Oliver Lake Featuring FLUX Quartet – Right Up On [TrackList follows] – Passin’ Thru 41236, 69:44 [4/21/17] ****:

Lake as composer, not necessarily performer.

(Oliver Lake: alto saxophone (tracks 1-2, 4), co-producer; Tom Chiu, Conrad Harris: violin; Max Mandel: viola; Felix Fan: cello)

Fair warning: fans of saxophonist Oliver Lake should be aware the 70-minute Right Up On is not, strictly speaking, a solo Lake release. Yes, his name is prominent, but he doesn’t perform on all seven tracks, only three. Mostly, these are pieces (which range from seven to 21 minutes in length) specifically composed for the contemporary-classical string group FLUX Quartet, who has collaborated with Lake for many years. Right Up On collects old and new material Lake penned for the FLUX Quartet, some of which has been performed on stage and some which has not. However, this is the first time Lake and the FLUX Quartet have recorded together. Essentially, if you’re a Lake supporter, be forewarned, because this concentrates on Tom Chiu and Conrad Harris on violin; Max Mandel on viola; and Felix Fan on cello. If you like the Kronos Quartet, the Brodsky Quartet and likeminded ensembles, Right Up On will be right up your alley. Those who admire Lake’s solo outings or band projects (such as Trio 3 with Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille), his involvement in the World Saxophone Quartet, or his partnerships with Myra Melford, Roscoe Mitchell and others, may want to steer clear or at least know in advance that Right Up On is different than other Lake albums: it’s related to his compositions rather than his performance.

Lake is heard on the two openers, the seven-minute “Hey Now Hey” (fashioned for the FLUX Quartet in 1998) and the nine-minute “5 Sisters” (written in 2013). Lake buoys the second half of the edgy “Hey Now Hey,” where his familiar alto sax adds a catlike scurry to the bristly tune. The lack of an identifiable cadence or rhythm, or a main motif, makes “Hey Now Hey” a tense listening experience. Lake also contributes to “5 Sisters,” (dedicated to Lake’s mother and his four aunts) another work which has jazz-like improvisation, but a foundation closer to avant-garde and classical characteristics. The uneasy “5 Sisters” is a dynamic representation of Lake playing together with the quartet, where his sax and the strings forge a focused but also free-form bond. On the other hand, Lake is only heard during the last minute of the seven-minute “Disambiguate,” and in a diminished role. While some pieces have chunks of unplanned soloing with minimal notation, “Disambiguate” includes written and improvised sections, which helps “Disambiguate” seem smoother and less abrasive than other compositions: the auditory coloring is steadier, and there is a rhythmic if erratic movement. You won’t mistake “Disambiguate” for Bach, Vivaldi, or Philip Glass, though.

One thing which may not be apparent, especially on first listening, is the unpredictable music doesn’t stray far from Lake’s intentions. There is liberation throughout both “Sponge” and “2016,” two cuts where Lake’s liner notes state each tune uses graphics as guideposts with negligible notation. On the nearly ten-minute “2016” (penned, naturally, last year) and the seven-minute “Sponge” (also from 2016), the quartet’s soloing fits into Lake’s structural boundaries. There is a sense of an open area which the FLUX Quartet can range around in, but there are built-in margins crafted by Lake. “Sponge” is also notable for two unexpected oral asides, almost like spoken exclamation points, as if the brief lines are part of the compositional landscape. The most intense and significant creation is the 21-minute “Einstein 101!,” which premiered in 2005, a century after Einstein presented his revolutionary “Theory of Relativity” in 1905. There is much fluctuating of texture, coloring, shading and tone. Echoing Einstein’s science-based ideas, “Einstein 101!” has deliberate deviations in time and space (the term “space and time” is even spoken during the tune’s last few minutes). Over the course of the long track, there are dramatic moments, expressively stimulating progressions, and there is a perception of travel or a journey where the musicians aren’t always collectively organized but nevertheless arrive at the same destination. “Einstein 101!” is not something to experience once, but is best confronted several times, as a challenging concerto (if you will) of modern creative music.

Hey Now Hey
5 Sisters
Right Up On
Einstein 100!

—Doug Simpson