Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, who stands with Sidney Bechet and John Coltrane as the masters of this ubiquitous instrument, might have alienated some of the audience at the Smithsonian Institution last night, but also made some friends.
Appearing under the auspices of the Smithsonian's Jazz Heritage program, Lacy and his quartet performed six of his compositions that a sizable portion of the audience found difficult to handle. More than a few members of the crowd in the three-fourths-full Baird Auditorium walked out after intermission.
Those who did stay, however, were treated to a rare display of virtuosity on an instrument that many -- especially since Coltrane began playing it in the early 1960s -- have picked up and few have played with a sense of what they were doing. Lacy favors a controlled approach that reflects both his early Dixieland influence and the considerable shadow of Thelonious Monk, for whom he played and whose use of dissonance and space is suggested in Lacy's work.
The strongest works were "Wickets," a swinging number reminiscent of Monk's "Well, You Needn't," and "Blinks," a light, airy composition marked by moody solos by Lacy and alto saxophonist Steve Post. "Tao," an impressionistic number that took up the entire second half of the program, was much too long and unfocused, and was marred by earnest but insipid vocals by Irene Aebi.