Thursday, December 16, 2010

The BYG/Actuel Series Part Five: Steve Lacy- MOON (Actuel 52)

Facts are facts, but we all have our individual realities, bent and shaped by ever evolving perceptions and awareness impacted largely by experience. It’s inarguable that BYG/Actuel was one of the many labels dedicated to releasing avant-garde jazz during its initial explosion, but the solidity of this fact leads to wildly differing realities. For Steve Lacy and Sunny Murray, the men behind BYG were crooks and gangsters, but Gong’s Daevid Allen felt that Jean Georgakarakos and Jean Luc Young were leaders in the advancement of the counter-culture. You might quibble that I’m confusing reality with opinion, but it’s my impression (my reality, if you’ll indulge me) that opinions are easily formed (and changed) while our individual realities are often impossible to shake. Again, experience. Lacy, Murray and Allen held their above positions into the new millennium, a very long time after Actuel ceased to function as a thriving entity. Even when operating far outside conventional norms, jazzmen are still jazzmen (and women, yes), and the reality for Lacy and Murray is that they were ripped off. Allen arrived at the label from the burgeoning Hippie Movement and still feels the founders were prime instigators of cultural change. Getting paid vs. revolutionary intent: Oil and water, yes, but in the case of BYG/Actuel these perhaps contradictory sensibilities were equally essential to what has ultimately proven to be the label’s enduring relevance. What are my personal thoughts on the issue?

To begin, I can understand Allen’s way of thinking, but find it naïve in a very hippy/radically lefty sort of way. Now, I’m quite friendly with much of the radical left and some of my best pals are hippies. But in this instance celebrating the effects to the exclusion of all else leaves the cause off the hook and misses a big part of the picture. I’d like to think that deep down Allen knows Georgakarakos and Young (to say nothing of Jacques Bisceglia, the B in the BYG triumvirate) were engaging in predatory behavior toward artists existing on the margins. But maybe he doesn’t. Maybe Allen feels to his core that what I consider exploitation or even robbery is really an outmoded and malignant idea, that property is theft to beat an abused old drum, even the artistic property of Lacy and Murray’s vast imaginations. If so, I think he’s wrong, but rampant greed has played such a huge part of current events that I’ll stop short of any antagonistic digs at Daevid Allen, whose music I really like and who seems like a gentle, positive sort. And here I am calling Allen naïve, but it’s just as pudding-headed to not acknowledge that the very discography this series of blog-posts celebrates is the inseparable byproduct of foul behavior. So let me go ahead and acknowledge that I find this specific reality to be quite unshakable. The road to hell might be paved with good intentions, but it’s just as reliable that the path to an amazing body of music can be built on nefarious scheming. It’s been reported that Steve Lacy’s MOON was the result of notably egregious behavior, with tapes made in Italy being acquired by BYG and then released without any form of payment, and as the penultimate entry in the Actuel catalog, it stands to reason that its release was the byproduct of a blatant money grab as the company’s operations wound to a close.
What really sticks in the craw is MOON’s level of quality. This was Lacy’s second recording after returning to Europe from the extended stay in Argentina that resulted in the amazing ESP-Disk THE FOREST AND THE ZOO (with Enrico Rava and South African expats Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo) and it’s obvious he was massively fired up to be back on the Continent. As previously reported in this site, Lacy is one of the avant-garde’s fiercest vessels of deep tradition, so even when he’s engaged in furious flights of abstract expressionism he’s also forging ahead with an extended nay infinite dialogue with past masters. But MOON attains levels of scorching density where the uninitiated might find it difficult to detect the complex weave of old and new. There are further curiosities and points of significance, starting with the unusual instrumentation of this group and the members that fuel its fire.

Irene Aebi

His future wife, Swiss cellist and vocalist Irene Aebi is here as is notable French weird-meat Jacques Thollot on drums (whose QUAND LE SON DEVIENT AIGU - JETER LA GIRAFE A LA MER release from ’71 is a very fine case of agreeably proggy experimental strangeness). The remaining members are unheralded yet worthy Italians, namely Marcello Melis on bass, Claudio Volonte on clarinet and Italo Toni on trombone. Melis has a handful of dates (two on Black Saint) that I need to catch up with, but other than playing on Lacy’s ROBA LP on Saravah (recorded three months before this one), Volonte and Toni are unfortunate ciphers. I might just be looking in the wrong places, though.

Marcello Melis

MOON is roughly equally comprised of breath, clatter and ache, which makes sense since the band is divided between horns and rhythm with Aebi’s cello serving as a subtle adhesive. The brawny bluster of Toni’s trombone naturally works to counterbalance the thinner, more serpentine tones of the clarinet and soprano. Lacy and Volonte entangle the ‘bone’s authoritative skronk like electric vines. It’s not all aggressive heaviness, however. Along with angular detours there is swaying lyricism, rhythmic dexterity and maybe most importantly compositional brilliance. Made up of five Lacy originals, MOON might just be the toughest, rawest expression of the man’s tunes that I’ve heard. My favorite moments are probably the ecstatic stabbing of Aebi’s vocals on the raucous “Note” and the loose, shifting momentum of the album’s closer and Thollot showcase “The Breath’, but there’s nothing here that’s not in the very top tier of advanced improvisation.

Jacques Thollot

With that said, MOON is just a small part of Steve Lacy’s huge discography, and it stands as only a fraction of the Actuel story. It also has the burden of relative scarcity working against it, so it’s no surprise this record is seldom more than fleetingly discussed in relation to Lacy’s oeuvre or to the avant-jazz scene of the time. And maybe that’s completely appropriate given the dubious circumstances of the record’s origin. The late Steve Lacy probably would’ve preferred the discussion of his work to be focused on recordings made and released in good faith, and while there are plenty of those, MOON is simply too great to be left out of the dialogue.

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