the special guest at this "Noise at the Library" show. tickets are $13-$15. Call (858) 454-5872 for information.