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Clubland: Ideal Bread brings ‘off the ground’ jazz to Northampton

Steve Lacy

Steve Lacy

While still a teen in the early 1950s, musician Steve Lacy took up an out-of-fashion instrument — the soprano saxophone — and set out on his own unique path. He started playing Dixieland but was soon on the cutting edge of modern jazz, performing alongside Cecil Taylor, inspiring John Coltrane to start playing the soprano. Lacy became a lifelong student of the works of Thelonious Monk and even spent some years performing only Monk’s angular oeuvre, studying it, living inside it, learning from it.

Baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton, inspired by the sole existing recording of Lacy’s Monk-only period (the fantastic “School Days”), decided to similarly immerse himself, in Lacy’s original pieces. His group Ideal Bread is a Lacy-only repertory band; they’ll perform at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence in Northampton Friday at 7:30 p.m.

The Brooklyn-based band took its name from a 1976 Lacy quote: “Like a baker makes his bread, I make music. If I make the same bread tomorrow, that bores me. I have to remake it, I have to do better. I’m always looking for the ideal bread.”

Sinton and his group — Kirk Knuffke on trumpet, Richard Giddens on bass and Tomas Fujiwara on drums — use Lacy’s compositional dough to make its own versions of his songs, tunes which are mapped-out yet open, with simple, sometimes nursery-rhyme-like themes that lend themselves to varied instrumentation.

Ideal Bread just released its second album, “Transit,” which includes a few of Lacy’s most playful themes. Like “Clichés,” a piece that Lacy performed in countless ways — solo, a fiery free-blues saxophone duet, a conversation with a disturbingly unchanging acoustic guitar, a thunderous septet. Ideal Bread makes it a hypnotic workout over a tumbling Latin rhythm.

“Flakes,” a dainty theme with a repetitive pattern that suggests a sky full of falling snow or ice skaters calmly pushing off across a frozen pond, has more of a “noir” vibe in Ideal Bread’s hands. “The Dumps” swings, veering between a hummable theme and free soloing reminiscent of Ornette Coleman’s early records, with the guys yelling and groaning the title at various intervals, like cartoon characters.

Lacy’s music has cerebral aspects to it. He was a scientist of sound, learning and testing what his instrument could do, or what he could do with it — he was known for practicing his instrument with discipline and serious dedication — and he named many of his compositions with evocative, abstract-at-first single words: Trickles. Troubles. Blinks. Wickets. The Bath. The Rent. The Door.

Yet his pieces are full of heart, each one dedicated to an artist in which Lacy found inspiration, including fellow musicians, painters and poets — Stevie Wonder, Paul Cézanne, Dexter Gordon, Max Ernst, Franz Joseph Haydn.

Ideal Bread’s leader, Sinton, studied with Lacy at the New England Conservatory from 2002 to 2004 (the year Lacy passed away), worked as his copyist and became a friend. He’s transcribing many of Lacy’s works — no small job, as there may be as many as 500 pieces (“a continent of music,” said one writer).

Sinton was clearly sparked and moved by his time with Lacy, who spoke often of the many lessons he learned from Thelonious Monk, one of the foremost being, “Let’s lift the bandstand.”

“Off the ground music” is what Monk and Lacy aspired to create, and Ideal Bread is achieving its own kind of liftoff, with Lacy’s fascinating compositions as the fuel. As Sinton once said, “I’m playing these songs because I don’t understand the songs.” That constant searching and discovery makes for a great album in “Transit,” and a promising (and recommended) show for adventurous music fans.

The concert is the latest in a series put on by Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares, a grassroots, all-volunteer organization of western Massachusetts jazz aficionados, working together to bring world-class musicians to the area.

For information and a listing of upcoming shows, visit http://jazzshares.org/.

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