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Over the span of several decades, Oliver Lake has established himself as a jazz legend with an ever-driving exploratory spirit, in and out of avant-garde circles. So it comes as no great surprise to encounter another twist in the saxophonist-composer’s journey, with a luminous project built around fresh-minded arrangements for a vocal quartet. Think of it, loosely speaking, as a way station between Swingle Singers and ANew Perspective-era Donald Byrd.
Lake previously worked with the Sonic Liberation Front, led by percussionist Kevin Diehl, but he tills new ground with his incorporation of a vocal ensemble — the evenly spaced (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone) and tautly integrated Sonic Liberation Singers.
In this case, Lake’s signature alto sax sound stays home. His duties are as composer, arranger, poet and spoken-word performer on a couple of tracks: the paean to universal love, “Ain’t Nothin’ Real BUT Love” and the closing nod to the majesty and tragedy of Native American life, “Lucky One (Where U Is, Is Where U At).”
The singers avoid improvisation, as such, but supply a beauteous and supple group sound, from the vocal-instrumental melody statements bolstering the title track to the close, clenched harmonies interspersed with instrumental open zones on the nearly epic “Clouds.” As strong as the album is, things go a bit south on the two groove-driven tracks, the opener “What” and the neo-soul jazz tune “Dedicated,” on which the raggedness of the instrumental work operates in cognitive dissonance with the lucid precision and harmonious weave of the vocal ensemble.
All forces converge deftly on “Round 2000,” a ballad introduced by the singers’ ear-opening part and meshing with fine solos from bassist Matt Engle, violinist Veronica Jurkiewicz and fervent tenor saxophonist Elliot Levin. On the whole, the album’s innovative, retro-to-the-future sum effect both affirms and expands on Lake’s musical vision, honed over a half-century … so far. — Josef Woodard