Gene Lake: Steppin' Up

Phil DiPietro BY

Sign in to view read count
Gene Lake: Steppin' Up
With his self-produced debut , "Steppin Up", Gene lake does just that-putting himself out on the solo artist limb, after spending the 90's turning in nothing short of exemplary sideman (there's that word again) work.

Let's get the "sideman" credits straight, shall we? First off, I contend that anyone holding down the drum chair in Steve Coleman's band should automatically receive the cover of Modern Drummer once a year (in fact, Gene is appearing at this year's MD festival) and a lifetime supply of endorsements for everything from drumheads to deodorant. Steve's a force of nature, the undisputed figurehead of his own brand of Lincoln Center, and well-nigh a jazz institution at this point. His compositions focus on rhythm-all kinds and all meters-and he requires that all his musicians, let alone the drummer, groove and groove hard -alottathetime in 11! Simply put, (ok, picture Samuel Jackson saying this) "absolutely, positively playing the utter shit outta the kit" is the minimum entry requirement for the gig. It has to be one of the most challenging chairs in jazzdom and Gene's filled it better than anyone ''nuff said there.

Onto the rest of the resume. Gene's the son of, composer, saxophonist, and poet Oliver Lake, co-founder of the renowned World Saxophone Quartet, Guggenheim fellow and the first African American commissioned by Library of Congress for composition. This probably explains a lot about Gene, including his propensity for polyrhythms and his association as a 25 year-old with Henry Threadgill. He's one of David Fiuczynski's Screaming Headless Torsos (see: www.torsos.com), and also played on Dave's collaboration with Jon Medeski, Lunar Crush. Recently, a nice Y2K trend has emerged with Gene on the throne for some extremely hip independent releases, including the Nat Janoff debut, Matt Garrison's debut, the Fuze's Jazzpunk solo project and again, with Fuze on the Headless Torsos instrumental disc. He's also done world tours with more , shall we say, popular jazz artists like David Sanborn, Zawinul and Marcus Miller.

But it's when we check out the other folks he's done time with is where all will be revealed about what's happening here. Because this is more (but not most) of the record you'd expect the drummer for Surface, Meshell Ndegeocello, D'Angelo,and Maxwell to make. Gene looked deep, and it was time, as the title of the second tune in says, to "Face the Funk" and let the this more readily accessible listen dominate the odd time, fused-out, sometimes avant-jazzisms he's known for. The ever-astute Greg Tate nails it in the liner notes when he says "Midwestern Funk-Fusion is how Gene Lake characterizes the music on his debut and I'm here to testify about the accuracy of that description: this music is very familiar to ears raised on Prince, The Time, Slave and Lakeside on the one hand; Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever on the other." Personally, I hear a modern evolution of the sound Lenny White got on "The Adventures of Astral Pirates" lp (I'm showing my age here-it's a 1977 release), which was a science fiction comic book soundtrack for a band of space-funk pioneers- but with virtuoso drumming at its core.

Believe it or not, Gene brings a boatload of other musically significant skills to the table for this release, not the least of which is his absolute mastery of thumb'n'pluck style bass. A guy that calls Matt Garrison, Marcus Miller, Reggie Washington , Fima Ephron and MeShell friends would have gained nothing, for the type of music expressing his vision here, anyway, by making a few phonecalls for guest appearances from his lowend cronies. Many of the melodies on the disc are voiced on lead bass, with keyboards picking up the deeper basslines. Oh yeah, Gene plays the keys as well, and all other instruments featured here except for those played by the guest soloists on the disc: David Fiuczynski and Bryant McNeil on guitar; Federico Gonzales Pena, Andy Milne and Scott Brown on keyboards; and a guest appearance by dad on sax. He even raps, quite credibly, on a couple of cuts. You've probably already guessed that he wrote and arranged all the tunes. Finally, he not only produced but made the extra leap of the ears required to mix the cd which, taken together with his work in the same arena on the brand spankin' new Headless Torsos Instrumental disc, should have him turning away customers in droves at his home studio.

With Coleman, he shows how complicated time signatures can still groove, while here, he shows how a simple groove can get instantaneously complex. Polyrhythms snap back to the "one", stripped down beats go huge and balladry goes ballistic. "Steppin Up" kills it with a torrid, nicely heavy-handed intro, with a similarly heavily- thumbed bass line cutting up the 4:4 into staccato chunks. The middle breaks down into a slower groove over which the Fuze adds his acid microtonal magic. Fiuczynski can no longer be overlooked as the multistylistic master that he is, effortlessly throwing off speedier legato lines in his second pass at a faster vamp.

"Face the Funk" features that futurist vibe, a fierce but slower funk than the previous number. Gene plucks a slap melody over his synth bass line and chordal washes, all the while filling up the midrange of the mix with vintage, spacey analog moogisms. Father Oliver enters at the two minute mark for a solo that sounds very much more soulfully "in" than the "out"-ness he's known for, rendering any thought of tapping Sanborn for a favor superfluous.

"Cycles" features strong sections in four followed by cyclical sections where the time is ill-defined, like the best of Coleman's work but in a totally different context. You just have to admire the subtlety of techniques and the total mastery of time here. Gene's confidence on this one, as throughout, is palpable to the listener. You can feel the beast of the drummer that's inside the groove, with hints of the more complex stuff he's noted for, without its propensity to turn off the less adventurous listener.

"Grace Under Pressure" provides serious drum muscle flexing , with challenging tom and double-bass work supporting a tune that sounds like Larry Graham out in front of Return to Forever, line-dancing with the Central Station, punctuated by a Jan Hammeresque solo by Milne.

"The Verdict" is a Latin rondele sequence under which Gene flexes his mammoth drum chops. This amazing 2 minutes is decidedly one for the drummers, spiced with majestic Beckian keyboard swells and odd times seemingly plucked more out of the prog- rock world than the avant- jazz one. Gene drops back into the funk for "The Real McCoy" which features a head multi-voiced on keys that would make a killer Tower of Power horn chart, over which is stated a Bernie Worell-like lead synth voice. The last couple of minutes of this one show just how many layers (not overdubs) Gene can create over a real simple groove, without making it unduly ungrooving. "New Day" certainly supports my "Astral Pirates" reference (by the way, Gene confirms he's never heard the thing), with vintage keyboard sounds taking front, center and backstage while Gene kills it with both sticks and his thumb.

I'll leave the music descriptors at that, and allow you digest this rest for yourself while leaving you with this on Gene. I had the privilege of meeting the man at a recent Torsos gig and found this head- to -head gave instant insight into the elements of his persona that are accentuated when he sits in the drum chair. A big man with the look, smile and voice of actor Ving Rhames, he's ultra-laid back, extremely humble and gracious to a fault. It's a demeanor that certainly belies his technical facility and athletic agility with the kit (dig if you will the picture of Ving being able to go one on one with Kobi), but at the same time, partially accounts for it. It's as though Gene is capable (like many great athletes) of seeing "real time" a bit more slowly than the rest of us, somehow creating the moments for the extra splatter of the toms, the impossible double kick, or that perfectly placed accent or fill. Known by other drummers for his sheer power and stunning skills, he remains somewhat under-recognized , especially for someone with such a complete resume. In that regard, this record (as well as the incredible others he's been involved in during the last year) will change that, ensuring Gene's name is mentioned in any discussion of the absolute highest levels of his profession. Mr. Weckl and the 3 C's (CobColaiutuChambers) should no doubt be looking over their shoulders for the leader of the new vanguard of funky drummers. Get it now, through Gene at his website (http://members.aol.com/gene1mus/home.htm) at or the Passin' Thru website (www.passinthru.org) at or at Cdnow and Amazon.

Track Listing

1. Steppin' Up 6:41,2. Face da Funk 4:06, 3. Us 5:06, 4. Cycles 4:33, 5. After Thought 4:15, 6. Grace Under Pressure 5:17, 7. Lovesong 2:50, 8. Verdict 2:08,9. Real McCoy 7:05, 10. Mental Funk 4:53, 11. New Day 3:24, 12. End 2:56


Gene Lake- Drums, bass, guitar, keys, vocals, production, Oliver Lake-alto sax, David Fiuczynski, Bryant McNeil-guitars, Federico Gonzales Pena, Andy Milne, Scott Brown-keyboards

Album information

Title: Steppin' Up | Year Released: 2001 | Record Label: Passin' Thru Records

Post a comment about this album


Shop Amazon


Stephan Crump
This Land
Theo Bleckmann & The Westerlies
Trust Me
Gerry Eastman Trio
Matthew Stevens
Borderlands Trio: Stephan Crump / Kris Davis /...
Kinds of Love
Renee Rosnes


Terence Blanchard featuring The E-Collective
The Garden
Rachel Eckroth
Time Frames
Michael Waldrop

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.