Some of the most creative jazz music going down these days is coming from musician/composers working with large ensembles and Olive Lake’s recent “Wheels” for big band is no exception. Although this isn’t Lake’s first album for big band, it’s the first one I’ve been able to hear and I was immediately struck with what a unique composer and arranger he is. I’ve read other reviews of this album and people mention Ellington and other known band leaders and certainly Ellington’s tone colors are here, especially as handed down from his followers such as Mingus, Sun Ra and Henry Threadgill, but there is something entirely different going on with Lake’s approach. From Ellington to the present, big band arrangers tend to use rhythmic riffs scored for a certain section of the band that interact with riffs from other sections and so on. You get some of that on “Wheels”, but much of Oliver’s arrangements use stoic blocks of sounds moving in slow sequences, rather than the expected swingin riffs. Even the melodic material on here often consists of masses of tones stacked in thick chords that move deliberately together, and its this minimal and almost stark approach that makes “Wheels” such an intriguing and unique listen, as well as a real ground breaker when it comes to a modern take on big band arranging.
The arrangements on here are surprising and unique, but the real stars are the soloists, particularly Lake and fellow saxophonists Darius Jones and Jason Marshall. The solo style on “Wheels” is very intense and expressive with sonic flights into the upper realms of the avant-garde. Some soloists go it alone, while there are also plenty of sections for free group interplay, including a couple sections where the whole orchestra goes off at once as in the freedom heyday of the late 60s. On many tunes, Lake’s arranged blunt tone colors for the band are not much more than a brief outline so that the improvisers can have as much freedom as possible.
As mentioned earlier, much of the arrangements on here are very sparse and aescetic and more similar to an avant-garde concert hall 3rd stream type creation, but there are couple tunes that get on the more funky side of things. “Philly Blues” is your Monk flavored slightly off-kilter hard bop jam and “The Whole World” is an Outkast cover that sounds like the sort of exaggerated circus like tune favored by guys like Mingus or Henry Threadgill. The middle section of the “Wheels Suite” presents a ballad like tune, but it too sounds strangely reduced to its barest elements.
It took me a little while to get used to Lake’s approach on “Wheels”, but the more I listen, the more I’m interested. This is top notch current jazz that often borders on the avant-garde, but is always handled with a modern sophistication and cool. Possibly “Wheels” is the missing link in an unlikely connection between Ellington’s smooth elegance and Xennakis’ blunt constructions.