Dec. 15 2010 10:20 AM

Decades into a successful career, jazz improv vet Oliver Lake keeps it real

Oliver Lake may be pushing 70, but the veteran jazzman isn’t about to take a breather. He’s a founding member of the acclaimed World Saxophone Quartet and the Oliver Lake Organ Quartet. He’s composed commissioned works for the Brooklyn Philharmonic and arranged pieces for Bjork. And, because the sax isn’t entirely enough to express his soul, he’s also a painter and a poet.

“I feel very fortunate,” says Lake. “I’m doing everything I love. I think of myself as a musician and a composer who happens to paint and write poetry.”

At his Dec. 17 show in San Diego, Lake, a former Guggenheim Fellow, will present a one-man performance piece melding his music and his spoken word. It’s similar to his 1996 album The Matador on 1st and 1st—in which he riffed on everything from Yo! MTV Raps to the ’burbs—but with updated material.

“I’ll recite poetry I’ve written about things that have happened in the recent past and current events. I may talk about the oil spill, Katrina, the election of President Obama, as well as things that have happened to me as a musician and in my personal life.”

He accompanies his spoken word on soprano and alto sax, estimating his freewheeling jams to be 80 to 90 percent improvisational. “I’ll state a melody, then I improvise, then I state the melody again at the end of the piece,” he explains. “Improvisation is a form of composition, but it’s instant composition.”

On the liner notes to Matador, Lake wrote that “taking the stage solo can be frightening.”

“What I meant by that is that I don’t have anyone to lean on when I’m out there by myself, playing a nonchordal instrument,” he says.

“But,” he adds, “I’ve been doing this a long time.”

That’s the truth. As part of various ensembles, Lake has recorded more than 100 albums, and his earliest musical memory dates back to his knee-high days in St. Louis.

“My mother had a restaurant when I was a little kid,” he recalls. “There was a jukebox. There was a lot of rhythm and blues being played.”

Later, Lake joined a marching drum-and-bugle corps, hammering out lines on a bass drum and occasionally clanging the symbols.

“There were a lot of older teenagers in that group who were interested in jazz, and playing saxophone and trumpets and drum sets,” he says. “I started hanging out with those older guys and got interested in jazz and picked up a saxophone.”

Jazz, Lake realized, would be his ticket out of St. Louis. “I was always intrigued that musicians were traveling all over the world and playing this music and surviving doing that.”

He moved to New York City in the mid-’70s, where he thrived as part of the Loft Jazz scene, a continuation of the free-jazz tradition kicked off by the likes of John Coltrane and ornette Coleman.

“We were musicians living and playing experimental jazz in lofts,” Lake explains. “I have to wonder, if I’d been living in an apartment, would it have been Apartment Jazz?”

In the years since, he’s performed and collaborated with countless musicians and artists, including Lou Reed and Mos Def. When Bjork set out to make her first post-Sugarcubes solo album, Debut, she called on Lake, who arranged the sax and rhythm sections for three songs and later joined the Icelandic pop queen in a studio in England to remix a song by A Tribe Called Quest.

“She’s a lady who surprised me in how much knowledge she had at the control boards,” he says. “She knew exactly what she wanted. She was very creative.”

Lake also played live with Bjork, including performing with her in an MTV Unplugged session. Did he ever imagine how famous she’d get?

“No,” he laughs. “If I had, I definitely would’ve asked for royalties.”

Lake’s passion for jazz only continues to grow as the decades pass, and he’s a fan of every sort, from Dixieland and be-bop to cool school and swing. He’s been called many things, including avant-garde, but he prefers the simplest label: contemporary.

“Avant-garde suggests that it’s ahead of its time, and will be dealt with in the future. I’ve been playing this music for more than 40 years, so how can it possibly be avant-garde?”

Oliver Lake performs at Sushi Performance & Visual Art on Friday, Dec. 17.