“Dixieland to Avant-garde” seems like kind of a wild career path, but that’s how clarinetist-turned-soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy’s career went. Lacy is a major figure in the late-50s development of Avant-garde jazz, alongside guys like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and others, plus he has the distinction of being the first major “modern” saxophonist to specialize on the soprano, which has typically been used more as a “change of pace” instrument by tenor specialists like John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. Soprano Sax, recorded in 1957 and released the following year, was Lacy’s first album as a bandleader, but he was already well known for his earlier Dixieland playing, a transformative (for Lacy’s playing style) stint in Thelonious Monk’s group, and mid-1950s recordings as a sideman with heavyweights like Taylor and Gil Evans.
Joining Lacy are pianist Wynton Kelly, Buell Neidlinger on bass, and Dennis Charles on drums.
“Day Dream” is a Billy Strayhorn/Duke Ellington classic and shows that Lacy isn’t just an Avant-garde saxophonist. His playing here does Johnny Hodges (who first recorded this tune with Strayhorn in 1941 and who, incidentally, apparently hated playing soprano sax when he had to do it in Ellington’s big band) proud:
“Along Together” is another standard, composed by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, and like the first track it’s a medium tempo swing:
Thelonious Monk wrote “Work,” and it’s a testament to Monk’s influence on Lacy that the latter made a habit of covering Monk’s catalog in his own work. I really like this song and this version of it, and you can tell that Lacy is enjoying the chance to explore things tonally on what is otherwise a pretty straightforward album:
“Rockin’ in Rhythm” is another Ellington number, which he wrote with Irving Mills and Harry Carney:
Lacy switches things up here with the calypso “Little Girl Your Daddy Is Calling You,” which features Kelly and Charles:
Finally there’s Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love,” which Lacy really tears into for what is probably my second favorite number on the album after “Work”: