Friday, September 14, 2012

Oliver Lake at 70

Saxophonist, flutist, poet and composer Oliver Lake turns 70 today. The great man has dabbled in several strains of jazz, from ferocious honking and hard swinging Loft Jazz, to the bluesy and funk-tinged to more lyrical improvisational music. In addition to various band constellations under his own name, he played in the Human Arts Ensemble, with Charles Bobo Shaw, among others. Then there's the seminal World Saxophone Quartet, which he co-founded with Hamiet Bluiett, Julius Hemphill and David Murray, and in recent years, Trio 3, together with fellow elder statesmen Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille. As well as countless recordings as a sideman (whether or not he's a full member of the exciting Tarbaby yet, I do not know). To celebrate his birthday, here are a couple of highlights from his career as chosen by yours truly. It's by no means an exhaustive list, rather it's an attempt to look at the breadth of his work:

  • Human Arts Ensemble featuring C. Bobo Shaw: Whispers of Dharma (Universal Justice Records, 1972. Re-released on Arista Freedom in 1977) - HAE was a reeds, brass and percussion ensemble, and this was their first recording: two lengthy pieces on one LP side each, the first of which is all whispers and bells and gongs. The second side, however, is a whirlwind of drums and percussion, horns, whistles and shouts (literally): Very free, chaotic even, but given patience, you'll notice how the instruments slip in and out from the foreground, each yielding space for the others to say their piece. The Art Ensemble of Chicago would plow similar terrain on a couple of their records around the same time, but combine that with more rhythmic propulsion. The music here has seemingly no desire to move forward, for better or worse, but I can't but admire its relentlessness.
  • Oliver Lake: Holding Together (Black Saint, 1976) - Lake has recorded for Black Saint and its sister label Soul Note several times over the years, but this is arguable the pick of the bunch. Together with Pheeroan akLaff (credited here as Paul Maddox, his name prior to his conversion to Islam) on drums, Michael Gregory Jackson on guitars, percussion and flute, and the bass playing wizard Fred Hopkins, Lake balances intense, propulsive Loft Jazz with calmer moments, especially on the albums second half. Jackson plays counter lines to those of Lake, as well as piercing stabs here and there, while the always impressive akLaff and Hopkins makes certain the music moves forward nimbly and assertively. Highlight: "Hasan", a four plus minute piece which opens with ferocious speed and energy, and then settles into a into a damn hooky groove set by Hopkins just before the two minute mark. The opening track, "Trailway Shake / Sad Lo-uis" is pretty good too:
  • Oliver Lake & Jump Up: "Trickle Down Theory" (Gramavision, 1983) - In the mid-80s, Lake, like many of his contemporaries, tried his luck with a more funk oriented style of jazz. Well, it was hard funk really, period. Between 1982 and 1991, he released several albums on Gramavision, not all of them jazz funk, mind you. Plug it, which had contributions from Pheeroan akLaff and pianist Geri Allen, spawned this single, "Trickle Down Theory":

  • World Saxophone Quartet: Political Blues (Justin Time, 2006) - Perhaps not a typical example of WSQ's music, as on this record they added bass, drums, vocals and brass in order to vent their frustrations in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but it remains a favorite. New Orleans funk, heavy, bluesy, energetic, soulful and groovy. Now, while there are videos from this album on YouTube, I'll compromise and post this excerpt from Night Music of just the original WSQ instead:

  • Trio 3: Time Being (Intakt, 2005) - Since around 2000, Lake has recorded with bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Adrew Cyrille, both legends in their own right, under the name of Trio 3. On their most recent albums, they've been joined by Geri Allen (At This Time and Celebrating Mary Lou Williams) and Irene Schweizer (Berne Concert), but the free spirited and loose music centered on the collectively solid interplay of the trio is perhaps best heard on Time Being from 2006. Below is a live video recorded by Paul Brown and michael Zimmerman:

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