Henry Kaiser Quartet Plays Steve Lacy at Piedmont Pianos

On an extraordinarily hot Saturday evening in Oakland, we and several others kept cool both physically and musically at Piedmont Pianos. The occasion was a concert of music by Steve Lacy, as interpreted by an ensemble organized by guitarist Henry Kaiser with saxophonist Bruce Ackley.

Steve Lacy is a visionary but often under appreciated musician in avant-garde jazz. He was a prolific composer especially in the 1970s with his sextet and is an influence on many of the musicians were regularly see and perform with. (You can see Jason Berry’s tribute comic to Steve Lacy in an earlier post.) Bruce Ackley and Henry Kaiser have long been interpreters of Lacy’s music. Ackley and other founding members of Rova shared a deep interest in Lacy, and connected with him in both Berkeley and Paris, ultimately recording their own album of his work in 1983. They teamed up with Kaiser for performances of Lacy’s Saxophone Special in the early 2000s and ultimately recorded the piece together with Kyle Bruckman. More recently, Kaiser and Ackley have put together a group to perform the music from The Wire, which included Tania Chen on piano, Danielle DeGruttola on cello, Andrea Centazzo on percussion, and Michael Manring on bass. The performance on this evening featured a subset of this group featuring Ackley, Kaiser, Chen, and DeGruttola.

Henry Kaiser Quartet

The concert featured many pieces from The Wire as well as a few others, and demonstrated the breadth of Steve Lacy’s composition from the brightly melodic “Hemline” (dedicated to Janis Joplin) to the extremely percussive and avant-garde “The Owl” (dedicated to Anton Webern), which featured Tania Chen and Kaiser blending the extended acoustic techniques of their respective instruments.

Henry Kaiser, Tania Chen, Robert Ackley

Even at its most percussive and noisy, Lacy’s music is quite melodic and structured. Indeed, many of the pieces were intended as songs, specifically songs for the voice of Irene Aebi. The melodies often revolved around simple repeating motifs, as in “Bound” (dedicated to Irene Aebi). On some pieces, including “Deadline”, DeGruttola and Kaiser acted as a string-based rhythm section, providing a foundation for the soprano-sax to interpret the melody and the piano to fill the space in between. Other moments provided lush harmonies, with Kaiser playing long pitch-bent chords on guitar and Chen playing frenetic harmonic fragments on piano. The energy can be intense at times, but then slower and haunting as in “Clouds”. Although structured, there is a lot of room for improvisation in the music, and the ensemble had great on stage chemistry for listening and playing off of one another, leaving empty space, and allowing Lacy’s original ideas to come out even as the performers added their own. The performance also included the title track from The Wire, “Twain”, “Ecstasy” and more.

This was my first visit to Piedmont Pianos. It is a large, friendly, and inviting space, dedicated entirely to the piano. Many were rather impressive, both in terms of their quality as instruments as well as their sticker prices, including the gorgeous Fazioli grand that Tania Chen played for the concert. However, I found myself most captivated by this remake of a 1930s Bluthne PH Piano, which is a work of visual as well as sonic art.  It is based on a design by noted Danish architect and inventor Poul Henningsen.

1931 PH Piano

We look forward to seeing more shows at Piedmont Pianos now that we have discovered it, and of course upcoming shows for all the musicians involved in this evening. Nor is this our last word on the music of Steve Lacy.

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