|Oliver Lake. Photo by Yasmin Grogan.|
When spring hits Wesleyan, musical sounds flower in all corners of our campus. The outdoor concerts echo through the amphitheaters of fields and buildings, prompting us music majors to emerge from our sonic hibernation caves in the practice rooms. We wander up to our clusters of friends on Foss Hill, acoustic guitars in hand, content to strum the day away as we prepare for the next night of music.
Among these cherished rites of spring is the Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra Weekend, when the school’s Jazz Orchestra [directed by Adjunct Professor of Music Jay Hoggard '76] and Jazz Ensemble [directed by Jazz Ensemble Coach Noah Baerman] gather in Crowell Concert Hall to present the fruits of their creative collaborations. This Friday, April 25, 2014 at 8pm, the Jazz Orchestra and Jazz Ensemble come together for an evening-long concert of works that traverse the spectrum of American improvised music – from the large ensemble works of Duke Ellington to the harmolodics of Ornette Coleman.
The music continues on Saturday, April 26, 2014 at 8pm, as the Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra opens an evening of music alongside this year’s visiting artist ensemble, the Oliver Lake Big Band. Fresh off the release of last year’s critically acclaimed album Wheels, composer, saxophonist, and bandleader Oliver Lake will lead the group through his challenging and stimulating compositional repertoire. You can expect a concert encompassing the history of African-American creative music, with elements of every aesthetic from swing to the avant-garde, all held together by the cohesion of Mr. Lake’s intuitive writing.
After our Jazz Orchestra rehearsal yesterday afternoon, I sat down with my teacher and ensemble director Jay Hoggard to reflect on his musical relationship with Oliver Lake and his works.
Jay, thanks for taking the time out for this interview. To start, how and when did you meet Oliver Lake? What was your working relationship like?
I’ve known Oliver since maybe 1975. I was in college [at Wesleyan] and I was playing different gigs in New York at times, and that was during the loft scene. So we were playing at [saxophonist, composer, sometime Wesleyan professor] Sam Rivers’ place, Studio Rivbea, [drummer, Coltrane sideman] Rashied Ali’s place Ali’s Alley, Lady’s Fort, which was singer Jolee Wilson’s place, and another place, a restaurant named Tin Palace. So I don’t remember where exactly I first got to know Oliver. It was somewhere in there, in all those places. After I graduated in 1976, moved to New Haven, and taught high school for a year, Pheeroan [AkLaff, drummer and Wesleyan Private Lesson Teacher] was playing with Oliver, and Pheeroan and I were playing in a band together. Maybe he [Lake] called me for a gig, I don’t exactly remember, but one night he and David Murray played a gig in New Haven, and stayed in my apartment.
Was it a gig by the World Saxophone Quartet, [Lake’s influential band with Murray, Julius Hemphill and Hamiet Bluiett]?
No, it was before World Saxophone Quartet. So then we played a few gigs together in that period, and I moved to New York in 1977. Some with [baritone saxophonist] Hamiet Bluiett’s group at the Public Theater, featuring a bunch of horns – Lake was on there, Baikida [Carroll, trumpeter] and [cornetist] Olu Dara, maybe [perussionist Famoudou Don] Moye, but it was a combination of the Art Ensemble [of Chicago] guys and the St. Louis [Black Artists Group] guys.
[These groups that Jay mentioned, the Art Ensemble of Chicago (affiliated with Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), and St. Louis’ Black Artists Group, which Oliver Lake was a co-founding member of, were vital to the development of creative music in the urban centers of the Midwest. Our beloved Emerita/us Faculty in Music Anthony Braxton was a member of Chicago’s A.A.C.M., and he and Lake came up as alto saxophonists in these environments that supported radical creativity.]
At a certain point, Lake had a reggae band called Jump Up that Pheeroan, [pianist] Geri Allen, [bassist] Jerome Harris, and [guitarist] Brandon Ross played in. We were doing something on the same label, so I produced a record for them [1983’s Plug It] that I always liked a lot. I had a copy of it, but it never made it to CD, maybe it did, in Japan. Then in the 1990s, we started working together and cut a record on Lake’s label [Passin’ Thru] called Talkin’ Stick . We did one of his tunes that he does with the big band, Maasai Moves.
So, speaking to that as someone who’s worked with Lake as both a musician and a producer, how have you seen his music evolve over the years?
I’ve always felt that Oliver was a great alto saxophonist. He plays soprano too, and flute, but I always felt that he had the Eric Dolphy thing, but also had this kind of sound of the alto saxophone. He doesn’t really come out of a Charlie Parker thing directly in terms of his lines, the way he plays changes is unique.
He’s kind of got a line that comes from a few different sources, so what I’ve enjoyed over the years is watching him create a lot of different recordings in different contexts, with different players. In doing that, he’s come up with “the Oliver Lake sound” in all these different kinds of settings. So the big band is a vehicle for the way he plays, and the writing has melodic, harmonic, improvisatory, and textural things.
You know, he’s a couple years older than Braxton and he’s got a different take than Braxton, and most other players on his instrument. He’s got a unique sound, and his writing mirrors that sound.
When I’ve listened to Lake’s music, I’ve enjoyed how he has the versatility to go from a specialized “avant-garde” scene in the 1970s and then explores everything along the way, to his reggae group Jump Up in the 80s and then his recent work with the Big Band today. How do you think this stylistic trajectory will come out in the work he’s presenting at Crowell Concert Hall this Saturday?
We try to do a range with the Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra as well, and when I choose tunes I think about the educational part of it – how to technically get a certain kind of sound [like the Ellington sound] and how to understand where that sound is rooted – voicings and all that, and how to then apply the improvisational language. Understanding the groove internally and out, how to play in different mindsets. So that’s what Lake does, he’s got a range of writing that touches on a whole spectrum of styles. Ultimately, it’s very accessible – it’s both art for the artist, and for an audience. It doesn’t smash you with a particular way of thinking, and gives a range of thinking on the side of creativity and innovation.
This stylistic versatility, in harmony with the creative impulse, is what ties together both Oliver Lake’s work with his Big Band and our work with the Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra. Presenting the musics side-by-side, we hope to tap into some of the sonic magic that has surrounded the Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra Weekend since its beginnings over a dozen years ago.
Oliver Lake Big Band
New England Debut
Saturday, April 26, 2014 at 8pm
Crowell Concert Hall
$20 general public; $18 senior citizens, Wesleyan faculty/staff/alumni, non-Wesleyan students; $6 Wesleyan students.
Co-sponsored by the Center for African American Studies and the Office of Equity and Inclusion.