Oliver Lake is a prolific composer, arranger, poet, and performer who, over a decades-long career, has played in innumerable configurations on countless stages. He co-founded the World Saxophone Quartet, and can often be found with Trio 3, consisting of Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille. As the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Melon Jazz Living Legacy award, Lake is constantly working on new music for any number of boundary-pushing ensembles.
Over two nights this weekend, The Oliver Lake Big Band will perform selections from their previous two albums, as well as new arrangements of Lake’s contemporary compositions. Incidentally, Lake will be releasing an album of music with string quartet on the same night. Over the phone, we discussed the power of the rhythm section in the big band, the joy of having a band full of tremendous improvisers, and the quicksilver nature of evolution.
TJG: The two-night performance at The Jazz Gallery features your big band: What’s on the setlist?
Oliver Lake: I have a couple of new pieces that I need to print out and arrange for the next rehearsal. One of them is called “France Dance.” It’s new for the big band, though I played it years ago with my quartet. The second piece is a re-arrangement of a ballad called “As You Like.” We’ve done it before, but I changed the arrangement. I’ll be conducting and doing some playing too. I’ll play on some of them.
TJG: In a Jazz Times profile in 2013, Mike Shanley reviewed your album Wheels and said “Big bands are hard to sustain but hopefully Lake’s vision will help this one to thrive. This is a unit that should keep evolving.” In what ways has the group evolved in the last five years?
OL: Well, it’s been kind of a two-way street. It’s evolved, but it’s stayed the same too. A lot of the guys in the band have been pretty consistent. When I get a gig I call the guys in the rhythm section first to see if they’re available. A couple of the horn players have stayed the same since the beginning. So there have been changes, and things have stayed the same. It’s been a positive evolution. I try to add new pieces every time too, so the guys don’t get bored being in the band [laughs]. For me, the improvisational abilities of the group is one of the strengths of the band. You can point to anyone in any section, and you’ll get a fantastic improviser.
TJG: That must give you a lot of options as an arranger, thinking about the sound of the piece and who might solo on it.
OL: Oh yes, absolutely. It’s not difficult to choose, anyone I choose to solo will deliver a strong performance. They’re all tremendous.
TJG: What do you bring to big band writing, specifically in the horns?
OL: Well, it’s difficult for me to put that in words. I’m trying to increase my skills as an arranger with the big band for every performance. As I said, I’ve rearranged a piece, the ballad, and improved it, I’m trying to improve. That holds for any ensemble: Quartet, big band, any group.