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Sonic Liberation Front: Justice: The Vocal Works of Oliver Lake (High Two)

A review of the second collaboration between two massively influential artists

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Sonic Liberation Front: Justice: The Vocal Works of Oliver Lake (High Two)
The cover of Justice: The Vocal Works of Oliver Lake by Sonic Liberation Front

Sonic Liberation Front teaming with saxophonist/composer Oliver Lake is kind of like David Bowie phoning Donny McCaslin and his fellow jazz downtowners to record Blackstar: an always genre-jumping genius commingling with fresh, free players for something radically different from anything in each other’s past. Steeped in gospel fire and R&B swagger, Lake has always been an adventurer beyond jazz’s standard—not unlike percussionist Kevin Diehl, SLF’s director of operations.

For the second collab between SLF and Lake (2016’s Bombogenic being the first), Lake puts forth his first voice-focused creations, including two poems, several choral vocal pieces, selections featuring voices with quintet, a cappella vocals with poetry, voices with quintet and poetry, voices atop electric violin, even Lake reading his own poetry. To that surprise, SLF offers its own shifts in instrumentation by focusing its usually big, polyphonic band roar into something driven by flute, tenor sax, violin, acoustic bass, drums, and an SATB vocal quartet.

Like a cross between Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God in miniature and the work of pianist Brian Jackson with Gil Scott-Heron, the poetic moments of Justice such as “Ain’t Nothin’ Real BUT Love” are stately, sociable, and filled with a mix of portent and poignancy. The instrumental voicings, together with the wordless chorale elements of Justice, are a dream in amber and angularity, like Donald Byrd’s beloved 1964 meeting of voice and brass, A New Perspective. But on songs such as the tingling, pitter-pattered “Clouds” and “What,” Byrd’s brass reveries are replaced with eerily sawing violins; breathy, stop-and-starting flutes; and askew, honking saxophones—a vibe that carries through to the all-instrumental likes of “Aztec.”

A major work from two massively influential artists is Justice.

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