courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications
I first became aware of saxophonist Oliver Lake when I was writing for Examiner.com. Thanks to distribution by Naxos of America, I came to know the Intakt recordings of Trio 3, in which Lake performed with Reggie Workman on bass and Andrew Cyrille on drums. Through my adventurous tastes in listening to jazz, I was familiar with the two rhythm players; but Lake was new to me. The Trio 3 recordings led me to discover not only that free jazz practices, which could be traced back to musicians like Ornette Coleman and groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, were still alive and well but also, through working with “guest artists,” such as Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran, their practices were being passed on to a new generation of players.
Lake’s latest work has involved the formation of a “collaborative group,” so called because all four members are both strong composers and leaders in their own right. He recruited cornetist Graham Haynes, bassist Joe Fonda, and percussionist Barry Altschul. The group called itself the OGJB Quartet, taking only the initials of the members’ first names. It gave its first performance in 2016 at the Winter Jazz Festival; and, a little over a week ago, TUM Records Oy, which is based in Pohjankuru, Finland, released the quartet’s first album, Bamako.
Each of the members of the quartet is credited with the composition of at least one of the tracks. The title track is by Haynes, but it is basically music to accompany Lake reciting a poem of his own composition. Those who take the study of geography seriously know that Bamako is the capital of Mali, the country that is home to a region that had been established as a settlement in prehistoric times, Timbuktu. For this particular track both Haynes and Altschul switch over to pitched African instruments, the dousn’gouni and mbira, respectively, providing just the right “cultural context” for Lake’s recitation.
Altschul’s contribution as composer is “Just A Simple Song.” Fonda contributes two compositions, “Listen to Dr. Cornel West” (at about fifteen minutes, the longest track on the album) and “GS #2,” so named because it is dedicated to drummer George Schuller. Lake is the composer on three tracks, “Stick,” “Is It Alright?,” and “3 Phrase 09.” Finally, the last two tracks consist of spontaneous collective improvisations, both given simply the title of the group followed by a number. The second of these improvisations precedes the first.
I had the good fortune to be working with musicians interested in free improvisation during the summer before my freshman year. However, it was the sort of thing that I enjoyed doing without giving much thought to what others were doing. All that changed during my junior year with the release of John Coltrane’s Ascension album. That kind of jamming was so far out of my league that I realized that I had to take listening far more seriously than I had done previously. My efforts were rewarded with opportunities to listen to performances by the groups led by both Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, both of which visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology while I was a student there.
Such background should explain why I tend to approach releases like Bamako with more than a little nostalgia. (I had similar feelings when ECM released its 21-CD box set The Art Ensemble of Chicago and associated ensembles.) There is something free-floating about jam sessions in which dissonance is not distinguished from consonance, superposed intervals take priority over harmonic progressions, and rhythms are more inclined to follow patterns of speech than evenly-measured segmentation. Many dismiss this as noise that overwhelms any vestige of signal. For my part, it is the epitome of an ambiguity that can be interpreted in a prodigious number of ways, making the attentive listener as active a “player” in the experience as the performers are. Listening to Bamako left me looking forward to what the OGJB Quartet would do for their next recording project.