When saxophonist Oliver Lake's Steel Band opened its early show at Blues Alley on Saturday night, the quartet sounded as if it were sailing straight into smooth jazz waters, propelled by a light funk backbeat. So much for first impressions. It didn't take long for Lake to stir up a tempest with bursts of scribbling runs and squawking dissonance.
Best known for his tenure with the venturesome World Saxophone Quartet, Lake obviously views the Steel Band as a groove alternative. The group favors plenty of familiar and often festive rhythmic pulses -- funk, swing, New Orleans parade beats and Afro-Caribbean rhythms -- but two things set it apart: Lake's restless horn and Lyndon Achee's large steel pan.
The outsize instrument allowed Achee to create lots of pianistic designs in addition to the customary splashes of Caribbean color -- everything from long, flowing single-note passages to soft, partial chord accompaniments. His presence was always felt and striking contrasts often developed when the focus shifted back and forth between him and Lake. It helped, too, that Lake has written and chosen tunes that frequently present the band in a different light. John Hicks's "Peanut Butter in the Desert," the Stevie Wonder/Mary J. Blige collaboration "Time" and a few original pieces kept things from falling into a routine groove for very long.
Rounding out the band were bassist Reggie Washington and drummer Jonathan Blake. Blake was in particularly good form, whether soloing with eruptive power or sustaining a syncopated Crescent City strut.
-- Mike Joyce