Oliver Lake Big Band

Wheels
Passin’ Thru 41228

Oliver Lake/Christian Weber/Dieter Ulrich featuring Nils Wogram

All Decks

Intakt Records CD 222

By Ken Waxman

Away from the well-established World Saxophone Quartet – founded 36 years ago and still going strong – alto saxophonist Oliver Lake, 70, has experimented with formats ranging from solo sax recitals to big band work, while adding reggae and funk inflections to his basic jazz and blues background. These fine discs find him as part of unique, but now-established formations.

All Decks is a vigorous program encompassing originals and an out-of-tempo reading of an Ellington/Strayhorn classic. The group is Lake’s European trio, together since 2007, filled out by Swiss players, 16 (drummer Dieter Ulrich) or 30 (bassist Christian Weber) years younger than the St. Louis-born saxophonist and give extra oomph by German trombonist Nils Wogram.

Wogram (b. 1972), whose experience range from raucous swing-oriented combos to cerebral improv, is the spark plug here, matching Lake’s squealing blend of bedrock blues and outside tone shudders. This happens throughout the set, especially when all four dig into the boneman’s “Listen to Your Woman” and Lake’s “Rolling Vamp”. A slinky exposition that’s a close cousin to Ellington’s “The Mooch”, the first is a spicy swing exercise that radiates around the composer’s neo-tailgate slurs, Weber’s arpeggiated plucks and Lake double tonguing like a combination of Johnny Hodges and Earl Bostic. “Rolling Vamp” is fiercely rhythmic, resting on double bass walking, but open enough so that Ulrich’s cymbal and snare strategy – his only showcase on the CD – steadfastly reflects R&B as well as bop. Extending the POMO interface, Wogram’s spacious chortles and Lake’s constricted cheeps are both multiphonic and unhurried, suggesting Ornette Coleman fronting a swing combo.

Nods to Lake’s jazz-reggae concoctions appear on “Sketch 4 Four”; and there’s congenial balladry on “Oddy-C”. But the trombonist’s undulating grace notes on the first and spiral variations on the second raise the performances to high-level inspiration. The quirky mood is intensified beyond question on “Johnny Come Lately” with the deconstructed theme barely present among frenzied reed honks and bluesy slide wailing.

Flourishing in NYC since 1998, Wheels’ big band gives the reedist more scope to express his composing and arranging smarts, honed by study with the legendary Oliver Nelson (1932-1975). Unlike Nelson, whose facility eventually led him to create homogenized pop and TV soundtracks, Lake’s compositions emphasize the talents of his band mates, many of whom have been in this formation for years. A frequent trope is having tart reed bites face off with plunger trumpet tones, a strategy that pays dividends on “Philly Blues”, the perfect late-night club tune, and “The Whole World”, the Outkast hit which Lake recasts into a part-New Orleans march, with the narrative shifting between emphasized drum backbeats and some Basie-styled swing from pianist Marc Carey.

While Lake isn’t leading a precision swing machine like the Basie band, there’s palpable propulsion on all tracks. Even tunes like “Studder” that include mellifluously harmonized sequences and poignant scene-setting bass work from Robert Sabin, exit with stop-time cacophony and include midway theme splintering from the horn players. Also, while Lake doesn’t compose program music, the tough horn cascades coupled with Chris Beck’s loping drum patterns perfectly reflects a busy Manhattan street scene on “Is It Real.”

What is most real is the extended “Wheels Suite”. Magisterial and polyphonic at almost 17½ minutes, it jumps throughout. With subtle tone layering, space is made for shaded brass choir work, gut-scraping extrusions from baritonist James Marshall as well as an aching alto solo. Rhythmically consistent, with Beck hitting like a 21st Century Speedy Jones, any number of reed tongue slaps and raucous brass blats are displayed without upsetting the piece’s sophisticated flow.

The real choice between All Decks and Wheels is whether you prefer Lake in quartet form or super-sized.

Tracks: Decks: All Decks; Listen to Your Woman; Sketch 4 Four; Oddy-C; Rollin' Vamp; Johnny Come Lately

Personnel: Nils Wogram: trombone; Oliver Lake: alto saxophone; Christian Weber: bass; Dieter Ulrich: drums

Tracks: Wheels: Drum Thing; Is It Real; Philly Blues; Wheels Suite; Clicker; The Whole World*; Studder; Maasai Moves

Personnel: Wheels: Waldron Ricks, E. J. Allen, Freddie Hendrix and Nabate Isles: trumpet; Aaron Johnson, Stafford Hunter, Alfred Patterson and Terry Greene: trombone; Oliver Lake, Bruce Williams and Darius Jones: alto saxophone; Mike Lee and James Stewart: tenor saxophone; Jason Marshall: baritone saxophone; Yoichi Uzeki or Marc Cary*: piano; Robert Sabin: bass; Chris Beck: drums

—For The New York City Jazz Record August 2013