Oliver Lake: New Music Grounded In Old Truths

Nov 11, 2014

Saxophonist Oliver Lake was one of the founders of the World Saxophone Quartet in the 1970s, and plays in the co-op Trio 3. Lake has led numerous bands of his own, including an occasional big band, and an organ quartet. Fresh Air jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says that organ group is one to watch in a review for What I Heard.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Saxophonist Oliver Lake was one of the founders of the World Saxophone Quartet in the 1970s and plays in the co-op, Trio 3. Lake has led numerous bands of his own, including an occasional big band and an organ quartet. Jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, says that last group is one to watch.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLIVER LAKE ORGAN QUARTET SONG)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: With jazz organ groups, you usually know what you get - a heavy dose of blues feeling, echoes of black church music and stylized funky keyboard licks that never get old. Oliver Lake knows that tradition, but his organ quartet all but wipes the slate clean. They rethink the possibilities like they never heard of Jimmy Smith.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLIVER LAKE ORGAN QUARTET SONG)

WHITEHEAD: The Olive Lake Organ Quartet from their new "What I Heard' on Lake's Passing Thru label. Organist Jared Gold avoids even the good clich├ęs. And yet, the working class working group genre is a comfy fit for Lake, the avant-garde-ish composer and the alto saxophonist. Like his hero, Jackie McLean, he knows the earthy expressive value of bending away from concert pitch. That can make Lake tricky to harmonize with, but no problems here with scrappy trumpeter, Freddie Hendrix, or organist Gold. He makes his own eccentric choices, bringing the kettle to a boil.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLIVER LAKE ORGAN QUARTET SONG)

WHITEHEAD: Oliver Lake's not the only one reimagining the jazz organ group. There a lot of them out there, including Jared Gold's own bands. And Lake doesn't always come on like a man from Mars. The blues is in all his work and other influences seep in. Lake's tune, "Thank You," where he plays flute, can sound like a bluesy Mississippi fife and drum band had dropped by a powwow on the plains.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLIVER LAKE ORGAN QUARTET SONG)

WHITEHEAD: The quartets' deep grooves and spare textures can suggest Jamaican dub music. Lake was fusing jazz and reggae 30 years ago. That Jamaican influence is sometimes explicit on the tune, "Etc." But even when it isn't, Chris Beck keeps the rasta rhythm in his snare drum.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLIVER LAKE ORGAN QUARTET SONG, "ETC.")

WHITEHEAD: In the end, Oliver Lake's clean slate organ group winds up reaching for the same ingredients the old-timers did. They just get to the blues feel, spiritual echoes and dancing rhythms by other means. Lake's new music is grounded in the old truths.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLIVER LAKE ORGAN QUARTET SONG)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and Wandering Sound and is the author of "Why Jazz?". He reviewed "What I Heard," the new album by the Oliver Lake Organ Quartet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.