"I've been busy, but that's a good thing" are the first words out of Oliver Lake's mouth, via phone from his home in New Jersey. It's a burden this legendary alto sax player, composer, poet and painter has gladly borne ever since the late 1960s, his early days in St. Louis with the Black Artists Group.
The Black Artists Group, Lake says, "ended up being a school for me -- I was writing for big band, plays, dance pieces and composing in all these different ensembles, so that when I moved to New York City in 1974, I just continued to do all those things. My career has been shaped by that." Even more vital was the mid-'70s loft-jazz scene in the Village. "Musicians were renting spaces, rehearsing ensembles and putting on their own concerts," Lake recalls. "Musicians were in control of every aspect of their performance. You had to be a one-man production crew during that period."
Out of the vibrant loft era arose the seminal World Saxophone Quartet, founded in 1976 by Lake, alto sax player Julius Hemphill, and baritones David Murray (possibly the most recorded living artist in jazz) and Hamiett Bluiett. Their genesis was a chance invitation to perform in New Orleans. "All of us were in New York, playing together from time to time," says Lake; when the promoter, Ed "Kidd" Jordan, couldn't afford all four of their individual groups, "he said, 'Why don't the four of you come down, and we'll put a New Orleans rhythm section with you, so I can afford it.'"
"The audience response from the very first note was incredible," Lake continues. "It was a full house, with everyone from kids to elderly people, [and] so tremendous that when we finished, we said, 'We've got to keep this going.' First we called ourselves the New York Sax Quartet, but there was another group in town who sent a letter from their lawyer. So we became the World Saxophone Quartet."
Since then, the Quartet has amassed a critically acclaimed 20-album discography. Its latest run, on the Justin Time label, includes 2006's Political Blues, featuring guests such as bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma and guitarist James "Blood" Ulmer, and ranging from the Afro-funk title track to the poignant Katrina indictment "Amazing Disgrace," sung by Carol Amba.
When not with the WSQ, Lake spends no time resting on laurels, which would include a Guggenheim Fellowship and 2006's Mellon Jazz Living Legacy award. As a published writer of powerful verse, he's ideal to appear alongside poets from the four corners of the globe, when Pittsburgh's City of Asylum presents WSQ on Sat., Sept. 8, as part of its annual "jazz-poetry concert." It's the group's first appearance here since it played the Three Rivers Arts Festival in the early 1990s.
David Murray is occupied elsewhere, and Hemphill, sadly, passed away in 1995, so the incarnation Pittsburgh will see includes two much younger players: James Carter, who records for Columbia and starred in Kansas City, Robert Altman's 1996 biopic of Ben Webster, and Blue Note staple Greg Osby.
Though some consider Carter (cousin of violinist Regina) to represent snappy-suited neo-boppers, and associate Osby with Steve Coleman's M-Base collective, they've both stepped out into the avant-garde on a number of occasions. Carter has worked with Marc Ribot and Ronald Shannon Jackson, while Osby has recorded with Andrew Hill, Andrew Cyrille and Sam Rivers, and even toured with a reconstituted version of the Grateful Dead.
Considering that Lake's son, Gene, also sometimes tours with the Quartet, Lake has perfect confidence in the newer WSQ members, who are 25 years his junior. "We met James Carter when he was 18, so he's been around all the time. He was very influenced by Bluiett's baritone playing. Osby's also from St. Louis, and we've played together in several different combos. So there's no age gap -- we're linked by the music, and they fit right in."
In addition to WSQ and his poetry, Lake leads many other active ensembles, including the Steel Quartet (featuring steel pannist Lynden Achee), a new Organ Quartet, a 16-piece big band, and the amazing Trio 3 with drummer Cyrille and bassist Reggie Workman. Lake also runs a full-time, nonprofit, hands-on record label called Passin' Thru. "It's an one-man show," he explains. "We've released 14 recordings. I'm still open to being on other labels, but this idea goes back to the Black Artists Group and being the master of my own destiny.
"In line with that is owning my own masters and my own music," he adds, "as well as leaving this legacy of music to my family when I'm gone. I've always liked being in control of what I'm doing, and this is a way to do that."
City of Asylum Free Jazz-Poetry Concert, featuring Oliver Lake and The World Saxophone Quartet, and writers Horacio Castellanos Moya, Huang Xiang and others. 7:30-9:30 p.m. Sat., Sep. 8. Sampsonia Way near the Mattress Factory, North Side. Free. 412-321-2190