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Oliver Lake is a renaissance man in the truest sense of the word.
His singular alto saxophone playing has been heard in a myriad of settings, from the groundbreaking World Saxophone Quartet to performing with rapper Mos Def. He’s arranged music for Lou Reed and Björk, composing for the Brooklyn Philharmonic and regularly collaborates with various musicians, poets and dancers around the world.
In 1967, Lake helped establish the Black Artists Group in his native St. Louis, Mo., an organization formed to create a sense of community and to set an artistic and business example for young musicians, writers and other artists that still resonates to this day, especially in Lake’s own Passin’ Thru, his non-profit organization and record label, now in its 20th year. In addition to his status as one of the most creative jazz musicians currently playing, he is also an established painter and poet.
On Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at the Jean Runyon Little Theatre (located inside of the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium) Oliver Lake is making his Sacramento debut with a solo music and poetry performance entitled "Oliver Lake: Singular". Mr. Lake will also join the openers, the Tony Passerell Quintet for a couple numbers of free improvisation.
The Sacramento Press caught up with Lake in the midst of rehearsals with The Trio 3, his long-standing group with bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Andrew Cyrille.
The Black Artists Group (BAG) was a co-operative created to have performing artist themselves taking control of all facets of their creativity from the economical to the artistic. What qualities of BAG have you retained over these years?
Quite a bit of it, as a matter of fact. The BAG ended up being a great schooling for me not only musically but business-wise as well. I think it was one of my main inspirations for me starting my own record label, Passin’ Thru. When I moved to New York in 1974, I didn’t have any success until I used the lessons I had learned in the BAG, which was presenting myself and that would mean sometimes having to write the music, rent the space, rehearse the band and [laughs] make the posters! It was self-sufficient, self-producing and self-promoting and all of that went into the BAG. I learned quite a bit about survival as an artist in the BAG.
Last year you released Makin’ It by the Oliver Lake Organ Trio. How did that group come about?
It seems like there’s a resurgence of young organ players, especially on the East Coast. There’s a bunch of young guys playing the Hammond B-3 organ and they’re playing it so excitedly, especially the one who played with me, Jared Gold, who’s coming out of the mold of Larry Young, who was a tremendously forward-thinking organist. But I was seeing if I could put my stamp on that particular sound. I love the sound of the organ and it’s something I did years ago when I started out playing saxophone. It came up again after I heard Gold and I said, “I want to do something with him.” There’s a new Organ Trio CD about to come out.
It’s a fun recording, and it sounds like you are smiling all the way through it!
[laughs] It’s a fun, finger-popping CD, that’s for sure!
Here in Sacramento, you will be performing solo, which is daunting for any musician. Without any other instruments to react to or with, what do you use for inspiration to play in a setting like that?
In these cases, I use the audience a lot of times. I’m getting inspiration from the audience and also I’m doing poetry which gives me a chance to break up the space in a different way by using my voice because that will lead me to something else.
The music of Eric Dolphy has resonated throughout your works. What do you take from Dolphy’s music?
I like the unpredictability. That was one of the greatest things I liked about his saxophone playing. At the time I was coming up, a lot of the saxophone players had various clichés they would play — that’s normal and I’m not putting it down — but I got to the point when I would listen to a sax playing, I would be humming along with it because I knew they’d play a certain repetition or phrase. But when I heard Eric Dolphy, that blew all of that out of the window! I had no idea what he was going to play and that attracted me to him immediately and he was also a virtuoso on flute and bass clarinet and — oh, such a big inspiration. And I love his compositions. I still play them!
What’s the common thread running through all of your art, whether it be your music, your paintings or your poetry?
I think the blues is the common thread. Playing with the World Saxophone Quartet, playing solo or playing with my big band or the Trio 3 or my organ group, I think the blues is going straight through all of that. My sound is the blue sound.
Being raised in St. Louis, which is one of the great blues towns, you were probably exposed to an amazing array of music growing up.
Oh yeah! As a matter of fact, I lived one block from Tina Turner when I was in high school! I never got a chance to meet her, but she was always playing around St. Louis. Then there was Albert King and other St. Louis blues players who were there. I started out in a blues band, playing in local bands with Phillip Wilson and other players.
Are there any other artistic endeavors you’re tempted to dip your fingers into? You already have a lot going on!
[laughs] I’ve got a full plate! Between painting, doing music and composing, traveling and doing these different collaborations — I’m trying to do a continuation of that and getting better at all of the things I’m doing.
Your organization, Passin’ Thru, is not only a record label but also a non-profit organization. Can you talk about its accomplishments?
It’s about being in control of your destiny and that was one of the things that was stressed in the BAG — owning our copyrights, owning our music — that’s exactly what I’m doing with Passin’ Thru record label. Putting out my own CDs and owning the music I’ve composed and produced. There’s also Freddie Washington Jr. who was my mentor, a saxophone player from St. Louis. Passin’ Thru produced his first CD. He was one of the first saxophonists I studied with in St. Louis. So it’s not a vanity label. I have been putting out other artists and will continue to.
Education is a subject close to your heart and you teach younger musicians.
That’s right. I’m not associated formally with any university or school at the moment, but I do residencies at universities from time to time and private students and it’s always been a part of what I do. With Passin’ Thru, we also do some educational events from time to time. Education has been part of my life for many years.
Any words of advice you’d like to give young jazz musicians or anyone wanting to have a career in music?
I would just say “find your own voice,”an original voice in what they’re doing in music or the non-musical. In life. Whatever it is. Especially in music, you want to find your own voice, your own ground and work towards that. And never give up!
For more information on Oliver Lake and his music, please visit www.oliverlake.net and also www.passinthru.org.