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What’s on Your Playlist – John Lake

By Christian Wissmuller

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NYC-based trumpet player and composer John Lake has been making quite a name for himself as an in-demand performer, as well as composing music for his acoustic jazz septet, The John Lake Ensemble. Additionally, Lake is a co-leader of the acclaimed New Alchemy Jazz Orchestra which has featured the likes of Dick Oatts, Peter Bernstein, and Terrell Stanford.

Originally from Ohio, he earned his Bachelor of Music from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music and a Master of Music from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Notable large-ensemble performances of late include lead and section trumpet with the likes of the American Ballet Theater Orchestra at Lincoln Center, Fat Cat Big Band, Michael Feinstein & Ted Firth Big Band at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the Seth Weaver Big Band, among many others. In addition to performing at a number of jazz festivals and conferences, Lake is also a featured musician of the New York Rangers (NHL).

On June 26, John Lake released his debut album, Seven Angels (Outside in Music), to much praise.

1. Tim Hagans – “Blues In My Neighborhood”
(Audible Architecture, Blue Note, 1995)

During college, I first heard of Tim Hagans through some instructors that knew him from his early days in Cincinnati, playing in the legendary Blue Wisp Big Band. Eventually I was introduced to his seminal album, Audible Architecture. At the time, I was studying a lot of Fats Navarro and early Miles Davis. Something about Tim’s unique style of chromatic improvisation, combined with his surreptitious, slithering sound was like hearing trumpet for the first time all over again. A chordless quartet leaves plenty of room for Tim’s easy rapport with saxophonist Bob Belden, to give the record a wry, conversational feel. When I put this album on, to this day, I feel like I’m entering some mysterious parallel universe.

2. Miles Davis – “‘Round Midnight”
(‘Round About Midnight, Columbia, 1957)

Miles Davis is an artist known for his epically long and ever-changing career, a rare feat in the jazz world. He was never content to stay comfortable in one place, whether we’re talking music, fashion, or his love of Italian sports cars. This track is it showcases Miles during his peak straight-ahead years, only a few years before Kind Of Blue would change jazz forever. This ballad, originally penned by Thelonious Monk, is the perfect vehicle for a harmon-muted Davis to offer us a rare glimpse into the more sentimental side of his personality. Of course, by this point he had perfected his cryptic style of paraphrasing melody. Six minutes of perfection.

3. Maria Schneider – “Days of Wine and Roses” (Live At The Jazz Standard, Days of Wine and Roses, ArtistShare, 2000)

I feel somewhat guilty straying from the brass features for this next track, especially considering the staggering trumpet section standing in the back row of Maria’s iconic orchestra. Big band is a world I call home; I perform in several groups in New York, and write for my own cooperatively-led New Alchemy Jazz Orchestra. What I have always appreciated about Maria’s writing is her brilliant use of orchestration to create sounds I wouldn’t think were possible with a big band. This track, in particular, juxtaposes a well-known standard with her imaginative use of reharmonization, texture, and melody to create a wholly new piece of music. The colors of the brass, woodwinds, and guitar combine with effervescent solos from Tim Ries and Rich Perry to form a thoroughly modern rendition. And as a brass player, I love the payoff of the expertly-dovetailed shout chorus.

4. Kurt Rosenwinkel Group – “Chords”
(The Remedy, WOMMUSIC, 2009)

Many of my favorite records are trumpet-centric, yes, but I appreciate all kinds of jazz, especially when I hear a group that captures a unique, cohesive sound. Kurt Rosenwinkel has many exceptional titles in his discography, such as 2017’s Caipi. What makes this track special though, is not only the exceptional writing, but the full band performance, including tenor sax luminary Mark Turner. It’s rare to hear a group with such distinct individual personalities, that’s able to perform complex arrangements with both accuracy and ferocity. I only wish I had been in New York to see it live.

5. Kenny Wheeler – “Foxy Trot”
(Double, Double You, ECM, 1984)

In 2004, I was studying music at the University of Cincinnati, when Kenny Wheeler was invited to perform his big band music by my trumpet professor at the time, Brad Goode. That week changed my life! I had never heard a player-composer like Kenny before. His Sweet-Time Suite is worth a dissertation all on its own. Kenny’s playing and writing are utterly unique, and while his trumpet style is inimitable, his writing continues to influence modern jazz composition and big band writing to this day. This particular album features a stellar lineup of Michael Brecker, John Taylor, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette. To me, this track represents a perfect fusion of Kenny’s melancholy writing, his fiery trumpet tone, and that signature ECM style. Influential, yes; but to this day there’s nothing quite like it.

6. Bill Evans Quintet – “You Go To My Head”
(Interplay, Riverside, 1963)

Everybody loves Bill Evans, of course, but my favorite part of this album is firebrand trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. This record may seem like a curious pick, given both Evans’ and Hubbard’s stellar discographies, but I like it. It’s not an over-produced session; it has the feel of a late-night pickup show in a small jazz club. It’s real jazz, with all the imperfections. That said, I think it’s some of Freddie’s finest playing on tape. His own albums seem super-charged in comparison to this sideman date, and I think playing within the confines of this sideman role lets him play just a little softer, and construct his lines with a special care. It’s hard to choose just one track, but this one features a (likely) Evans-composed cadenza towards the end for Freddie to show his wares.

7. John Fedchock – “Ruby, My Dear” (New York Big Band, Reservoir Music, 1992)

As I mentioned, in my playing and composing careers, I love keeping a foot firmly in the big band world. And clearly, I’m a sucker for a Monk ballad. This track was very influential for me not only as a writer, but also as a lead trumpet player. Fedchock’s skillful use of the flugelhorn for extended passing chords, coupled with haunting unison sax lines builds a sort of woeful tension. The ensemble shout rolls in waves, the contrast emphasized with a switch to the soaring trumpets. John commands all the elements of the big band to produce a beautiful arrangement that is both nostalgic and fully modern. As a side note – the trumpet section of Tony Kadleck, Greg Gisbert, Tim Hagans, and Barry Ries make this one of my all-time favorite big band sessions.

8. Sonny Rollins – “Kiss And Run” (Sonny Rollins Plus 4, Prestige, 1956)

This album from tenor saxophone icon Sonny Rollins features what was essentially the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet from the same time period; a highly successful touring and recording group that Sonny Rollins only joined in November of 1955. Unfortunately, this iteration of the group would exist for less than a year before Clifford Brown was killed in a car accident, along with pianist Richie Powell. Prior to this, thankfully, Sonny gathered the band for this recording session, which features incredible interplay between the two horn players. Clifford’s solo on this track makes me stop in my tracks and gawk every time. His acrobatic trumpet playing and un-ceasing sense of swing is astonishing, over 60 years later. One can only wonder where he might’ve gone from there.

9. Kenny Werner Trio – “Stella By Starlight” (Peace, Half Note Records, 2004)

This track on Werner’s live session from the early 2000s is, in so many ways, what a big band can never be spontaneous, responsive, free to go in any direction at any moment. Piano trio is small-group jazz reduced to its most basic elements, and as such, the responsibilities for each player widen far beyond their typical roles. Everything is permitted in this six-minute exploration of a jam-session staple. Bouncing back and forth on the time during the montuno section offers surprises on each repeated listen. No arrangement needed – just a set of switched-on ears, and massive trust in your band members. As much as I love big band jazz, a part of me always wishes I had been a rhythm section player!

10. Wynton Marsalis – “From The Plantation To The Penitentiary” (From The Plantation To The Penitentiary, Blue Note, 2007)

I think what makes this song stand out to me among all his other work, is the vulnerability he shares on this track. Marsalis’ trumpet solo is uncharacteristically raw and unrefined – no doubt an allusion to the pain and anger he’s addressing with this piece. This solo is pure emotion. You’ll get none of the ultra-slick lines; no chuckling, time-bending phrases here. Jennifer Sanon’s powerful vocal evokes a latent sadness, often pointed in uncomfortable dissonance with the horns.  It’s a powerful statement from another of jazz music’s greatest player-composers.

John Lake’s debut disc, Seven Angels (Outside in Music), dropped on June 26, 2020. www.johnlakejazz.com

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