Whether you call them tribute albums, cover albums, or, as front man/sax blower John Sinton refers to this painstakingly assembled double disc, “repertory albums,” interpretations of another artist’s material can be sticky propositions. That’s no less true in jazz than it is in pop, and perhaps even more so. Since, particularly with an artist as fluid and elastic as Steve Lacy, your interpretation must necessarily be based on tonal rather than melodic factors, you might as well be creating a new work every time, and that makes it of paramount importance to know the material well, so that you’re serving the way it feels more than you are the way it sounds.
Fortunately, Sinton was a student of Lacy’s before the groundbreaking saxophonist died in 2004, and he’s as qualified as anyone to do the job. He’s also assembled a solid band in Ideal Bread (the reference is to a quote of Lacy’s where he compared creating new works to a baker always attempting to bake the ideal loaf of bread); Adam Hopkins on bass and Tomas Fujiwara on drums are creditable enough, but the group’s most powerful weapon is cornet player Kirk Knuffke, whose jagged, snapping tone provides an excellent counterpoint to the lilt of the rhythm section. This is a group that was literally created to cover Lacy, and Beating the Teens: Songs of Steve Lacy, their third album and second for Cuneiform Records, is the culmination of their work. (Buy it from Amazon.)
Funded by Kickstarter, the album doesn’t come up short in terms of value: It’s crammed with material, 30 songs in over two hours of music that run the gamut of avant-garde styles. Another difficulty, the fact that Lacy was ridiculously prolific, is sidestepped by focusing on a five-album stretch of his ‘70s work—Lapis, Scraps, Dreams, Roba, and Owl, previously collected as Scratching the Seventies—that allows Sinton to focus on a thematically similar but stylistically wide-ranging period. Thus, Ideal Bread gets to work out stuff like the funky, rhythmic “The Uh Uh Uh,” with hip-hop breakbeats under a riffing groove by Knuffke; rawer, challenging stuff like “Crops”; and meditative, contemplative bits like the multi-part “Three Pieces from Tao,” all while sticking to a period that’s both recognizable and focused. The group’s take on 1969’s “Roba” is particularly excellent, coming off as intense and focused but playful at the same time.
The playing is unimpeachable and the dedication is palpable, so there can be no question of professionalism and a genuine love for the subject on Beating the Teens. The selection is also of excellent quality, neither slavishly comprehensive nor unfocused. The album isn’t without its problems, though. For one thing, the sheer weight of so many different approaches to so much material can be a bit exhausting, and for those with ears accustomed to hearing these songs worked out on Lacy’s soprano sax, it can be a bit jarring to hear them run through Sinton’s baritone. This isn’t always a negative; for a bad example of it, see the somewhat too flighty version of “Owl,” and for a good one, the downright fierce raving of “The Oil”—but it does take some getting used to. Further, while short takes are often a virtue, a few songs here seem to just peter out for lack of a good way to conclude. The album would probably be bloated at greater length, but this just makes it seem incomplete.
These are all fairly minor quibbles, however, and don’t distract much from the overall value of the project, particularly for lovers of the sorely missed Lacy. Even if Beating the Teens did nothing but provide a showcase for Knuffke’s stellar horn, it would be worth the candle, but it does much more. Taken in smaller doses, it dispenses inventive and interesting takes on some of Lacy’s best material; taken as a whole, it’s a labor of love by someone who deeply respects his source, but is willing to spice it with his own personality.