Steve Lacy Sextet – Franco Beltrametti

In the 1980s, an Italian poem inspired by the California condor was set to music. Here’s the story.

“The Condor” is the title track of an album by the Steve Lacy Sextet (Soul Note 1986):

Steve Lacy Sextet - cover

The cover art is credited to Franco Beltrametti, whose poem “Un Uccello? Un’Aquila?” serves as the lyrics to “The Condor”.

The words are sung by sextet member Irene Aebi. Here they are from the album liner notes:

Steve Lacy Sextet - lyric

The introduction to Lacy’s “The Condor” is a repetitive, dissonant waltz. When the singer joins in, the music switches to a kind of trance-like funeral march. After a brief return to the introductory waltz, lighter melodic improvising is heard from solo and duo saxophones, and solo piano. The music fades away, rebuilds with a drum solo, and fades away again.

The distinct segments of the 8-minute-long piece had me thinking of a day in the life of a condor: roosting, preening, soaring up and away, feeding, bathing, and so on.

The liner notes by Mike Zwerin describes the development of Steve Lacy’s music by making reference to the condor:

Back in those days, Lacy was limiting himself to the music of Thelonious Monk, actually not much of a limitation. ‘The Condor’ reveals the same bird soaring higher.

Unfortunately, in the process of making a point about Lacy and his music, Zwerin confuses  the California condor of Beltrametti’s poem with the Andean condor:

… what’s a condor? ‘A very large American vulture of the high Andes having the head and neck bare and the plumage dull black with a downy white neck ruff and white patches on the wings’.

That’s not a bad image for this man and music. It even lilts like that, only not ‘vulture’ in the carrion devouring sense. Rather apply the line ‘quasi estinto’ …

For an English translation of the lyrics and for more about Franco Beltrametti, see the post Franco Beltrametti’s grande uccello. A future post will dig into Beltrametti’s interest in the California condor.