Oliver Lake is sitting at his dining room table in Montclair, N.J., on a recent afternoon, hands folded in front of him, back poised and upright. The 72-year-old alto saxophonist looks like he could be taking in the scenery for the first time, or gauging whether something has changed. On the walls, his bright paintings hang beside his children’s scholastic awards. An original Pac-Man machine sits in the hallway, and somehow it’s not out of place.
In the dining room, papers and CDs are sprawled on the table-here’s his latest album, To Roy (Intakt), a bluesy and intimate effort recorded last year in duo with bassist William Parker. There’s an art book of his paintings and poetry. Wedged into its pages is a sheet of paper listing recent releases on Lake’s label, Passin’ Thru.
“There are so many things that I’m artistically attracted to,” he says. “Throughout my career, if I had the opportunity to try something, I just went for it. I knew that would be detrimental to me in some ways, because I couldn’t be pegged into any certain area. But I feel really fortunate that I’ve been able to have success. Not always monetarily: I mean in terms of following an idea through to completion.”
He points me to a booklet with photos of a house in Pittsburgh that was recently restored. It’s part of a project by the nonprofit City of Asylum to creatively refurbish homes for exiled writers from around the world, fostering an artistic community while rebuilding a neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s North Side. A house painter recently covered the exterior at 320 Sampsonia Way in a huge rendering of Lake’s playful acrylic painting “Just Be Good.”
Ten years ago, when City of Asylum was young, Lake got a performance request from its director. He sensed a positive thing coming, and played for no pay at the organization’s first annual Poetry Jazz Concert. He’s since performed and read poems there every year, almost always with a different ensemble.
As the author of over three dozen albums, Lake reconciles a sense of radical openness with the will to command his own fate. Last year he was recognized with a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, good for $275,000, which Lake is putting toward expanding his recording work at Passin’ Thru. It’s due acknowledgment for an artist whose contributions stretch back to the 1960s, when he cofounded St. Louis’ influential Black Artists’ Group, a multidisciplinary collective. He resettled in New York in the 1970s, and became a figurehead on the self-starting “loft jazz” scene while also forging allegiances beyond its boundaries.
In the decades since he’s continued to lead by example, and through a quiet determination to constantly diversify. “It’s his personality, who he is. He never really changed,” says baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, a cofounder of the BAG and Lake’s longtime bandmate in the World Saxophone Quartet. “As long as you keep advancing, you cover much more territory. Oliver has played off different concepts, and always been admired and appreciated doing it. He’d always be doing things and I’d be saying, ‘How did he pull that one off?’ It’s been that way all the time.”
For over 40 years, Lake’s approach has been defined by fluid membranes: between art forms, and between deliberate organizing and free expression. It makes sense that City of Asylum invited Lake to become an artist-in-residence last year, bringing him to Pittsburgh for a series of short stays so that he could participate in community meetings. Out of that has grown a multimedia work involving North Side writers, artists and musicians.