In the year of Duke Ellington's centennial, tributes to the master composer are more common than shaved bodies at an Olympic swim meet. But "10 Dukes & 6 Beats," by controversial and influential avant-garde saxophonist Steve Lacy, will be different. Called free jazz by some and noise by others, Lacy's music often just starts in a particular key, and whatever happens next, well, it happens next.
It wasn't always this way. Over four decades ago, the teenage Lacy was walking well-traveled jazz paths, playing with Pee Wee Russell, Rex Stewart, Jimmy Rushing and other jazz artists of the early fifties. Then, in 1955, he jumped off the traditional jazz bandwagon to explore a less structured, more dissonant form of the genre with pianist Cecil Taylor. Throughout the rest of his 40-plus-year career, Lacy, 65, has won praise (and the prestigious MacArthur Foundation fellowship) at the forefront of the avant-garde movement, but he's still almost impossible to categorize. Lacy has made everything from experimental electronic music to solo saxophone recordings. And he can be one of the most "outside" players on the scene. Yet he can also be very lyrical. He's more deeply rooted in tradition than most avant-garde musicians and sometimes plays "inside the pocket."
So what's the twist on Lacy's Ellington tribute? The ten songs have been arranged for solo soprano saxophone and stamped with Lacy's unique jazz ideas. And not all of the songs are Ellington warhorses: When's the last time you heard "To the Bitter"?
The second half of the show departs from Ellington altogether as Lacy is joined by vocalist and longtime companion Irene Aebi for a reading of the works of six beat poets set to music. The poets include William S. Burroughs and Robert Creeley, but Jack Kerouac, the beat poet most associated with jazz, is nowhere to be found. Unconventional? Sure. Welcome to the world of Steve Lacy. Steve Lacy performs "10 Dukes & 6 Beats" Tuesday, October 19, at 8 p.m. DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, (713)223-8346. $20; $12 students and seniors.