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The Boston Phoenix Old and New Dreams

Lacy and Rudd get playful

By Ed Hazell

MARCH 28, 2000:  Soprano-saxophonist Steve Lacy and trombonist Roswell Rudd have recorded together just once every decade since the early '60s, so Monk's Dream (Verve), their first recording together in nearly 20 years, is noteworthy for its rarity alone. But there's more to it than that. The chemistry between Lacy and Rudd is one of the most appealing in modern jazz, with Lacy playing the sly, acerbic Groucho to Rudd's more broadly comic, impish Harpo. It's a combination of sophisticated modernism and good humor that's even rarer than their albums. Little wonder they sold out the Regattabar a week ago Tuesday.

Lacy and Rudd first met in Dixieland bands in the late 1950s, but they made their first big splash together between 1962 and 1964 in a short-lived quartet that dedicated itself exclusively to the music of Thelonious Monk. A commonplace today, repertory groups were unheard of at the time, and both Lacy and Rudd have testified to the indelible mark that Monk's music left on their mature art. Only one album by the quartet ever saw the light of day -- School Days (recently reissued by hat Art), which Greenwich Village poet Paul Haines recorded on home equipment. After this period together, Lacy and Rudd pretty much parted company. Lacy moved to Europe and formed his now classic sextets and septets. Rudd worked with Archie Shepp's firebreathing bands of the late '60s but recorded just fitfully after that, falling into obscurity for the better part of two decades. They did cross paths on rare occasions, recording Trickles (Black Saint) in 1976 and the remarkable Herbie Nichols-Thelonious Monk tribute Regeneration (Soul Note) in 1982. Rudd has recently rededicated himself to playing and recording. He reunited with the New York Art Quartet, yet another legendary ensemble of the early '60s, for a new release on DIW, as well as with Lacy's regular working trio, featuring bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel and drummer John Betsch, for Monk's Dream.

On Monk's Dream, Lacy and Rudd revisit Monk, play some Lacy chestnuts, and explore some new Lacy material. They share a sense of playfulness, though it manifests itself quite differently in their performances. On "The Bath," Lacy's look-before-you-leap delivery contrasts with Rudd's more mercurial and explosive style. Prodded along by Betsch's gentle scrubbing brush strokes, Lacy dawdles through a solo of leisurely melodicism. He advances by tiny steps, pushing and developing little phrases delivered in a pure, piping tone. This all seems quite casual, but don't be fooled -- it takes concentration to improvise anything this coherent and discipline to sound so offhand. Rudd comes off as if he were merely singing in the shower, giving his wet growls lazy drooping inflections, declaiming in mock-operatic boisterousness, then muttering to himself. But there's a lyrical thread connecting everything and a seasoned understanding of what makes a solo hang together. Rudd's solo on "The Rent" incorporates passages of tender melody, punchy riffing, and daunting abstraction into a continuous flow of ideas. The quirky logic of Monk's compositions lies at the root of both players' modus operandi. On Monk's "Pannonica," Rudd never loses sight of the melody in a charmingly romantic solo. On "Monk's Dream," Lacy echoes Monk's method by toying with the rhythms of his own improvised melodic cells.

During their first set at the Regattabar, the quartet ran through familiar Monk and Lacy material, as well as a Rudd original and a rarely heard Lacy original, "Longing." Lacy and Rudd are obviously so pleased and inspired to be working together again that everything, even Lacy's well-worn and ubiquitous "The Bath," sounded fresh. This was especially true when they solo'd together. Lacy's homy warmth and Rudd's big, vital, back-slapping tone -- a whole big-band brass section rolled into one instrument -- worked together in a spirited give-and-take on the opening version of Monk's "Shuffle Boil." Rudd played the cut-up on "The Bath," quoting "Blue Moon" and using lighthearted comical low notes, tailgating slides, and New Orleans growls. Lacy's tidy solo was full of amusing conceits and paraphrases, shapely jagged lines and bemused whistles. Bassist Avenel did a superb job setting up Rudd's African-flavored "Bamako" with an unaccompanied introduction that plumbed the resonate depths of his instrument before digging into the vamp that propels the tune. Betsch was the star of this piece, with a polyrhythmic solo of jazzy Africanisms. The slow ballad "Longing" offered a great example of how Lacy builds a complex statement out of simple parts while Rudd concentrates on manipulating the timbre of his instrument in mournful slurs and moans.

It would have been easy for Lacy and Rudd to succumb to nostalgia in a setting so much like their School Days quartet. But they've graduated by now, and this was the most anti-nostalgic of reunions; both continue to find new things to say on their instruments.

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