Josh Sinton recalled his mentor, the late Steve Lacy, famed as one of the great soprano saxophone players, an accompanist to Thelonius Monk and other jazz masters and as a prolific composer, while talking about the band he’ll lead, Ideal Bread West, in a program of Lacy compositions this Saturday night at the Jazz-
School in downtown Berkeley.
“Steve moved back from Europe to teach at Boston Conservatory [where Sinton studied] in 2002,” Sinton said. “I knew a little bit of his playing, mostly from the album ‘Gil Evans + 10,’ a much more straight-ahead, bebop style than what he’d come to play and compose. But it was his presence while playing—and not playing—that had a deep impact on me. He was one of the most fascinating people. A sweet, quiet man who could be charismatic. And being right next to that sound, that presence he generated on his instrument, the overtones I heard while in the same room with him ... I often wanted to stop playing and just listen to him.”
Ideal Bread West—a touring version of the New York project Sinton, a baritone saxophonist, developed to play Lacy’s music—also features two Bay Area saxophonists: Phillip Greenlief on tenor and Jorrit Dykstra, alto, special guests for the JazzSchool concert who will play with Sinton first as a trio, joined after a break by drummer Paul Kikuchi and bassist Geoff Harper, both Seattle-based, rhythm section for the whole tour.
Greenlief, a well-known player and bandleader in the Bay Area, with his Evander recording label based in Oakland, explained how he met Sinton, playing on the same bill in Philadelphia while on a solo tour.
“I asked Josh for a ride to the bus station,” Greenlief said. “It turned out he was going to New York, too, and gave me a ride. It started snowing just as we got into Manhattan. It was really beautiful. He passed along the Ideal Bread music to me.”
Sinton told how the project of playing Lacy’s music developed. “When he passed away in June 2004, I was sitting on 20 songs of his, a little book. I moved to New York, which is great for having a healthy session culture: Musicians want to play something different. I whittled it down to three core people. I was also obsessed with a not-so-well-known record of Steve’s, ‘New York Capers & Quirks,’ five tunes he never recorded again, played with a pick-up group—Ronnie Boynton and Dennis Charles. By 1979, about a year later, Steve was well ensconced in Europe.”
Sinton was wry about his approach to the material. “The ‘Quirks & Capers’ tunes don’t sit well at all on baritone sax. And I’m tickled by how often people assume there has to be a soprano saxophone player. But Steve kind of ruined me, standing next to him, hearing that sound.”
Stinton said Lacy influenced him to devote himself to one instrument, to go the places it would go, rather than playing lots and lots of instruments.
“I do play bass clarinet, but have foregone working on other saxophones or flutes, which I played growing up.” he said. “Steve told me himself that he tried all the saxophones, learned Lester Young solos on tenor—and loved it! But once said, ‘That thing’s too heavy; I don’t want to carry it around.’ He started as a clarinet player in Dixieland Revival bands and was smitten by the soprano sax, recording with it even before he had the intonation completely down. He had no models but Sidney Bechet and a little [Johnny] Hodges. Then he went through the roof with it.”
Lacy said late in his life that the sound of the soprano saxophone reminded him of the cantors he heard as a boy in synagogue—and that trying to go with its unique intonation was like riding a bucking bronco.
“The Ideal Bread Presents The Ideal Bread” was recorded on KMB Jazz in the fall of 2007, released the next spring. Sinton has started preparing material for a second recording. “As Steve put it, music should be fully cooked ... but there’s a danger of it being overcooked.”
Sinton continued: “I never consider myself an expert in Steve’s music. Many of his songs baffle me. He’s a unique American composer—in fact, weird! And depending on who you ask, he wrote 300 to 600 compositions. I approach the tunes with a series of questions: why my ears are drawn to it, or not to parts of it. He was pretty concrete in his approach to how his music’s to be played. Strictly what was on the page. Pretty clear cut. He gave some guidelines to improvising on it—on the chord changes, after the notes at the beginning of the song. His music takes awhile to grow into, it’s so sui generis.”
Sinton added, “He expected people to be themselves, to be responsible to their own identity. It was great how he responded to people as he watched them play. Some would try to impress him that they were great—and he had played with or listened to every great musician; not just jazz but across the board. But when his eyes would seem to light up ... it’s with that same spirit that I try to approach his music.”