Heavy Spirits (Arista Freedom 1008)
Oliver Lake / alto saxophone, Olu Dara / trumpet, Donald Smith / piano, Stafford James / bass, Victor Lewis / drums. Quintet (Side 1)
Oliver Lake / alto saxophone, Al P. Jones. Steven Peisch, C. Panton / violins. With Violin Trio: (First 3 tracks, Side 2)
Oliver Lake / alto saxophone, Joseph Bowie / trombone, Charles Bobo Shaw / drums. Trio (Last track, Side 2)
Tunes: “While Pushing Down Turn,” “0wshet,” “Heavy Spirits” / “Movement Equals Creation,” “Altoviolin,” “Intensity,” “Lonely Blacks,” “Rocket.”
Recorded: January 31 and February 3, 1975.
Oliver Lake, like Anthony Braxton, seems interested in exploring that middle ground between composition and improvisation. Though Braxton, I expect, is much more the structuralist than Lake, it’s obvious that the dramatic contours of the music here have been more or less set up in advance. This is especially evident on the violin trio tracks and on “Pushing” and, to a lesser extent, on “Owshet,” “Spirits,” and “Rocket.” Even the solo piece, “Lonely Blacks,” composed by Julius Hemphill, is in the first instance a composition rather than simply a “line” or a starting point for an improvisation.
Lake thus tends to define musical situations ahead of time rather than creating them (spontaneously) in the act of improvising. In a sense, this is a conservative avant-garde approach, generally working – here and in Braxton’s music – to create more the illusion of freedom than the conditions for its exploration. (The demands of freedom are somewhat consciously avoided; or, at least, not confronted head on.) But this concept is important in that it allows an artist to work toward more specifically defined ends and to experiment with a wide variety of expressive purposes and combinations of sounds. And, so far at least, the synthesis of approaches has worked to set off rather than to envelop the work of the improviser.
Lake’s music is largely successful on those terms, though the pieces for alto sax and violin trio are a bit overly reminiscent of that unwieldy hybrid known as “third stream” music. Lake’s playing, as throughout the LP, is strong and inventive but the strings set against this tend to sound dated and anti-climactic. More successful are the quintet pieces. These are flowing but fragmented compositions that seem to want to probe beneath the surface of every musical thought. The music unfolds within clearly defined boundaries but seems at every turn to want to burst beyond its confines. Unlike in many of Braxton’s pieces, all of the players stick to one instrument throughout; this emphasizes the connectedness of the sounds produced while at the same time making them appear a bit less fluid and expansive.
But Lake’s music is probably closer to an orthodox jazz feeling than Braxton’s is anyway, and this is as much the reason for this difference as the different instrumental approaches. Braxton seems more willing to let a sound be a sound, to exist in itself and be its own justification, while Lake seems to want every sound to imply something more.
On “Rocket,” the emphasis is less on form and more on spontaneity and individual invention. Lake’s and Shaw’s playing is particularly striking, and Bowie indicates that he is a potentially strong voice on his instrument as well. Already his brusque, throaty sound is clearly his own, but I’m not certain that his overall conception is as fully developed. Too bad we could not have heard more of Bowie and more of this trio. In any case, Lake has put together a solid and impressive collection of music for his first LP as leader, and I hope we’ll hear more of his work in the future.
Henry Kuntz, 1975
Oliver Lakes’s web page
selected Oliver Lake recordings:
Oliver Lake biography:
Oliver Lake, composer, saxophonist and poet. Co-founder of the renowned World Saxophone Quartet. Guggenheim fellow for composition, premiered orchestra piece in spring 94, “Cross Stitch“, for the Wheeling Symphony, first African American to be commissioned by Library of Congress and McKim Foundation for composition. His piece for violin and piano,”Movements Turns & Switches” premiered in fall of ’93 at Academy of Arts and Sciences Washington D.C. Received numerous commissions composition from N.E.A. and Meet the Composer of New York. His compositions are at the Smithsonian and were on the recommended list of recordings by president Clinton. Various artist have performed his works, such as Arditti String Quartet, World Sax Quartet, Amherst Sax Quartet, Regina Carter, Brooklyn Philharmonic, Wheeling Symphony, San Francisco Contemporary Players, New York New Music Ensemble, and Pulse Percussion Ensemble of New York.
During the year Oliver Lake has been performing a solo theater piece that he created,”Matador Of 1st & 1st” directed by Oz Scott. He has toured this work in the fall of ’96 on the west coast of U.S. and Canada. Oliver’s latest quintet recording is entitled “Dedicated To Dolphy” on the Italian label, Black Saint, and latest solo recording is the of above mentioned theater piece entitled “Matador Of 1st & 1st” recorded on the Passin’ Thru Label.
some Oliver Lake paintings: