A Welcome Reunion with Oliver Lake, Gregory Jackson and Pheroan Ak Laff
“ Mr. Ak Laff could not be contained; his propulsive, poly-rhythmic and multi-toned performance exemplified the innovative possibilities in the context of creative improvisation. ”
Bernard Lyons, the affable English organizer of the continually outstanding concert series at Baltimore's An Die Musik, welcomed the audience and introduced the duet of saxophonist Oliver Lake and guitarist (Michael) Gregory Jackson. Although drummer Pheroan Ak Laff was present for the first set, "he has a hygiene issue, went to his hotel to shower and does not have a watch. With a mixture of laughter and alarm, the small audience applauded and the musicians in attendance began their meditative and engaging conversation.
I am unable to explain why only 12 listeners attended the second set on a Friday evening. Perhaps the suffocating humidity of the mid-Atlantic on a June evening or the commencement of long-awaited vacations were to blame. Nevertheless, the first performance of a trio that had not played together since 1979 was a welcome and eagerly awaited event for a few zealous listeners.
The group performed remarkably like a regularly-working collective, bursting with creative remarks and fluid ideas. The venue is a small one; a narrow room in a rowhouse from 1920, with high ceilings, wooden floors and approximately 75 brightly upholstered chairs. Nevertheless, the sound of Mr. Ak Laff's drums was almost oppressive in such an intimate room. He could not be contained; his propulsive, poly-rhythmic and multi-toned performance exemplified the innovative possibilities in the context of creative improvisation. Moreover, although Mr. Lake has displayed a many faceted approach to performance throughout his career, he choose not to illustrate the more melodic possibilities of his style, but rather engaged the drums in a tonal battle of wits. The octave jumps and swooping hollers outlined the peaks and valleys of the musical journey formed by Mr. Lake and propelled by the drums. Mr. Jackson limited his participation to that of a supporting role in an otherwise dramatic colloquy.
The musicians often glanced at one another as they were exploring the world of extemporaneous composition. There were instances, however, when such visual communication was not possible. At one point, Mr. Ak Laff lie on the floor, pounding both the floor and the drums, while Mr. Lake alternated open-air gusts and muffled grunts into his pant leg.
There was a point in the evening when Lake brought out a flute and began to intone a gentle Asian theme. The idea was an effective contrast to the rapid-fire approach of most of the evening. It was, however, the one point in the performance when all musicians were not thinking as a collective. The drums, although displaying a bit more mellow characteristics, continued to play as if striking a meditative Buddha from a thoughtful slumber. The effect was not altogether welcome.
The penultimate performance of the evening was an opportunity for each musician to perform in a solo context. Mr. Ak Laff, much like the rest of the evening, displayed the possibilities of dynamic and breathtaking rapid pounding. After an exhausting five minutes from the drums, Mr. Jackson brought out an acoustic guitar and displayed a few minutes of ease and charm. He introduced an almost folk-like melody upon which he improvised in a lilting and serenading manner. It was clear that Mr. Jackson's empathies, at least for this portion of the evening, where closer to Leo Kottke than Bern Nix.
On a Saturday evening on May 15, 1979, Oliver Lake and Gregory Jackson (as well as Fred Hopkins and Phillip Wilson) were a part of the "Wildflowers Festival" at Sam River's Studio Rivbea at 24 Bond Street in New York. Mr. Lake's group recorded his composition "Waki" that evening. It was originally released, as well as many other classic encounters that weekend, on a series of five records issued by Alan Douglas. These performances were reissued in 2000 by KnitClassics on the compilation entitled "Wildflowers: The New York Loft Jazz Sessions". The trio concluded their performance on this Saturday night in 2005 with a tenacious and fiery rendition of "Waki." The brief and angular theme was briskly recited by Lake and Jackson, and the group launched into a fiery and percussive conversation. After 10 minutes the theme exploded again in a near deafening climax to an appreciative audience.
As I was still in short pants when the Studio Rivbea was enjoying creative prosperity, this evening in Baltimore, listening late on a Saturday night in a tattered room above the venue's record well-stocked record store, was the closest I will ever come to the New York Loft movement. I am grateful for such an encounter and hope to experience a bit of jazz history all over again in future evenings at An Die Musik.