Among the foremost players in the jazz avant-garde, saxophonist Oliver Lake has led big bands, collaborated with poets and painters, with Björk and the Brooklyn Philharmonic, not to mention A Tribe Called Quest, and toured for decades as a member of the World Saxophone Quartet. His motto is "no separation.... Put all my food on the same plate," he has said, metaphorically.
A sound omnivore, he performed Sunday with a like-minded thinker: saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, one of Lake's mentors going back to the late 1960s. Their night of duets at Duende, the restaurant/performance space in Uptown Oakland, was memorable. It was the third of Lake's four nights at the venue -- a "no separation" residency, with his collaborators changing from show to show.
Lake is 70, Mitchell is 72, and neither seems capable of slowing down. Their improvisations were buzzing and bluesy, humorous and wondrously strange, built upon their unique instrumental virtuosities. They sounded as if they were uncovering ancient languages or perhaps assembling new ones, while performing on a family of saxophones, with Mitchell doubling on a multitude of bells, wood blocks and small percussion instruments, as he did for many years with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. (He now holds the Darius Milhaud composition chair at Mills College in Oakland.)
Especially on the alto saxophone, his primary instrument, Lake is more easily connected to the jazz tradition: The tartness of his attack is reminiscent of Jackie McLean; his wide-intervallic leaps owe something to Eric Dolphy. Beyond that, his playing moves through gradients of shouts and murmurs, tongued thwacks and squiggling asides, sometimes while he sings through his horn, plays percussion with its keys or dampens notes by pressing the bell of the saxophone into his knee or thigh.
Mitchell's sources are harder to pin down. His sound is more elusive, often floatier, but then just the opposite -- pulsating and quakelike. A master of circular breathing, he plays long, long tones, powerfully ramping up the overtones. No one gets inside a note like Mitchell; it can shake a room.
Sunday, he and Lake matched grainy rumbles: a whorl of escalating vibrations, with Mitchell (who is wiry, with a twinkling elfin presence) often playing the giant bass saxophone, while Lake (built like a halfback) flew up into ultra-high frequencies on his small, curved soprano horn. It was an exploration of frequencies and sound fields, and the changing textures brought numerous images to mind: power surges, air-raid sirens, swarming bees, stampeding elephants -- and blues-shouting crowds of men, though only two were raising this storm.
For nearly 90 minutes, the duo juxtaposed the seeming randomness of their process -- for what reason were any of these sounds plucked from the air? -- with the fact of its inevitability, the sense that this music couldn't possibly sound like anything else. Once in a while, a bit of song would surface: I thought I heard Lake hint at Thelonious Monk's "Green Chimneys" and Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood," as well as the cork-screwing introduction of his own "I Would Like To."
Maybe yes, maybe no. There also was a moment when the duo coalesced into what felt like a hymn. And during the encore, Mitchell seemed to quote -- I swear -- from "Over the Rainbow," the part where Judy Garland sings, "Where troubles melt like lemon drops." Was I hearing things? No matter; Lake and Mitchell jumped over the rainbow a long time ago. Sunday, their closing moments sounded like a howl, then a whirlwind and finally a prayer.
I'm reminded: In 1975, Lake recorded an album called "Heavy Spirits." The title remains apt.