Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy played with pianist/composer Thelonious Monk for four months in 1960. He’s made explorations of Monk’s music a significant part of his career and discography ever since. In 1961, Lacy formed this quartet specifically to interpret Monk, keeping it together until 1964. Those were vitally important years in jazz. Sonny Rollins was taking his first steps out, forming a quartet with Ornette Coleman’s former trumpeter Don Cherry (as heard on the underrated Our Man In Jazz). Coleman himself had completed his legendary Atlantic Records tenure (collected on the boxed set Beauty Is A Rare Thing), exploding bebop traditions and causing the term "free jazz" to be permanently identified with him. Hard bop—the bluesy, soulful genre practiced by players like Art Blakey, Hank Mobley and Lee Morgan—was at its artistic and commercial peak. John Coltrane was releasing album after album, each one revealing a new facet of his astonishing talent and vision. The Lacy/Rudd band would not be marked, in conventional jazz histories, as a world-shaking endeavor like those others. All the more reason to celebrate this forty-year-old recording’s re-emergence.
The key to Monk’s appeal is the insistent, niggling beauty of his melodies. They work their way into the listener’s head like earwigs and never quite depart. This despite the fact that his own albums are filled with moments when he seems to be playing the piano with his elbows or his feet. One of this album’s many virtues is its pianolessness; in addition to Lacy, it features trombonist Roswell Rudd, bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Dennis Charles. Lacy’s choice to focus on the melodies, rather than duplicating previous arrangements, frees the band from the need to play in an explicitly "Monkian" manner. Further, the absence of piano (an instrument which is melodic, but also ultimately percussive) gives the music a smooth flow that Monk’s own renditions of these tunes didn’t always possess.
Each member of the quartet brings something unique to the group sound. The relationship between Lacy and Rudd is long-standing—the pair play together, off and on, to this day—but even in these early recordings, their roles are already defined. Lacy is the straight man, playing the melodies and soloing in an adventurous, but thoughtful, manner as befits a bandleader. Rudd, by contrast, cuts loose repeatedly, whooping and slurring his notes in a style that verges on the cartoonish on more than one occasion. The contrast is almost vaudevillian, but from a listener’s perspective, it works very well.
The pair’s efforts are bolstered by the superb rhythm section. Bassist Henry Grimes was one of the most important players in the East Village scene of the early 1960s. He appeared on records by Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, and others, before disappearing in 1968—many people assumed he was dead, but a January 2003 magazine interview proved him alive, albeit no longer involved with jazz. Dennis Charles, the drummer, passed away in 1997. Grimes’ tone is thick and rumbling, rooted in the blues, as were Monk’s compositions. He slaps at the bass like it won’t tell him what it knows. Charles swings hard, but tickles the rhythm around the edges, too, occasionally moving it into the time-less zone drummers like Milford Graves and Rashied Ali would occupy in years to come. This quartet was one of many bridges between the bluesy regimentation of hard bop and the screams of freedom that would be heard in 1964 and afterward. For this reason, School Days is an important record. But because of the source material (the compositions of Thelonious Monk) and the talents of all involved, not to mention the obvious joy playing this music gives them, it’s also exhilarating and beautiful at once—the combination that’s at the heart of all the best jazz.