Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Oliver Lake Big Band at City of Asylum

Each September the organization City of Asylum hosts an event on the North Side that combines poets (who are usually exiled from another country) and jazz music (which almost always involves alto saxophonist Oliver Lake). In previous years, the event has happened on Sampsonia Way, the street that looks like an alley where museum/installation space the Mattress Factory is located. The street was closed off and a stage was set up at one end. This blend of close residential buildings and businesses made for an interesting production a few years ago. On the balcony of one of the houses, a Chinese poet shouted his prose in his native tongue while locally-born actor David Conrad translated across the alley on another building. Lake performed that year with the World Saxophone Quartet.

This year, the event was moved to Allegheny Commons West Park, right next to the National Aviary, where a huge tent was set up, with a pretty clear view of the stage wherever you sat, with numerous video screens all around the space too.

Lake brought his big band this time, who released a really solid album called Wheels about a year ago. Among other people, the band includes Darius Jones, the wild and woolly alto player who has released a few albums on AUM Fidelity and recently did a second album with pianist Matthew Shipp. I just reviewed the latter release so I felt like I needed to check out the show to see him in particular and also because I haven't gone to these events in probably about five years.

Knowing that I might be complicating things, I took my seven-year old son with me. He's no stranger to live music. A few weeks ago, he accompanied me to JJ Wright's local performance. And he did see Anthony Braxton perform at the Aviary at the ripe old age of 10 months (sleeping through a lot of it). Plus he has been to a bunch of Pittsburgh Symphony concerts for kids, and has headphones to wear when things get too loud. But all of that doesn't necessarily mean that he'll sit through a whole concert.

This marked the 10th anniversary of City of Asylum, which was given much fanfare to start the show. Then Lake came out and recited his own piece called "You Look Marvelous" which was an homage to the late Amiri Baraka. He called the band onstage by holding a droning note that everyone echoed as they made a procession through the audience to the stage.

"Plan" opened the set, letting everyone know this wasn't your typical big band. The stop-start lines of the theme gave way to a solo by Lake that was marked by some strong high shrieks that weren't always on mike.

Lake has cited Oliver Nelson and Duke Ellington as influences and "Sometimes" bore that out. The horn voices sounded rich, slowly moving into a more soulful mood before moving into some heavy swinging by the end. The contrast between this more traditional backdrop and soloists like Lake and Jones made the whole thing sound more unique. Lake's World Saxophone bandmate David Murray also leads a big band too, but when they brought on Macy Gray as a singer (seen last year at the Detroit Jazz Fest) the band sort of reduced to a large scale vamp band. Lake did nothing of the sort.

Even when the band covered OutKast's "The Whole World," and the backbeat got a little rigid, the heat was still there. The same goes for "Is It Real," where everyone was taking a few bars to stand up and wail.

After the band played those four tunes, they took a break so some of the poets could get up and do their thing. It was about an hour into the show and by then the kid's mind was gone. Actually his focus never made it into the tent after he saw a playground a few feet away. While he's getting to be old enough to leave unattended at a playground, I wasn't ready to do that on the North Side.

So we took our leave, via that playground, as the sponsors was saying their thing and as the poets got ready to do theirs.

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