Lake : The Matador Of 1st & 1st
Minneapolis MN, 20 August 2004
As a founding member of the Black Artists Group cooperative in St.
Louis back in the 1970s, Oliver Lake is no stranger to neither solo
performances nor the incorporation of theatrical elements into musical
expression. But his recent Twin Cities performance of The Matador
of 1st & 1st—the culmination of a month-long residency
at the Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis—showed that Lake
still continues to build on the roots of his career with a finely
crafted synthesis of spoken-word monologues and unaccompanied saxophone.
The title of the piece comes from one of Lake's spoken sections that
tells the story of a Manhattan street artist who would run into oncoming
traffic at that busy East Village intersection, much in the way that
a matador places his red cape between the bull and his life in a bullfight.
It's as useful an example as any to describe the spoken elements of
Lake's performance, a series of loosely related vignettes that used
humor, magical realism, and pure language manipulation to supplant
a linear narrative. Throughout the course of the 70-minute piece,
Lake riffed on everything from hip-hop to consumerism to a preference
for "organic" women, often adapting his speech patterns
and accents to complement the subject matter.
But the musical component of the performance was by no means secondary.
Lake used an arsenal of alto sax, curved soprano sax, and flute to
construct musical interludes between the spoken passages, occasionally
even singing his parts in a self-contained call and response with
his alto. As his stories reflected a myriad of cultural issues both
past and present, his playing also touched upon several styles of
jazz and other African-American musics: gutbucket R&B or melodic
balladry one minute, slow-burning blues or Ayler-esque overblowing
Aside from some ill-fitting prerecorded segments, Lake's performance
wasn't necessarily multimedia in the strictest sense of the term.
However, he did incorporate the acoustics of the theater at several
points almost as an extended instrumental technique. A prime example
came early in the set where he angled the bell of his alto across
the room from his physical position at far stage right, using a natural
echo from the cement theater walls to enhance his sound.
Although Lake has performed The Matador of 1st & 1st on
several occasions (and even issued a recording of it on his own Passin'
Thru label a few years back), it's that kind of attention to detail
and improvisatory savvy that makes for a unique experience regardless
of how many times it's enacted. And adding the palpable connections
between Lake's grasp of spoken and musical languages, it becomes clear
that there's not much conceptual difference between a piece like Matador
and a musical composition—variables like crowd responsiveness
and location provide enough influence to make each performance as
singular as the next.