Steve Lacy Trio, “The Window”

Recorded 1987 for Soul Note. Steve Lacy, soprano saxophone; Jean-Jacques Avenel, bass; Oliver Johnson, drums. All compositions by Lacy.

Steve Lacy the unique: a vital and uncompromising voice essential to seeing the whole picture. Steve Lacy the prolific: Lord lists 185 sessions as a leader, including many double LPs of long blowing by all hands. Lacy didn’t exactly have breadth, he played his thing on every occasion, so it comes down to who else is on the date and other, more intangible parameters. Where to start assessing this vast discography? Perhaps with The Window, which crops up here and there on critics lists. It is well-recorded, Lacy himself is at the top of his game, and the band is comprised of two key Lacy associates.

It’s a very good rhythm section, although it also says something that neither has a Wikipedia page in English. Jean-Jacques Avenel was a major practitioner, a lyrical poet who also had some good “thump” when playing time, hailed in his native France and underrated in America. Oliver Johnson had pedigree as a serious swinger (his first record seems to be with Charlie Shavers) before moving to Europe and collaborating with freer players. Both Avenel and Johnson recorded more with Lacy than any other leader, yet this is the only date where it is just the three of them.

“The Window” is a jazz waltz, with a wonderful chaotic head that leans to the more esoteric. Once the blowing starts, Avenel goes around the cycle in a pre-arranged fashion but Lacy hunts and pecks in the home key, telling a motivic story inspired by Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins.

“Flakes” is a lightly pulsing and repeating fragment that almost wears out its welcome before giving a way to a “chordal” bass solo. The long-limbed and searching soprano sax lines that follow are really beautiful. The band isn’t swinging, exactly, but they allude to steady time in addition to finding delicious moments of interplay.

Lacy plays very high in register at the top of “Twilight,” a substantial meditation in duo with Johnson. There’s a short repeating theme that helps organize the exotic exploration. Johnson stays on brushes throughout.

It’s time for something that moves, and the trio opens up with “Gleam.” The group isn’t trying to play serious bebop time, instead they offer ramshackle momentum and plenty of smear. Lacy’s tone is very intense and personal.

“A Complicated Scene” is in the Ellington tradition of “jungle music,” a familiar Lacy gambit. Everyone digs in, with Johnson at home in this groove..

The excellent LP closes with “Retreat,” another repetitive minor-key swinger that could only be from the pen of Steve Lacy. When improvising, the trio plays time, and then they don’t, and then they play time again. It’s not contrived, the phrases fall as naturally as breathing.