Avant-garde legend Oliver Lake stands apart from many jazz musicians today, but not just because of his distinctive sound. He’s an artist in every sense, pursuing painting and poetry as well as music—an adherent to the collectivist vision that, in the 1960s and 70s, guided organizations like Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and St. Louis’s Black Artists Group (of which Lake was a founding member). Of course Lake is also a prolific instrumentalist, leading groups from the World Saxophone Quartet to big bands of his own creation on alto, soprano, and flute.

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Lake has been releasing music almost annually since 1971, collaborating with the biggest names in jazz as well as artists like A Tribe Called Quest, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and Meshell N’degeocello. “What I Heard” is the second album from Lake’s Organ Quartet, featuring Jared Gold on the Hammond B3, trumpeter Freddie Hendrix, and drummer Chris Beck. We had the chance to chat with Lake about his process, the new album, and where he finds inspiration 40 years into his career:

Revive: What was your main inspiration for “What I’ve Heard”?

Oliver Lake: Well, I’ve had this group now for about 6 or 7 years, and this is our third CD (the second one that includes the trumpet), and I’m just excited about the virtuosity of my organ player Jared Gold and my trumpet player Freddie Hendrix. I originally wrote some of these tunes to accompany poets, and when I put them together for the organ group, I expanded the tunes and made them what you’re hearing on the CD. That’s kind of the way what you’re hearing came together.

R: When you say it was composed to accompany spoken word, did you initially envision yourself performing poetry with it (I know you’re a writer as well)?

OL: Yes, that’s true—but I’ve been curating this jazz poetry concert in Pittsburgh (it’s sponsored by the group City of Asylum), and every year for the last ten years I’ve been taking a different ensemble that I play with. Half of the concert is the ensemble doing a musical performance, and the other half is the same ensemble accompanying poets from all over the world. A lot of the concerts are all improvised, but one year I was commissioned to compose music specifically for each poet using the organ quartet and a string quartet, and this is some of the things that I came up with—but then I expanded on them. When I go to Pittsburgh, I do recite some of my poetry, and then we accompany the poets. I started accompanying poets while I was in the Black Artists Group, and then I eventually got the chance to begin reading my own poetry—now, I’ve written two books of poems.

R: That’s really impressive—just looking over your career as a whole, you’ve been so prolific for so long.

OL: Yeah, a long time!

R: Do you ever feel like you’ll run out of things to say? Do you have anything you do to get inspired?

OL: I think my experiences keep inspiring me–I have a great family and a great wife and that inspires me too. When I play with musicians that are of the caliber of the Organ Quartet, these young guys are very inspirational to me as well. So I don’t think I’ll ever run out, because I have various projects going on all the time…one thing leads to the next and one thing grows, and the inspiration is there always.

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R: What draws you to the organ specifically, as an instrument?

OL: Well, I guess about 10 years ago there seemed to be a resurgence in the organ, in the Hammond B3 organ. I mean years and years ago, back in the 60s (late 60s-early 70s), there was a lot of organ groups—organ trios, Jimmy Smith and all those guys. It kind of faded, and then in the last 10 years there’s been a resurgence. So I thought, what would it be like to start a group with that particular sound? I kind of haphazardly ran into Jared Gold–I initially started with another organ player, and he couldn’t make the first gig, so he gave me Jared’s number. We hooked up and for me that was it. Like, this is the cat. It was also me not thinking in a traditional way about an organ quartet. I hope I’m breaking some ground with this sound, the way I’m using the organ, and having that kind of accompaniment for my alto sax.

R: You did a residency at the Stone a few weeks ago, showcasing a number of your different ensembles.

OL: That was a very interesting week for me—I have a lot of listening to do, because I had everything taped and videoed. There were 9 groups, and 12 sets. I had a ball, though.

R: Any particular highlights from the week?

OL: Well, on Saturday, the Organ Quartet performed the second set and Billy Harper sat in. That was very exciting for me because Billy and I hadn’t played together in years—we used to quite often, and so it was kind of a reunion. It was packed that night, and we really just went to a higher level.

There were so many nights though—the next night I played with the Flux String Quartet, and we had a fabulous set. The night I had the two drummers in my show—that went somewhere else, and made me really feel like I want to record that group. That was the third time that I had played with the two drummers—we’ve played together about once a year for the past three years—so now I feel like it’s time to record. I definitely want to record with the Flux String Quartet as well.

R: What do you look for in the musicians you play with?

OL: For me, one of the most important things is sound. I’m looking for musicians who have their own distinct sound—not necessarily about how great they improvise. That’s a big part of it, but I also want people who have their own signature sound.

R: To head back in time a little bit, I know you used to teach elementary school music back in St. Louis—how did that impact your music?

OL: I think all my experiences impact my playing—this was at the very beginning of my career, I taught for 3 years in St. Louis public schools, right after coming out of college. I had a degree in music education. It let me know that I wanted to move to New York and pursue music full-time, and not be trying to continue in St. Louis Public School system (laughs). But it taught me a lot, and there were some great students there who I still keep up with, I guess mostly through the advent of Facebook I can keep up with student who I taught 30 or 40 years ago.

R: Are any of them musicians now?

OL: Oh yeah, a couple of them. A couple that I run into in my travels—in Texas, a trumpet player who was one of my students came up to me after a show. Currently I do workshops at the universities and in high schools, but I’m not on any regular teaching staff or part of any school.

R: Do you think you ever would be?

OL: I think I’m past the age limit of getting hired as a regular school teacher—when they put out their feelers they don’t really look for a 72-year-old guy!

R: Your work with the Black Artists Group, which you mentioned—I find that era so interesting. Do you see that artistic collective mentality at all today, or do you think it’s kind of lost?

OL: I don’t know if you’d say it’s lost—the things that happened as a result of that period are still going on—but I don’t know if there are a lot of groups in the cooperative spirit that were happening in that particular time, in the late 60s-early 70s. It was during the Black Power movement, and there was a lot of ideas about “self-help” in the black community. The artists and musicians of the period were trying to reflect that same attitude of self-determination and choosing our own destiny—all that played into the formation of those groups. I think that experience still continues, but it doesn’t seem as prevalent in groups across the U.S. right now. The importance of groups like BAG and the AACM is still being felt though, and the AACM continues to do work in that same spirit (I just did a concert sponsored by them in New York a couple weeks ago).

R: Do you think there should be more groups like that today?

OL: I hadn’t really thought about it. I know the Black Artists Group was a powerful school for me, and I look at it as being my school (even though I went to college), because it was so practical. One weekend I was accompanying poets, and the next weekend I was writing music for a big band. The next weekend I’m writing music for a play, next writing music for dancers. All of that energy was going on on a weekly basis, and when I moved to New York, I just continued to do the things I had honed in the Black Artists Group.

R: Yeah, that spirit of self-determination and creating your own artistic path is definitely valuable.

OL: That’s why I feel so fortunate—I feel like I’ve been very successful, and by success I mean having an idea and carrying it through and watching it come to life. If there’s something I really love to do, and I get an idea, I’m able to implement that kind of group and make it happen.

R: This is a little random, but I know you’ve had your own record label (Passin’ Thru Records) for 25 years now—it made me think of this other jazz musician I wrote about recently named Douglas Ewart.

OL: Yeah he’s a great friend of mine! He does visual art as well as plays alto and clarinet and flute…

R: As I prepared for this interview, your story reminded me a lot of him.

OL: He’s been very inspirational to me. About 10 years ago, I wasn’t painting—I did a lot in high school, and then I never got around to it anymore…I was doing maybe one painting a year. Then about 10 years ago, I saw Douglas when he came to New York, and we were talking. I said, “Douglas, I really want to start painting again, but I don’t have time because I’m composing and travelling…” He looked at me and said, “Do you have 15 minutes?” I said, “Yeah, I got 15 minutes.” He said, “Well, you got time to paint!”

And that sentence right there made me get back to painting—I would literally set my timer for 15 minutes and go paint. It was his way of letting me know: don’t make an excuse. If you want to do something, budget some time and do it. I always tell that story—do you have 15 minutes? Yeah.

“What I’ve Heard” is available now on Amazon—and Oliver’s big band has a show coming up next week on November 28th at Trumpets in Montclair, NJ.

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