When you’ve been doing something as long as the iconic alto saxophonist and reedman Oliver Lake has, reintroducing it is like riding a bike. And so it has been for Lake and his trio with drummer Pheeroan akLaff (yes, that’s the correct spelling) and guitarist Michael Gregory, who reunited a couple of years ago after 25 years of not playing together.
“This is a group that I had formed many years ago, and we just came back together about two years ago,” says Lake in a phone interview from his home in Montclair. “Michael had called me a few years back. He said he wanted to get into some more creative music; he had been doing more pop and rock-style things.” Coinciding with the trio’s revival was a re-release of an album, Zaki, that they recorded in 1982 and released in 1992.
You might think there could be problems with three musicians, now a quarter of a century older, getting back together but there was absolutely no loss of continuity, Lake says. “It was quite interesting to come back together after all that time. (The connection) was established right away. When we did our first concert we did not rehearse. We just got on the bandstand and did an improvisation for an hour. For our second concert we started rehearsing new material. But I think that was the best way for us to come back into things.”
Lake and his trio will kick off Blue Curtain’s free summer outdoor music series at the Pettoranello Gardens Amphitheater in Princeton’s Community Park on Saturday, June 14. Opening for Lake at 7 p.m. will be Colombian-born harpist Edmar Castaneda and his trio.
“We are looking forward to playing in Princeton,” says Lake, who has performed twice at Princeton University, once with his reggae-jazz band Jump Up. The Blue Curtain show will be primarily improvised, he says. “That is what we try to do with this configuration. Improvisation will be the basic thrust of this performance.”
Lake is known principally for his anchoring of several avant-garde jazz ensembles and his place at the forefront of the “loft jazz” movement; he was a founding member in 1977 of the World Saxophone Quartet, which was a radical departure in the music for its time. He has appeared on more than 50 records and is currently leading three different trios and quartets as well as a big band.
But Lake is also a searcher, an explorer, a Renaissance man. He has collaborated with the unique Icelandic performer Bjork, the Newark-reared rapper/actor Mos Def, rap pioneers A Tribe Called Quest, and Korean musician Jin Hi Kim. He has published a book of poetry, “Life Dance,” and authored a one-man performance piece called “Matador of 1st and 1st.” He has written compositions for the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Arditti String Quartet.
In addition to Lake’s extensive and exhaustive array of musical and literary projects, he is also a painter. He exhibits and sells his painted walking sticks at the Montclair Art Museum and has shown his paintings in galleries and museums as well. “About four and a half years ago, I started painting again,” says Lake, who explains that he had begun painting as a teenager in St. Louis. “It was sporadic, maybe one painting in a year or so.”
There are similarities between being creative as a musician and being creative as a visual artist, says Lake. “Sometimes I don’t know when I start writing where a composition is going to go. I just write the first couple of notes and let it grow organically. It’s the same thing with a painting. I won’t have a specific subject in mind. I just put the first paint on, and then from there, I let it kind of create itself.”
Lake was born on September 14, 1944, in Marianna, Arkansas, a small town near Little Rock, but moved to St. Louis as a small child. His mother and stepfather were entrepreneurs; the family owned, among other properties, a restaurant, a car wash, and a pool hall. “I grew up in those businesses,” he says.
At the age of 14, Lake began playing cymbals and bass drum in a local drum and bugle corps. “A lot of musicians in that group played jazz, and that really excited me about getting into that music. You could say that I got a late start,” says Lake. He started playing saxophone at 19.
After graduating from Lincoln University in Missouri in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in music education, Lake taught junior high school in St. Louis for three years before moving to France to pursue jazz for two years as a professional. Three years later, he returned to the United States, settling first in New York City and then New Jersey. He has lived in Montclair, “a great, progressive place,” he says, since the late 1970s. He and his wife, Marian, have seven children and three grandchildren.
In 1976, Lake organized the World Saxophone Quartet, an all-sax group with roots in the blues, African music, funk and all different strains of jazz. The group featured Lake on alto and soprano sax, Hamiet Bluiett on baritone sax and alto clarinet, David Murray on tenor and bass clarinet and Julius Hemphill on alto, soprano and flute. All of the members composed but it was Hemphill who was the most prolific, says Lake. “It was his writing that put the identity of our sound together.”
Forming and playing music with the WSQ was an unprecedented move, Lake says. “There weren’t that many pianoless, drumless saxophone quartets playing jazz. So yes, it was a huge step forward. We were unique, and that’s why it took off.” The group continues to perform today despite Hemphill’s death in 1995. British-born saxophonist Tony Kofi is presently the quartet’s fourth member.
Our interview took place on the same day Senator Barack Obama became the de facto Democratic party nominee for President. It was a joyous day for Lake and other African Americans of his generation, and of all generations, he says. “I am so happy to see that happen. The fact that he has made it as far as he has is phenomenal. It’s something I didn’t think I would ever see in America. I wish him the best. He seems to be on the right track, and I’m a big supporter.”
Oliver Lake Trio, Saturday, June 14, 7 p.m. Blue Curtain, Pettoranello Gardens Amphitheater, Community Park North, junction of Route 206 and Mountain Avenue. An evening of jazz with the Oliver Lake Trio. Also appearing is the Edmar Castaneda Trio. Free. 609-924-7500.
Also in the Saturday series: June 21, the Benevento/Russo duo and the Pete Levin Trio. Saturday, June 28, Maria de Barros and the Agua Dulce Dance Theater. July 12, Grammy winner R&B singer Dionne Farris, formerly of Arrested Development, and the African dance troupe Kulu Mele. July 19, the Ivory Coast African pop band Les Go De Koteba, and Scottish singer Maggie Reilly.