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Review: Two Albums From Oliver Lake

Review of two albums featuring saxophonist Oliver Lake

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cover of Oliver Lake album
Joseph Bowie and Oliver Lake’s Live at “A Space” 1976 album cover

Live at ‘A Space’ 1976 (Sackville/Delmark)

Right Up On (Passin’ Thru)

In his years between co-founding the Black Artists Group in St. Louis and the World Saxophone Quartet, Oliver Lake had already developed a unique voice on the alto saxophone and an equally original approach to composition. His tart tone delivered raw aggression with refined quality, like a blend of Eric Dolphy and a chamber player. Anything was possible in his writing—tone poems, parallel melodies, free blowing. In the spring of 1976, the same year the WSQ came together, Lake performed at Bill Smith’s A Space in Toronto, a venue that championed avant-garde musicians. With Lake was trombonist Joseph Bowie, who at 22 years old already had full command of his instrument’s range.

The five tracks from the concert are not for the faint of heart. But fans of both players will consider this document essential. Largely built on improvisation, the music also features structures to which Lake and Bowie continually return. Sometimes they leap immediately from calm lines to fantastic shrieks (“Zaki”), while in other moments they take turns riffing underneath each other’s solos (“After Assistance”). Bowie avoids low, flatulent rumbles, preferring to execute vicious blasts that at times hit with the fury of guitar chords. Whether Lake—who also plays flute, soprano saxophone and percussion—makes his horn scream or sing softly, it’s always done in the interest of an original melodic path.

Several decades later, Lake has proven himself to be a performer fluent in a number of different genres. Right Up On features seven of his compositions performed by the string ensemble Flux Quartet, with the composer adding alto saxophone to three of them. This set also provides challenges, but for reasons completely different from the Bowie duets. Lake’s writing for this instrumentation is dense and loaded with harsh dissonances that require extreme jumps in register. Anyone with an aversion to high-pitched squeals should approach the final minutes of “2016” with caution, as the violins emulate the worst kind of speaker feedback. Things sound most interesting when Lake joins in, adding direction to “Hey Now Hey” and “5 Sisters.” Written for the centennial of the Theory of Relativity, “Einstein 100!” offers the most room for the Flux Quartet to breath. At 20 minutes in length, it contains solo spaces between the group passages. While some of the pieces are difficult to penetrate, this one offers more opportunities for discovery.

Read Mike Shanley’s review of What I Heard from the Oliver Lake Organ Quartet.

Purchase a copy of Oliver Lake featuring Flux Quartet’ s album Right Up On from Amazon.


Originally Published