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Alto saxophone great Oliver Lake combines music and poetry in "Matador of 1st and 1st." 

Tone Poems

Oliver Lake has long been known as one of the premier jazz composers and musicians of his generation. He was a founding member of the groundbreaking World Saxophone Quartet and has led a wide variety of creative ensembles, working with everything from string quartets to steel drums. Lake's playing will share equal billing with his poetry in his one-man show "Matador of 1st and 1st" when he performs for the Virginia Museum's Fast/Forward series Saturday, March 31.

"Matador" is a multifaceted collection of pieces: words, songs and instrumental compositions, each reflecting an aspect of Lake's intelligent, often bemused perspective. "It's culled from my experiences as a musician, as a family man and from my travels," Lake says. "Once you become a poet you expose yourself, so this performance is pretty much me."

Lake recalls playing behind poets before he began to write his own poetry. But "Matador" is far from a typical poetry reading. "It is a theater piece, totally memorized, with three or four costume changes," Lake explains. "The performance lasts an hour and 10 minutes, pretty much evenly divided between music and words. I use musical sequencing to relate the poetry to music, and music to poetry."

The balance was created in collaboration with Oz Scott, who directed the adaptation of Ntozake Shange's poetry to the Broadway stage in the hit "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf." "[Scott] helped me shape my work into a theater piece, helping with the staging and lighting," Lake says. "Oz calls the form a 'choreopoem.'"

During the past five years, Lake has performed "Matador" to critical acclaim in a wide variety of venues, including two off-Broadway engagements. The performance has also been released on CD and videotape through Lake's independent "Passin' Thru" label. According to Lake, except for a few minor modifications — removing dated references to the Clinton White House, for example — the show is unchanged.

The strength of "Matador" lies in Lake's combination of cutting insight and kindness. The title piece is a good example. It focuses on a street person who challenged traffic at a corner near Lake's home in the East Village. "He would attack cars," Lake recalls. "I would see him standing in the middle of the intersection, then he would run up and jump on someone's hood, spinning and dancing around. Cars would pull over, trying to avoid him."

Lake envisions a quixotic integrity behind the apparent madness, a champion who stands up to the machines that chase everyone else from the street. "I saw it as symbol of making choices, about life, about living in New York City," he says.

Other topics in "Matador" include: reflections on the enduring emptiness of hip language; the battle between greed and racism for the soul of MTV; and the romance and reality of a visit to Africa. Lake's delivery is conversational and unpretentious throughout; his sharp wit tempered with a willingness to laugh at himself.

Lake's playing, on flute, and soprano and alto saxophone, is woven throughout the performance. Without the ability to play chords like keyboards or strings, wind instrument solos are a melodic high-wire act. The music ranges from blues, to free jazz, to polished miniatures. His approach is often compared to the great '60s alto player Eric Dolphy, who alloyed experimental expressionism with familiar elements of the jazz tradition. Each short instrumental is as focused, personal and full of feeling as the text.

"Matador" is only one of Lake's many projects. He currently leads an 18-piece big band, a steel drum quartet and two all-star groups (Trio 3 and the World Saxophone Quartet). He also writes and performs orchestral, chamber and dance works as composer-in-residence at Bloomfield College. "Everything I have wanted to be involved with I have been able to do," Lake says.

But "Matador's" demands and intimacy are unique. "I am on full time," Lake says, "except when a cassette plays while I change jackets and hats." (Of course, it is him playing on the tape.) The result is a multidimensional portrait of the artist as philosopher/entertainer — and as a matador, sidestepping oncoming expectations with a light-footed grace.

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