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.
TJG: Specifically regarding your work with the World Saxophone Quartet, it’s almost as though there’s a saxophone quartet imbedded within the big band. Do you use techniques and styles you developed with the quartet?
OL: Oh yeah. I feature those guys in that [compositional] way too. I can’t say specifically, but I’m sure it comes through somehow. I try to take a very open approach with the big band, so it doesn’t sound like a traditional way big bands sound. Small group moments emerge slowly from the big band, and when they’re all in, there’s another element that comes forward.
TJG: How do you make sure that happens, from a compositional point of view? How do you challenge the traditional big band sound?
OL: Historically, all the big band composers who have come before me, I have that pallate to choose from, as well as my experiences as an improviser with the various ensembles I’ve played with over the years, then trying to come up with an interesting arrangement that is not in a traditional sound, but rather just something I’d like to hear, and apply it to the big band in a typically unassociated-with-big-band-sound way.
TJG: On 4/21, the night of one of your Jazz Gallery shows, you’re actually releasing “Right On Up” with the Flux Quartet, right? How are they related?
OL: [Laughs] I have a poem I wrote a long time ago, and one of the lines is “Put all your food on the same plate.” There’s a whole mixture of things I’ve done in my career; one of them is writing for string quartet. I’ve had a collaboration with the Flux String Quartet since 2003. This is the first recording of them playing my original compositions for string quartet, and I play on three of the arrangements. It’s coincidental that it’s being released on the same night as the big band show at The Gallery on April 21. But, Passin Thru, my record label, has released two albums of my big band recordings, and this is a new release on the same label.
TJG: How do string quartet and big band writing and arranging differ?
OL: I’m an open-minded composer, so I listen to works by other artists, look at different styles, and keep an open palete as to what my choices are. I use that approach whether with strings or big band, or with my small ensemble.
TJG: I see Chris Beck played on your last Organ Quartet album and the last big band album.
OL: Chris is an amazing young drummer. He has a lot of intensity, he loves Elvin Jones, sometimes you can hear Elvin in his touch. Basically, he’s a consummate drummer, a consummate reader. A musician’s drummer. Like I said, I always call the rhythm section first. They’re the glue that holds it together. Many of the people from the last record are playing on the Gallery show. I’m always pleasantly surprised when they’re available long in advance [laughs].
The Oliver Lake Big Band plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, April 21st, and Saturday, April 22nd, 2017. The group features Bruce Williams, James Stewart, Jason Marshall, Darius Jones, and Mike Lee on saxophones; Josh Evans, Freddie Hendrix, Nabate Isles, and Greg Glassman on trumpets; Aaron Johnson, Al Patterson, Terry Greene II, and Stafford Hunter on trombones; Yoichi Uzeki on piano, Robert Sabin on bass, and Chris Beck on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.