Oliver Lake Big Band — Wheels (Passin’ Thru, 2013)
I associate big-band music with happy, rollicking charts, and that’s what Wheels delivers. You do get some avant-garde crunchiness — after all, you’ve got Oliver Lake and Darius Jones in two of the alto sax chairs — but overall, you get the feeling these guys had a really good time recording these tunes.
It’s not as madcap as Fred Ho‘s big bands or as towering as Sam Rivers‘. It’s more a case of the warm glow of Ellingtonia given a jolt of modern energy. The alto sax solos, in particular, are packed with tremendous free-jazz fun from Lake, Jones, or Bruce Williams, adding squeal and skronk to tracks like “Clicker” (a ferocious number where drummer Chris Beck goes wild) and in the middle of the “Wheels Suite.”
It’s a box full of horns, to be sure, but Yoichi Uzeki’s piano also plays a big role, either coloring the theme (as on “Masai Moves”) or adding some crazed, diagonal solo (as on “Clicker.”)
Lake’s composing is a highlight, of course, as he tinkers with the big-band format. “Is It Real” is a clever, sparse piece that strips down to the dotted-line frame of a swing idea: The bass and drums mark out the “one” beat but nothing else, while the horns play a drifting polyrhythm. It all adds up to 4/4, but it took me more than one listen to absorb.
The 17-minute title track, the “Wheels Suite” is a mini-album of its own (hence the word “suite,”) with a middle section that’s tender and ballad-like, stripped down to just tenor sax, bass, and lightly brushed drums, followed by a phase of ghostly free improvisation. Similarly, there’s an untethered piano/sax improv during “Studder,” a nine-minute suite that starts with very modern composing and ends with upbeat swing.
I’m emphasizing the more free-jazz elements, but some of the material is just good jazzy fun. “Philly Blues” is what it sounds like, a straight blues backing for multiple solos. And “The Whole World” is the album’s hit single, IMHO — a proud-stepping swing that’s the catchiest tune of the bunch and includes a rich piano solo by special guest Marc Cary. Here’s part of the main theme — and the short solos that come later are even more fun: