For many fans, jazz really is a church, a place in which to explore the deeper principles and remember the elders. So concerts at Grace Cathedral, which have become an annual feature of the San Francisco Jazz Festival, have a certain place in this world. This Sunday, Grace hosts two monsters of the high ranges, saxophone players Jackie McLean and Steve Lacy.
Perhaps no saxophone player is better suited to the rarified confines and acoustical peculiarities of a cathedral than sopranoist Lacy, a relentlessly searching performer of incredible breadth and unshackled, beautiful musical instincts. Lacy was renowned as a masterful interpreter of Thelonious Monk's compositions before he began exploring the outer limits. Based in France for about 30 years, Lacy has led ensembles featuring an odd assortment of strings, horns, and edgy vocals, and he's written song cycles based on Jewish traditions and works of several poets: One of the most recent is a two-CD set, The Cry (Soul Note) inspired by the writing of Bangala'deshi poet Taslima Nasrin. Thankfully, Lacy is not prone to the screeching and squeaking impulses of some outside players.
While Lacy is of the air, alto saxophone player McLean drew his initial strength directly from the New York streets. As a teen in New York he literally hung from the coattails of alto player Charlie Parker and others, picking up several of the bebop titan's good and bad habits. In the nearly 50 years since, McLean has established his own distinctive voice and much more, becoming one of the indisputable greats on his chosen instrument. He's played or recorded with pretty much every major performer in the annals of small group jazz, from Bird, Bud Powell, and Miles Davis to Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, and Bobby Hutcherson. His playing, while beguilingly off-kilter and bitter at times, always retains its blues essence and melodic qualities, and several of McLean's Blue Note recordings — from the blues-drenched Bluesnik to the aptly named Destination Out — are masterpieces.Jackie McLean and Steve Lacy perform Sunday, Oct. 24 at 7:30 p.m. at Grace Cathedral, California and Taylor Streets. Tickets are $20; Call (415) 788-7353.