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Oliver Lake: From Which Freedom Continues


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Oliver LakeIt's not a term to toss around, but sometimes it fits. Oliver Lake, one could say with little worry of hyperbole, is a renaissance man. Best known as an original member of the longstanding World Saxophone Quartet, he is also an organizer with a sense for business—from founding the Black Artists Group (BAG) in St. Louis in the '60s to running his own label, Passin' Thru. He's a painter and a poet, a monologist and observer of the human condition. Nestled away in a beautiful old house in Montclair, NJ, a home filled with paintings and dark wood paneling, he lives the busy life of a man both minding his muse and tending shop.

"Primarily I think of myself as a musician, he said. "But "I always thought of myself as kind of a music entrepreneur.

That spirit led him in 1968 to go and visit the Chicago Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and to import their model of self-sufficiency back to St. Louis, where he'd moved from his native Arkansas. In St. Louis, Lake was playing with saxophonists Hamiet Bluiett and Julius Hemphill, as well as [trombonist] Joseph Bowie, saxophonist David Sanborn, woodwind multi-instrumentlist J.D. Parran, playwright Malinke Elliott, poet Bruce [Ajule] Rutlin and others. But he saw the need to have an organization behind their various endeavors.

Lake was also performing short solo concerts at the time, usually less than a half hour and working with poets. Eventually he started to bridge the two. "I was accompanying poets and the more I did that the more I wanted to do it myself, he said. One of those poets was another St. Louis playwright, Ntozake Shange, author of for colored girls who've considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf: a choreopoem. The friendship they built, he said, inspired him to work his own poetry into his solo concerts and to self-publish a book of his writing. "It just sort of evolved, watching her take my music and doing her poems, he said.

That spirit is also what led him to leave the Midwest for New York, seeking bigger things and bringing Bluiett and Hemphill with him. There they joined forces with Californian saxophonist David Murray. A commission from a New Orleans promoter, Lake said, led them to form a saxophone quartet without a rhythm section. Originally called the New York Saxophone Quartet, they expanded their vision to the World Saxophone Quartet (WSQ) when they discovered the name was already taken. The WSQ continues to this day, albeit with the loss of Hemphill, who died in 1995, not long after leaving the group. After various attempts to replace him, the group has decided to carry on with what Lake called a "floating chair . Their most recent record, Political Blues (Justin Time,2006), features a rhythm section, two added saxophones and a trumpet, as well as trombonist Craig Harris and guitarist James "Blood Ulmer, suggesting the concept of the quartet has continued to grow flexible over the years. A recent concert in St. Louis, for example, included saxophonists James Carter and Greg Osby, but without Murray.

Leaving St. Louis, Lake said, meant leaving BAG behind. While the Chicago AACM had enough of an infrastructure to survive after trumpeter Leo Smith, woodwind multi-instrumentalists Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill, and the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago dispersed for Europe and New York, BAG didn't have the strength of numbers to go on without its founders. [The organization's short, four-year life was chronicled in Benjamin Looker's book, Point From Which Creation Begins: The Black Artists' Group of St. Louis (Missouri Historical Society Press, 2004)]

"That was our mistake, we didn't pick that up and bring it with us, Lake said. "The biggest mistake we made was not leaving that seed of younger musicians behind to carry BAG on.

Poetry and spoken word have continued to be a part of Lake's work. Political Blues ends with his "Spy On Me Blues, an attack on the Bush administration in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, delivered in Lake's enigmatic voice of bemused disbelief. But a stronger example is his one-man play Matador of First & 1st, a powerful set of saxophone solos and pointed, funny ruminations on contemporary life. Lake did the show for ten years, finally retiring it two years ago but preserving it on a 1997 Passin' Thru release.

Living the life of a renaissance man leaves little free time. In the two weeks before our interview, Lake played three festivals in Europe with the WSQ (joined by his son, drummer Gene Lake), played and recorded with his organ trio (with another son, DJ Jahi Sundance), rehearsed and performed in Geri Allen's "Healing of Nations Concert at Rutgers University and did two nights in Pittsburgh with poets from China and Senegal. And he was preparing to head to California to begin rehearsals for a big band doing new arrangements of Dewey Redman compositions. The project, led by composer Mark Masters, was meant to be fronted by Redman, but when he died last month, Lake got the call. "My first thought was, 'Why didn't he call a tenor player?'," Lake said. "But I was honored that he did. I loved Dewey.

On top of it all, Lake tries to find time for visual expression. He has been painting since high school, completing about one piece a year, but had been having trouble finding time to keep up with it. He credits AACM saxophonist Douglas Ewart with encouraging him to set aside 15 minutes a day to paint.

"Now I'm doing 30 minutes a day, so I graduated, he said with a laugh. "When I paint, I have no idea where I'm going to go. I think my painting and my music go the same way.

And still there's more he wants to do. In 2003, he released Cloth (Passin' Thru), a strong, diverse set of arrangements for a 16-piece band. "I want to keep composing for big band, he said.

"I'd like to do some larger works, he went on. "I really want to create a multi-media piece with a lot of video and sound clips. And I'd like to see my record company become a success.

Oliver Lake The label may well be the center of all of those goals (some of the releases even feature his paintings in the booklets). Passin' Thru was the imprint for his first solo record, NTU: The Point From Which Freedom Begins (1971) and, after a hiatus, was brought back to life in 1995, prompted by the realization that not owning publishing rights means not controlling how your work is used.

"The first time I heard Lee Morgan's music in a commercial, that was an inspiration to own my own music, he said.

The label is run out of his home, by him and a part-time secretary, but, Lake said, it's the key to his freedom.

"This music—you never know where it's going to end up, he said. "I wanted to own as much of my music as I could. It's crazy, but I don't regret it. I always wanted to be in control of what I do and we never know where our music is gonna end up. The majority of the music I've done is mine.

Selected Discography

Oliver Lake Big Band, Cloth (Passin' Thru, 2003)

Oliver Lake, Movement, Turns & Switches (Passin' Thru, 1996)

Trio 3 (Oliver Lake/Reggie Workman/Andrew Cyrille), Live in Willisau (Dizzim, 1992)

World Saxophone Quartet, Plays Duke Ellington (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1986)

Oliver Lake, Heavy Spirits (Freedom, 1975)

Oliver Lake, NTU: The Point From Which Freedom Begins (Passin' Thru-Freedom, 1971)

Photo Credits
Top Photo: Daniele Pardi
Bottom Photo: Frank Rubolino



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