Oliver Lake Organ Quartet –What I Heard (2014)



NOVEMBER 6, 2014

Alto saxophone titan Oliver Lake has enjoyed an interesting, varied career even strictly within the confines of the World Saxophone Quartet he co-founded with Julius Hemphill, David Murray and Hamiet Bluiett, and it gets even more so when examining his works as a leader. It seems that the only constant for Lake is his unquenchable thirst for trying out new approaches to jazz.

His latest angle was hatched in the late 00s with the Oliver Lake Organ Trio that included Jared Gold (Hammond B3) and Jonathan Blake (drums), and they issued a single album, Makin’ It (2008) before the trio became a quartet with the addition of trumpet ace Freddie Hendrix for 2010’s Plan. It appeared as if Lake had already moved on from this concept with forays into big band and a more traditional acoustic small combo, butWhat I Heard (November 18, 2014, Passin’ Thru Records) is a clear signal that Lake ain’t done with the organ just yet.

A small combo featuring the Hammond B3 led by most anybody else wouldn’t be such a big deal — so much of organ jazz is groove-laden but also predictable — but this is Oliver Lake we’re talking about, here. The thing about Lake both as a composer and performer is that it’s clear he draws from blues, bop, RnB and avant-garde, but his music can’t be comfortably described as any of those things. So it goes for What I Heard, which brings back Gold and Hendrix, and Blake replaced by Chris Beck.

“6 & 3″ sets the template for all the blessed eccentrics that grace this album: A labyrinthine pattern underpinned by Beck’s mutated bossa nova rhythm is expressed by angular unison trumpet/sax phrasings, as the organ and horns occupy different areas of the harmony. The solos section is signaled by an unexpected shift, in this case, a pause and a drum roll (on other songs, the theme alters and/or the beat). Lake’s expressions skirt the fringes of tonality and sometimes cross over, but whether he’s “in” or “out” he’s is himself and no one else. Hendrix’s detached manner works as an effective counterpoint to Lake, but his tone also pierce through sometimes to maintain the intensity.

“Human Voice” has a similarly esoteric structure, but even more jagged in how the song jumps from one root and rhythm to another and jumps right back. Just as you think Lake & Co. has settled into a predictable pattern, they fake you out. “Etc” features a new twist on the ol’ call and response device, countering Gold’s B3 expressions with sax/trumpet simultaneous solo counterpoints. Beck’s dynamic

Lake might be the cornerstone for this highly peculiar kind of organ jazz, but discount the contributions of the organ player himself. Jared Gold acts as a perfect extension of Lake’s singular sax approach, and the irregular patterns in which he places chords in opposition to Hendrix and Lake do much to create an uncommon sound from such a common format. He’s cerebral, coy playing works the spaces between the notes with a deftness usually reserved for the best horn players. His sharp sense of phrasing alters the harmonics of the aforementioned “6 & 3,” and he contributes to an intriguing syncopation on “Palma.” When he solos as he does on “What I Heard,” it’s much more akin to Larry Young than Jack McDuff. This is the Jared Gold who knocked it way out of the park on his own similarly conceived All Wrapped Up.

Throughout this record, Lake strikes a careful balance between the tonal and atonal, between swing and freeform jazz, but “Cyan” is a walk nearly entirely outside. What begins as a glowing, probing ballad erupts into a free-for-all about eighty seconds in and doesn’t let up. What is striking though, is that all four remained closely attuned to each other.

Oliver Lake’s four-decade legacy of striking his own path serves him well on his third recent organ excursion. That he can still make records that tower above nearly all of his contemporaries in terms of originality and freshness in 2014 should remind jazz aficionados that when considering the diminishing list of living sax legends, it’d be foolish to leave him off.