Oliver Lake at Outsound

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This article appeared in SF Weekly, July 11, 2016


Saxophonist and composer Oliver Lake has been playing music for more than 50 years, but he’s never gotten used to visits from what he calls the Holy Ghost.

“Sometimes I’m playing and it’s not me, he says. “The Holy Ghost takes over and I think, ‘Where did that come from?’ ”

The 73-year-old Arkansas native helped found the internationally-acclaimed World Saxophone Quartet in 1977, with fellow luminaries Julius Hemphill, David Murray, and Harniet Bluiett. His list of jazz collaborators is long and stellar, and includes Donald Robinson, the great Bay-Area-based drummer, who will join him for a performance on Thursday, July 28, at The Outsound New Music Summit. The duo first met and played together in Paris in the early seventies.

Lake is a versatile and generous collaborator who has worked with poets, playwrights (he helped bring Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow is Enuf to Broadway), dancers, and a roster of musicians that includes the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Flux String Quartet, Mos Def, A Tribe Called Quest, Bjork, and Lou Reed.

He calls his music contemporary because it is alive and responsive to the current moment, rather than avant-garde, which suggests it belongs to some elusive future.

“The music called jazz is at the forefront of a struggle that goes on and on,” Lake says. “We have an obligation to play from our hearts and have an honest exchange with the rest of the world. I think we can lead with our message, which is always world peace.”

He traces his creative origins to the seminal St. Louis-based Black Artists Group, which laid the foundation for his ever-expanding creative palette in the 1960s.

“B.A.G. led to experimentation and competition,” he says. “We worked together one week writing music for a play, the next for a big band, then with a company of poets. It was a great school. I was inspired by poets such as Arjule Rutlin and the more well-known Amiri Baraka, and later, I began working with spoken word in my own performances.”

Over the last 15 years, he has developed a practice as a painter, and his work includes “talking sticks,” which he makes from pieces of vine from his wife’s native country of Guyana, and a “jazz house” in Pittsburgh as part of the City of Asylum, a project that provides public art and residencies for writers.

Lake’s current projects also include Passin’ Thru, a record label and non-profit organization, and his ongoing ensembles the Oliver Lake Organ Quartet, Oliver Lake Big Band, and Trio 3. He’s also working on INTERRUPTION!, a musical/theatrical performance created in conjuction with the musician and producer Rob Reddy. Lake is writing the libretto and Reddy is creating the music for the project which is inspired by the US Supreme Court’s partial strike down of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013. Several states have since made changes to their election laws, and, as Lake says, “things need to be interrupted.”