Like his World Saxophone Quartet colleague David Murray, Oliver Lake is not considered to be as avant as he was in the '70s, but that's more a measure of progress in the jazz-body politic than anything else. Lake remains one of the most compelling alto saxophonists on the scene today; if anything, he wields his voltage-spiking vernacular with more authority than ever. Even though the populist strain in his aesthetic-particularly Jump Up and his Steel Quartet-occasionally provokes backlash from some parochial quarters, Lake continues to make probing, rewarding music. For the most part, Talkin' Stick supports this proposition.
On this quintet date with pianist Geri Allen, vibraharpist Jay Hoggard, bassist Belden Bullock and drummer Cecil Brooks III, Lake does the big, important things right. Lake peppers the program with compositions that create an active chemistry between strong thematic hooks and keen structural devices for improvisation. The title-piece opener's tangy melodic line provides cunning misdirection for the ensuing heated duo exchanges between Brooks and, successively, Lake, Hoggard and Allen. He also reasserts an ability, established with the mid-'70s classic Heavy Spirits, to write in an expansive balladic form that allows searing intensity and delicate lyricism to commingle. And the aptly titled, suitelike "Shifts" confirms Lake's sureness in building a cohesive performance from sketchlike materials and open improvisational space. Additionally, Lake's arrangements frequently give Allen and Hoggard complementary roles within the ensembles to create engaging counterpoint. The arrangements also allow Brooks' teeming cross-rhythms to spur things along without obscuring Allen's nuanced phrasing.
The program contains a couple of miscues: the 11/8 funk of Julius Hemphill's "Hard Blues" is all but airbrushed out in an effervescent reading, while the groove of "Song for Jay" is dangerously smooth. Still, Talkin' Stick is a solid album.