Oliver Lake Steel Quartet

Kinda Up

by Andrew Johnson


While jazz is generally associated with instruments like drums, bass, piano, woodwinds and brass, jazz is of course very inclusive. That is the way jazz remains alive and growing. By adding “novel” instruments like harmonicas, African drums and tablas, just to take a few examples, jazz musicians are able to experiment with new sounds and new approaches to music making. With that in mind, it should be no surprise that saxophonist Oliver Lake, who is also a member in good standing of the important World Saxophone Quartet, has invited steel drum player Lydon Achee to perform alongside veteran side-men Pheeroan akLaff (drums) and Reginald Washington (aka Reggie Washington; bass).

Experiments though, as the term implies, don’t always work out, and the addition of a steel drum to this particular lineup is not altogether a success. While there are some nice moments here, such as the pairing of Lake’s alto and the Achee’s steel drums on the title track, and the call and response between the two players on Sonny Simmons’ “Land of the Freaks”, I found that the steel drum had a tiring sameness of sound throughout. Its sound is simply outmuscled here, especially by Lake’s horn and akLaff’s drums. When the steel drum is given enough room to be heard, it is an interesting instrument, yet its limitations are made clear when Lake’s bright, probing solos are set against Achee’s, such as on the Lake original “Cloth”. Whether it is the instrument, or the player, or a bit of each, it is hard to favourably compare the two in terms of range, expressiveness or just plain variety of sound.

Of course the process of experimentation is as much about finding out what doesn’t work as it is about find out what does. While I would never argue that a steel drum has no place on a jazz recording, I would say that the musical dynamics that we find on Kinda Up, intensified by the emphasis on up-tempo numbers that overwhelmingly favour Lake’s playing, clearly do not highlight the best of what the instrument seems like it can offer.

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