"Ellington used to say 'Beyond category' and some of my cohorts call it 'Great Black Music' but I realize that the categories have been in existence for so long; at the same time, I'm not going to get bent out of shape when somebody calls this music 'jazz', because there's a long history at work.
Saxophonist, flutist and composer Oliver Lake may as well have been describing the music he releases on his label, aptly called Passin' Thru. No one style is given long-term precedent, nor is experimentation for its own sake employed to usurp accessibility. In fact, many individual tracks from Passin' Thru's 14 CD releases and two LPs cross the thin line between tradition and innovation, without sacrificing integrity on either front. Artists appear and disappear, only to re-emerge years later in a different but equally fine group setting.
A new quartet disc, featuring the joint saxophones of Lake and John Tchicai, might be the label's boldest statement thus far. The playing of all involved, beyond simply being incisive, has a stripped-down feel, shared with many Passin' Thru releases, showing that production is a means to an end rather than an aesthetic. The recording is stark, close without being stuffy, Lake and Tchicai's styles set in symbiotic contrast to the rhythm section's accentuations and punctuations, with every detail clear and precise.
Care is evidently taken to achieve the illusion of non-production. Every release is obviously a labor of love that skirts the edges of marketability, a problem the Passin' Thru label is meant to address. "I started the label so I could own as much of my music as possible, Lake explains. "I saw what Andrew White was doing many years ago and I had a chance to talk with him, a conversation from which I learned a great deal. White, best known as a transcriber of almost every Coltrane solo, is also a fine saxophonist in his own right, producing his own music and transcriptions for some 35 years. For Lake, embarking on his business venture in the early '80s, ownership is clearly a multivalent phenomenon, pertaining mainly to business acumen but also ensuring that his music, in whatever form it exists, reaches as wide an audience as possible. Even last year's quartet release, Oliver Lake Quartet Live, pushes the margins of what would be acceptable, either to a mainstream audience or to those for whom the avant-garde is a way of life rather than an alternative. A bit rough around the edges and just a touch distant, it nevertheless bristles with energy, due in no small part to Mary Redhouse's astonishing vocals. She swoops, effortlessly and often, her voice capable of evoking mellow flutes, muted trumpets and, on "Montana Grass Song," the full-throated and immensely emotive cries of the Native American.
Lake sees his label as representing his whole career, both following a trajectory far beyond the scope of the present article; suffice it to say Lake seems to thrive on having several simultaneous outlets for his creativity. His multi-ethnic Steel Quartet, represented by two Passin' Thru releases, blurs geographical and stylistic boundaries; his big band and his string projects present alternate and intriguing pathways through his compositions, demonstrating timbral diversity in tandem with a readily recognizable musical language. There is also the severely funky Gene Lake solo album, Cycles, on which Lake guests in quite a different context; it's a hip collection of tracks that reference the '70s, especially the slithery synth work.
Several titles on Passin' Thru pay homage to influential but underrepresented jazz musicians. There is the beautiful John Hicks solo album, Hicks Time, and he is also featured on Frederick Washington Jr.'s sole effort for the label. However, the Makanda Ken McIntyre titles are of equal historical importance. McIntyre, Lake explains, had recently retired from teaching when he and Lake began their association, but Makanda had been a prominent player in the early '60s, recording a standout session with Eric Dolphy among others. The liner notes to Knit Classics' 2000 reissue of the Wildflowers Loft Sessions set tantalized with the promise of new material by Makanda, and it was Passin' Thru that gave the self-produced A New Beginning wider distribution. Sadly, McIntyre died shortly before its release, but the quartet date is a fitting legacy, continuing the investigations into the intersection of freedom and structure that set him apart. More recently, Lake has also released a series of wind quartets, all composed and performed, in overdub, by McIntyre (In the Wind).
No pejorative is meant by suggesting that Passin' Thru's future holds more of the same. The next release will document the Oliver Lake Organ Trio, and some music for string quartet should follow shortly. These will be welcome additions to a catalogue well worth exploration.