Oliver Lake’s skill as a big-band leader might not be as well known as his tenure with the World Saxophone Quartet or his small-group projects, despite an interest in the format that dates back to the late ’60s with the Black Artists Group in St. Louis. Influenced by Oliver Nelson and Duke Ellington, Lake takes a hint from both arrangers and creates vast colorings with the horns, which in turn he utilizes in compositions that draw on his avant-garde style.
Based in New York, the 17-piece big band released a debut 10 years ago with a vastly different lineup. Although many names in the current lineup might not be immediately recognizable, soloists include recent WSQ member Bruce Williams (alto), the fiery Darius Jones (alto), Mike Lee (tenor) and Freddie Hendrix (trumpet). There’s also the leader’s rugged alto, sharp and piercing and ready to catch fire with little provocation. Wheels Suite charts the group’s entire course, moving from Jason Marshall’s grooving baritone solo into an Ellington ballad with rich trombones, with breaks from some growling horns before both Lake and tenor James Stewart take it out. “Philly Blues” creates a kind of blue feeling, keeping it slinky without getting too heavy, and “The Whole World” does the same with a funky backbeat and a series of four-bar solos from various horns.
Conversely, “Is It Real” shows Lake’s more adventurous side. It moves at a relaxed tempo with tough solos from Williams, trombonist Terry Greene and some wild group improv that climaxes with altissimo bird calls from Jones’ alto. 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.