Oliver Lake, Featuring Flux Quartet – Right Up On (Passin’ Thru)
You don’t look to Oliver Lake to conform to expectations. The saxophonist and founding member of the World Saxophone Quartet has made a brilliant career out of making unexpected turns. In this case, he tackles a set of contemporary classical pieces with a string quartet in which he isn’t the central presence.
Though this is Lake’s first recording with the Flux Quartet, he’s performed with the group since 2002. The group itself is no stranger to working with improvising musicians, having performed with Henry Threadgill and Wadada Leo Smith in the past. So it’s no surprise that there are no distinct lines between composition and improvisation on these selections. Lake himself appears on only three of the seven pieces, and his darting, probing alto sax work functions more as a conversation with the quartet than a showcase for his voice.
The music is at turns harsh, sweet, unruly and finely controlled, with moments of intense complexity and affecting simplicity. In at least one instance there’s a narrative design at work. “5 Sisters” is dedicated to Lake’s mother and her sisters, and the piece is marked by distinctive movements that reflect varied personalities. In other cases, it’s clear a more freewheeling approach is at play. “2016” and “Sponge” are based on graphical rather than traditionally written notation, giving the quartet plenty of space to bring their own improvisational creativity to the fore. Sharp rhythms, lush harmonies, percussive elements and moments of unsettling quiet all find their way into Flux’s vocabulary. On the title track, plucking and scratching give way to moments of almost romantic beauty, only to be taken into darker corners.
Those looking for a more familiar jazz setting — even within the experimental circles that Lake often travels in — may be disappointed. But Lake has always been about keeping his voice fresh and vibrant, and that’s certainly the case here.
—John Frederick Moore