Passin’ Thru 41217

Thirty years ago when alto saxophonist Oliver Lake was one of the young firebrands involved with the Black Artists Group (BAG), St. Louis’ version of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians who knew that by 2003 he’d turn into … Count Basie?

Well, not really, though the comparison is meant as a compliment. It’s just that Lake, who over the years has involved himself in so many different groups from the still-thriving World Saxophone Quartet, to the R&B-influenced Jump Up group, has now put together a regulation-sized big band that swings with the unfettered grace of any of Basie’s aggregations.

Consisting of 17 top Manhattan jazzers, the band, heavy on the muted brass, undulates its way through eight tunes, all written — except for one — and arranged by Lake. Those who still mistakenly restrict Lake and company to the avant-garde area will have their eyes and ears opened here. Secure in its section work, as well as its soloing, the Oliver Lake Big Band is as tight and comfortable as any well-rehearsed Swing era ghost, and brings the sort of excitement to Lake’s sophisticated arrangements that the later-day Basie bands brought to charts by Ernie Wilkins, Neal Hefti and Frank Foster.

Bouncing along on the brushwork of drummer Otis Brown and favoring mid-tempos, the arrangements concentrate on section work, including call-and-response action among the instrumental divisions and arranged unison passages rather than solo showcases. There may be plenty of fine solos here, all right, but they’re not the band’s primary focus.

On the atmospheric “’63 Impala”, for instance, Bruce Williams’ mid-range alto saxophone offers up lightly, swinging trills, but with a bit of a bite; while trumpeter Peck Allmond concentrates on his grace notes. Medium tempo “Round 2000” showcases the andante bass plucking of Mark Helias in front of muted brass and melded reed lines. Lead track, “Cloth Two”, ends with one of the trumpeters screeching stratospherically over the rest of the band like Maynard Ferguson and allows Brown leeway to wallop a tambourine on top of his hi-hat, exercise his splash cymbals and accent with his crash cymbal set. He could be a modern day Jo Jones or Gene Krupa.

“Dance 6/8”, a waltzing adagio line with the hint of bossa nova, on the other hand showcases alto man Marty Ehrlich, who comes across as the most outside soloist here, except for Lake himself. Ehrlich did start his career as a BAG acolyte, so his smeared, double-tongued, deep-toned work shouldn’t surprise anyone. Celebrating his greatest influence Lake, plus Williams on twinned altos, lets loose on “Dedicated to Dolphy” with a series of characteristic Dolphy-like high-pitched chirps, squeals, squeaks and runs. On the same piece, James Stewart’s clear flute tones resemble Dolphy on that instrument, while Defunkt leader Joseph Bowie slides up and down the highest parts of his trombone as a respite from the reeds. Is this how Dolphy would have sounded fronting the Basie band?

CLOTH’s two final numbers unquestionably demonstrate the difference between Basie and Lake however. Unlike sessions like “Basie Plays The Beatles” which put a Swing Era gloss on Lennon-McCartney tunes, Lake takes New Orleans rapper Mysitkal’s “Bouncin’ Back” and plays up its hand-clapping Trad Jazz linkages. Featuring unison reed slurs and plunger work from the trumpets, the tune bounces in both a jazz and Louisiana rap fashion, with its jazz credentials built up when Lake turns in a bluesy Hank Crawford-David Newman alto break, complete with held notes and repetitions.

Another foot tapper, “Creole Talkin’” features the boisterous noise of sections dissembling and reassembling with honks, toots, smears, squeals and Bronx cheers as they leap back and forth from the main theme. Driven by Brown’s big beat, the composition and CD go out on a brassy high note.

While Lake may not be the best at ending individual tunes, after all these years he knows how to program a CD. Despite being recorded quickly, the disc sounds as if it was put together carefully, not thrown together in the studio. Listening, you’ll await his next big band outing with even higher expectations.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Cloth Two 2. M.I.L.D. 3. Dedicated to Dolphy 4. ’63 Impala 5. Round 2000 6. Dance 6/8 7. Bouncin’ Back 8. Creole Talkin’

Personnel: Winston Byrd (trumpet, flugelhorn); Duane Eubanks, Baikida Carroll, Peck Allmond (trumpet); Joseph Bowie, Josh Roseman, Al Paterson, Aaron Johnson (trombone); Oliver Lake, Bruce Williams (alto saxophone); James Steward (tenor saxophone, flute); Erica Lindsay (tenor saxophone); Ron Blake (baritone saxophone); Michael Cochrane (piano); Mark Helias (bass); Otis Brown (drums)