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Oliver 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 the next.

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.