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Lacy and friends give a tune to the Beat Generation's tone

It would take a subtler critic than this one to truly trace the influence, the neurological effect, that jazz had on the writers of the Beat Generation -- a critic as subtle, perhaps, as the soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, who in his 50-year career in jazz has moved from Sidney Bechet-inspired Dixieland, through the avant-gardism of Cecil Taylor's band, to the musings and sweet distortions of Thelonious Monk.

Lacy's "Beat Suite," which had its Boston premiere on Friday night at the Institute of Contemporary Art, set the words of various Beat verbalizers to music, although it might be more accurate to say that it tried to discover the music within the words.

The quintet he has assembled pitted Lacy's educated, crystalline tone against the more visceral growling of the remarkable trombonist George Lewis; somewhere in between stood the voice of Irene Aebi (Lacy's wife), a considerable wind instrument itself, cycling grandly and brassily through some of the eccentric measures of the Beat writers.

Jean-Jacques Avenel on bass and John Betsch on the drums kept the beat solid and propulsive while spawning variations and side riffs of effortless complexity.

And Lacy prefaced each number with a reading of the poem in question;his delivery was Beat-perfect -- slurred, quizzical, laconic, oddly emphasized, dryly confused, jazzily cool.

Aebi's hard, fierce voice, backed note for note by Lacy and Lewis, then took the poem to pieces.

After a strolling, luxurious warm-up number, the program got into gear with two poems by Bob Kaufman. He was one of the most obscure and hard core of the Beats, and arguably the jazziest in his commitment to oral recitation and extemporizing.

Reading Kaufman, one senses how acutely deranging and exhilarating the initial rush of bebop must have been, and as Aebi trilled and bellowed about being led "counter-clockwise to pockets of joy and jazz" words and music coalesced into something like that original edginess.

A poem about a train, by Robert Creeley, was performed (complete with steam-engine howls from Lacy and Lewis and a chuffa-chuffa rhythm from Betsch), as well as a fragment of William S. Burroughs, typically concerned with "insect doom" and "the black wind suck of death."

Aebi's foghorn rendition must have startled the trench-coated shade of the master.

Trombonist Lewis used wind like Jimi Hendrix used electricity -- as pure energy. Gorgeous melodic inventions were followed by blasts of shuddering, giggling stunt-trombone, circus explosions, and pratfalls, all held together with the ultimate discipline of showmanship.

"This is high-falutin' material," Steve Lacy cautioned in the liner notes to the "Beat Suite" album, adding: "It's not for everybody."

Maybe not. But as an account of how jazz, in all its skeptical passion, entered the American language, it was hard to beat.

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