Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Oliver Lake Featuring Flux Quartet--Right On Up
Oliver Lake is a saxophone player who has built a career upon daring, progressive jazz. He plays with his noteworthy Organ Quartet, as well as a number of big band ensembles. He's dipped into world music with some success, having teamed up with Meshell Ndegeocello and Vijay Iyer. It's clear he's not afraid to expand beyond the borders of jazz--even free jazz that lacks traditional boundaries.
So it's fascinating that Oliver Lake has chosen to work with the Flux Quartet, an equally celebrated and adventurous string quartet. Right On Up sounds like a jazz album in title only--the majority of these seven tracks, all Lake originals, blur the line between avant-garde, "modern" classical music and the aforementioned free jazz. Even when Lake plays his alto saxophone on three tracks ("Hey Now Hey," "5 Sisters" and "Disambiguate"), it's not to provide an anchor toward the jazz side of the compositions. There is no beat to speak of, only pure improvisations by a string quartet that is eager to explore new sounds and states.
That's what is so tricky at first. This isn't a jazz album per se, and those looking to revel in Lake's saxophone improvisations will be scratching their collective heads. This isn't so much an album for fans of Lake's previous works--it's an invitation from the composer to follow him down this particular road and see if you can connect the dots between the foundation he has previously laid to this new ground, which pulses and fluctuates without the expected rhythms.
Instead, you get what the liner notes describe as daring, unique and uncompromising, which means this won't be easy listening for the average jazz fan. These original compositions are so full of pure improvisation by design, but the magic is in those moments where the quartet starts to breathe as one. It's clear, in other words, that Flux is one of those quartets that consists of members (leader Tom Chiu and Conrad Harris on violins, Max Mandel on viola and Felix Fan on cello) who have been together for years. In a world without boundaries, each performer carefully notes where the others are standing--with one exception.
Right On Up closes with a twenty-minute epic, "Einstein 100!" Written back in 2005, it was composed to celebrate the centennial of Einstein presenting his Theory of Relativity to the world. In that generous space, each member is given the chance to improvise without the structural support of the others, It's a fascinating exercise since you can almost work yourself into the heads of each musician and closely observe their physical relationship to both their instrument and the composition itself. That's where the listener can dig deep into wood and string and discover both the complete freedom and the intense focus.