Saxophonist, composer, and visual artist Oliver Lake is a living treasure whose broad musical output in jazz, free improv, and new music captures a relentless artist of active imagination, fiery passion, and virtuosic musical abilities. Lake was a important figure in the Black Artist Group (BAG), an influential arts collective that arose in St. Louis in the late 60s, which fostered the multidisciplinary practices of emerging black artists in free jazz/improv, poetry, visual arts, and dance. Upon his relocation to New York in the mid 70s, Lake started his deep immersion in the nexus of free jazz and improvisation and has collaborated with the likes of Anthony Braxton, James “Blood” Ulmer, and with David Murray, Julius Hemphill and Hamiet Bluiett in the World Saxophone Quartet. A 1993 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient for composition, Lake discusses the collection of string-based compositions that he will be presenting at his upcoming concert at Roulette, and reflects on an extraordinary career.
Oliver Lake will present a program of new and recent compositions for strings, piano, and saxophone with members of FLUX Quartet and special guest Vijay Iyer, the recipient of the 2013 MacArthur “Genius” Grant, on Tuesday, October 1st at Roulette.
Please tell us as about the works you’ll be presenting at Roulette, which are pieces that showcase your compositions for strings in a more “classical” chamber music-oriented direction.
I will be presenting 3 string pieces:
1.”SPACES” for 3 violins was written in the 80’s and has never been performed before. This piece has some improvisation for the 3 violins, but it is mostly notated.
2. “Einstein 100” for string quartet was composed 2005 in recognition of 100th year of the announcement of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. I thought it would be interesting to compose a piece of string quartet celebrating the creativity that Einstein epitomizes. Since Einstein also played violin, and I love composing for strings, the string quartet is a perfect vechicle for this composition. Einstein was a mathematician. Music is akin to math, thus a significant part of my inspiration for creating a composition, which I hope will reflect “what’s happening at this time in history,” “experimentation,” “space and time continuum,” “gravitational field (feel),” and if possible, reflect the possibility of a “finite” and yet “unbounded” universe. These are some of the elements associated with the Theory of Relativity and I feel can be an over-lay of the composition. This composition has only been performed once.
3. “Five Sisters” for string quartet and alto saxophone is dedicated to my mother and her four sisters. This composition was composed this year and this piece incorporates both improvisation and notation.
4. And several original pieces in duo with the great pianist Vijay Iyer.
What is your history of working and collaborating with Tom Chiu of the FLUX Quartet? And with pianist Vijay Iyer?
Tom and I have been collaborating approximately 8 years or so. We have performed as a duo, as well as performances with FLUX. I first performed with Vijay about 2 years ago in a duo setting and most recently he was guest with our long standing co-op group, Trio 3, which consist of bassist Reggie Workman, drummer Andrew Cyrille, and myself. We recently did an engagement at the Blue Note and did a recording for Intak record label, to be released early next year.
Were these new works created with these artists specifically in mind?
Since I have been collaborating with members of Flux over the past 8 years, I definitely had them in mind. The pieces that I will perform with Vijay have been performed in other group settings, I thought it would be interesting to perform them in a duo setting.
Your new works for string encompass two ends of the music-making process: on the one hand, of playing out pre-written/notated scores and, on the other hand, free improvisation. How do you negotiate between what is written and what is created in-the-moment as improvisation?
It is great to work with such talented string players who have no reservations about improvisation. So my compositions vary between notation and improvisation. I am tying to move seamlessly between notation and improvisation.
Are there any seminal works from other artists or from your own sonic explorations that guided you in creating these new pieces?
I have been composing for strings for quite while. I just think of it as a continuation of my work.
As you compose works of great complexity for chamber ensembles and orchestras, which composers and specific works do you turn to for inspiration and challenges?
Believe it or not, I don’t have specific composers or works that inspire me. For me, the inspiration comes from all composers, and all great works: from my contemporaries to past masters of jazz and the classical genres.
Who were your influences as you began your immersion in saxophone and jazz as a young artist?
Eric Dolphy and Jackie McLean were the two biggest influences on me for saxophone. Their work is a constant inspiration to me.
Your career began with the influential Black Artist Group (BAG) in St. Louis in the 1960s, which was born equally out of artistic affinity (the exploration in free jazz/improv), economic solidarity (to support like-minded artists and to foster new audiences), and political/social (in expressing the principles of black consciousness movement of the late 60s and early 70s). Looking back on your achievements and ideas nearly a half century later, what aspects of your experiences from BAG do you think are still relevant in today, as a society at large and within the free jazz/improv scene?
As an artist, you are in control of your destiny. You should determine your artistic fate, make it happen. That was one of the main things I learned from the B.A.G. experience, self-production, self-reliance, and self-confidence.
What were your first impressions of New York City and the jazz scene upon your relocation in the 70s?
I relocated in 1974. I was totally hyped to be in such a vibrant creative music scene and have opportunity to meet musicians I had admired from afar. When I arrived in New York, I was in survival mode, looking for opportunities to make it as an improvising musician.
Who were the key figures and allies that you collaborated with in this period?
One key ally was Wadada Leo Smith. His group was one of the first I worked with on a regular basis, shortly after my arrival to New York.
How did your association with the late 70s New York’s downtown loft scene come about?
I lived downtown, and one of my first places was on 1st Street and 1st Avenue and this put me in walking distance of many of the jazz clubs located in the Village. Sam Rivers had a performace loft. Vocalist Joe Lee Wilson also had a loft in the Village. Many musicians did concerts in loft space downtown during that period. Some lived in the spaces and some of us rented spaces for a night for self-produced concerts. That’s how I got associated with the movement that was called “loft jazz.” I guess if we performed in a shed it would be called “shed jazz.” I think that’s the creation of writers to name things, styles, movements, etc., so they will know where to place it. Later, I lived in a loft in the Village, so I played loft jazz everyday I lived in the loft!
What did you find that was similar to your jazz and free improv background and what differences and challenges did you face?
For me the loft was only a physical space, so I didn’t feel anything changed musically, whether I was playing on the sidewalk, in the park, or in a club. My main concern was to grow as a musician and improvisor.
You have a long-standing association with Roulette. What are some of your fondest memories of performances at Roulette or performances that you witnessed in the audience?
I have performed at Roulette in a number of configurations: big band, small groups, solo, duo, etc. I have performed in 3 spaces that Roulette has occupied.
I always thought of Roulette as a space where I could always perform. I have been welcomed there for many years, a great outlet for any projects I was working on. Jim Staley has always been one of the biggest supporters of creative music in New York.
Among your numerous accomplishments and endeavors, you are also the founder and principle behind Passin’ Thru, a non-profit dedicated to promotion and education of jazz and new music. In what ways have your responsibilities as educator and ambassador of new jazz/free improv informed your artistry?
There is a saying which says, “If you teach, you learn.” So throughout the years, I have remained open to all styles and concepts.
What are the main challenges and responsibilities in this role?
To strive to remain current and to take care of business in a timely fashion.
Looking back on your career, what was the one great lesson that you received? What lessons from the past can be important to the new generation of sonic explorers?
Be honest, self-reliant, and never, never, never give up. Remain open-minded and remember that you are in charge of your destiny and own your music.
What can we expect from you beyond this performance at Roulette, for this year and beyond?
More compositions and performances for strings, 17-piece big band, full orchestra, organ quartet, sax quartet and solo. And, oh, yes, I also paint.