Can't Knock The Hustle

Why would a giant of free jazz hang out with middle school kids?

"There have been some ups and downs," says Lake. "When I had [R&B- and reggae-influence band] Jump Up, we really were kind of taking off, although it didn't make it quite as far as we thought it might. And the World Saxophone Quartet has been a ride. For a while, we were so hot, and working all the time. And all of that just kind of dwindled away. It's been an interesting journey, even through the downs and the ups. And now I feel like I'm in an up period, because I'm involved in so many different things. So you keep evolving, you keep being an improviser."

It's about time for Lake to get back to practice, so I pull out my LP of Lake's Heavy Spirits, a great free-jazz album from 1975, which he signs, "Oliver Lake, 2004, 'Music Power.'"

 

James Williams askshis student actors to take off their shoes and socks, and roll up their pants, which tend to run three to six inches longer than is recommended by GQ's Glenn O'Brien. One student worries about exposing his "Flintstone feet," and is assured that no one will be giving his feet a close inspection.

Lake has just returned from the brief teleconference with his accountant. He takes a seat on the folding chair that is his temporary bandstand and improvises some more. Today, Williams doesn't ask the students to do a full-fledged backward fall into somebody's arms, the granddaddy of trust stuff. They'll work up to that, starting this afternoon with an exercise involving a slow, dramatic faint that's more like a backward bend. The group walks slowly around the room, until someone announces, with a funny melodramatic delivery that Williams has modeled for them, "I'm falling! I'm falling!" Then the rest of the group rushes over to catch its suddenly weak-kneed colleague.

This is an early rehearsal. The falls are tentative at first, especially that of the troupe's portliest member, who at least doesn't exhibit any signs of serious embarrassment when the group is even more tentative about catching him. But after 10 minutes or so, things are running pretty nicely. The falls are freer, the rescues more urgent and assured. The saxophonist plays one of his own improvisations, deliberately falling out of key, catching himself. He plays part of a familiar blues lick, but then resolves it in entirely nonstandard fashion. Which, really, is a jazz musician's greatest art--knowing how to make an odd, winding course seem inevitable and absolutely correct.

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