Oliver Lake: Jazz is a Music of Exploration
“ The music itself is incorporating more elements of world music and it's getting more difficult to categorize it. ”
Not too many artists today can encompass so many different interests and musical styles within their work as is the case with Oliver Lake. He is a poet, painter, performance artist and also one of the better-known representatives of modern jazz. As a musician, he started his career in the 60's as part of the Black Artist Group, but he is mostly known for his work with the World Saxophone Quartet, a group that has seen unprecedented success for a free-jazz ensemble. Furthermore, he demonstrates his broadly diverse musical interests through fronting bands and formations such as Trio 3, Oliver Lake Steel Quartet and OL Big Band, commissioning works for Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra, as well as creating chamber pieces for the Arditti and Flux String Quartets, the Amherst Sax Quartet and the San Francisco Contemporary Players and the music he makes is a reflection of his interests as he explores new avenues of jazz. At the moment he is on tour in Europe playing the music of Eric Dolphy.
All About Jazz: Your biography states that you are a musician, poet, painter and a performance artist. What sparked your desire to venture into these different areas?
Oliver Lake: It all seemed to come together very naturally. I was one of the founders of the Black Artist Group in St. Louis Mo, in late 60s, and in that group all disciplines of the arts were present: music, poetry, theater, dance and visual arts. I began to perform with poets, write music for plays and large musical ensembles. These experiences led me to incorporate all of that in my performances, poetry, theater and of course my main interest, music. As a child I was always interested in drawing and painting and would always dabble with painting, however in the past two years I've begun to paint on a daily basis.
AAJ: Can you describe the point where art, poetry and music meet for you?
OL: I really consider all of them as one. They are all avenues of expression and I love all of them. However, I think of myself as a musician-composer who also writes poetry and paints.
AAJ: Your work encompasses a wide range of styles and influences. Is it a disservice to your music to label it under any established category?
OL: I have written a poem which talks about these labels, It's called Separation and it gives some of my philosophy about music, labels. I really dislike when musicians are categorized in bebop or hard-bop or anything.
AAJ: Does the term "modern jazz" work for you?
OL: Yes, I also like the term "contemporary jazz" because it implies that I am today and want to be dealt with today, where something like "avant-garde" implies tomorrow. I do have a wide range of musical interest and my musical projects reflect my interests.
AAJ: You have been involved in some of the pivotal bands of the last 30 years. Please tell me something about those bands and what you came away with from a musical standpoint?
OL: It's a matter of being in different musical settings and trying to adapt to each situation, Miles Davis was a master of that, and I also like that approach, regardless if I'm performing with 4 saxophones, one violinist, string quartet, full orchestra, bass and drum, solo, with steel pan and rhythm section or a musical backdrop of reggae rhythms. I basically try to see what will happen, how I will approach each setting. It's difficult to say what I bring away from each group, but I can only hope that I have grown with each of the bands I have played with.
AAJ: How does the musical experience differ for you when playing with such diverse formations, starting with World Saxophone Quartet, through Black Artists Group, the Steel Quartet, the Big Band up to the Trio 3?
OL: The musical experiences are the same, in that I must listen and be aware of what's going on and try to contribute in each situation. As I mentioned before, the Black Artist Group was the first group and I feel I formed my concept in that group. There was so much for me to experiment with (theater, poetry, dance, large and small ensembles). I think of B.A.G. as my school (where I studied, formed concepts, experimented, and grew). WSQ was and is an expansion of BAG and so are the other groups that I have performed in.
AAJ: The WSQ is a group that most people associate you with. What are the challenges you face in keeping a group of this caliber together?
OL: We've been together for almost 30 years and we're bringing all of that every time we come together. Everyone is doing their own projects, so when we come together it's very special. We're bringing all of our experiences into the group.
AAJ: To mark its anniversary WSQ did a tribute to Hendrix. What aspect of his work were you exploring?
OL: No particular aspect, we just wanted to show our perspective of his work. This project wasn't entirely our idea, but when the idea was presented to the band everyone agreed, as everyone loves his music.