|Steve Lacy & Enrico Rava in Rome, 1966. |
Copyright Lilian Terry
I remember reading a few years ago some remarks about reedman-composer Ken Vandermark and the problem someone had with his titles – that they were a codified and hip “reference system” to show that he was “in the know” about music, art, and literature. Lucky Thompson, Robert Rauschenberg, Stephen Shore, The Ex – all were fair game, and whether the music itself reflected the values of the dedicatees was anybody’s guess. I always found that argument kind of unfair, because whatever one thinks of Vandermark’s music, he chooses to pay homage to his peers and forebears. These are little “gifts” as I see it – offerings to those whom he respects, and they don’t have to sound or look like their recipient in order to give a proper nod. Also, one doesn’t necessarily have to have, say, Bob Weston or Steve Lacy in mind when listening to the entire nine minutes of a tune to enjoy it and feel that it’s within a sort of “sphere of interest.”
Vandermark is certainly not the first to do this and certainly he should not be the last. Soprano saxophonist and composer Steve Lacy frequently referenced others in his titles, as has composer-reedman Anthony Braxton. These two figures are, not coincidentally, very important in the lineage of artists who have influenced Vandermark’s work. They made no bones about their forebears and those whom they held in high esteem, and to a degree this was important in drawing a connection between the New Thing and what came before. Considering how challenging their music could be, it was/is important for Lacy and Braxton to make links to the past (and probably too much has been made about the traditionalists’ and boppers’ disdain for the New Thing. It wasn’t always the case). That was especially true thirty or forty years ago, when their work had not become as highly regarded in the landscape of this music.
Monk, Sonny Clark, Sidney Bechet and Ellington (along with a host of visual artists and poets/writers) were part of Lacy’s bedrock. Braxton would add Warne Marsh, Paul Desmond, Lennie Tristano, Sun Ra, and Karlheinz Stockhausen to his playbook. One of my favorite Lacy pieces is the short “La Motte Picquet” on The Gap (America, 1972), which Lacy says was “dedicated to the memory of Sonny Clark, who would have liked this kind of tune.” It’s got a declamatory, odd-interval elision going on, singsong but a bit batty. I never really appreciated what Lacy meant about Sonny Clark until hearing the pianist’s “Minor Meeting,” which is extraordinarily crisp and stark in its A-section. It sounds like a Steve Lacy composition, in fact, and one can imagine it being played with unaccompanied clarion soprano twirls. “La Motte Picquet” is much freer but the connection isn’t as spurious as one might think, and for whatever reason it’s one of the least-talked-about in Lacy’s oeuvre.
Of course, nothing exists in a vacuum and honestly, to hear someone like Cooper-Moore recite “I want to give thanks” and invoke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and Jaki Byard at a time while being crucially aligned with the post-loft environment of David S. Ware and William Parker is something special, indeed. This, from his 2001 Hopscotch CD Deep in the Neighborhood of History and Influence, which has been mentioned here before. Or, when I interviewed reedman Peter Brötzmann back in 2002, the heaviest thing he laid out was his deep, deep love for Hawkins. For that matter, Bill Dixon’s invocation of Miles, Chet Baker and Tony Fruscella places him, rightly, in a lineage of brass instrumentalists and composer/interpreters that are beyond category. Where some might see Vandermark’s titles as a political gambit, I see it as not forgetting where one comes from or what surrounds one’s work. After all, no person is truly an island, no matter how weird the output is.
In a time where there is so much information available, as well as a time when a whole generation (or two) of important artists are passing on, being aware of history and one’s own peers is crucial. Being able to tie one’s work together with a landscape larger than one’s immediate environment helps bolster things – of course, a dedication isn’t necessary to do that, because good art should be able to stand firmly on its own and its place within the continuum implicit. But gifting a nod is fairly uncommon, and it is important to network contributions between present and past. Far be it for me to be proscriptive; as Dixon would say, “tradition is all around you. Start from where you are – you’ll get to the rest in time.” Easy to forget, but not hard to acknowledge.