Oliver Lake Big Band

The Oliver Lake Big Band performs at Wesleyan University on April 26. (Yasmin Grogan / April 22, 2014)

On "Wheels Suite," the 17-plus-minute centerpiece of Oliver Lake's 2013 big band release "Wheels," a dense, contrapuntal swirl of horns and a clamorous rhythm section emerges suddenly, as though you're joining a conversation already in progress. The texture gradually gets stripped back to nothingness, and a gentle ballad flows in, bit by bit, the emergence a blossoming lyricism that can only flourish once all ambiguity has subsided.

Eventually, chromaticism creeps back in, along with skronking saxes and jagged piano chords, until drums alone are left to fill the space suddenly left open as the rest of the ensemble drops out. There's a short recapitulation of a theme you've heard earlier, but can't quite place, to close out the suite. The unusual, somewhat cyclic form (hence "Wheels") sounds as though stitched together by a composer for whom the tradition of large-group jazz — Ellington, Mingus, Sun Ra — was never far from his mind. The seams are blurred.

"For me, I was thinking of having it go from one conversation to the next," Lake told CTNow, "having a single thread going through all of that." The cental ballad, he said, was written several years ago; other sections are recently composed. "I was just trying to think conversationally and make it a statement that tied it together."

Lake's career stretches back half a century. He's written music for all kinds of ensembles, from string quartets, small groups, the big band, four saxophones, nearly any combination you can imagine. Lake is a spoken-word artist, a performance artist, composer and visual artist. He's collaborated with choreographers and contemporary pop figures, including Lou Reed, Mos Def, Me'shell Ndegeocello, Björk and A Tribe Called Quest.

In the late '70s, with Julius Hemphill and Hamiet Bluiett — two of his colleagues in the St. Louis collective Black Artists' Group — and New York-based musician David Murray, Lake founded the World Saxophone Quartet, an ensemble that helped redefine the boundaries of jazz in the 1980s, through a unique repertoire of original compositions and harmonically advanced arrangements of contemporary R&B numbers, Jimi Hendrix songs and classic Ellingtonia. These days, he regularly performs with Tarbaby, an adventurous trio consisting of pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits.

Lake's Big Band, which will close out the 13th annual Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra Weekend with a performance on Saturday, April 26, at 8 p.m. at Crowell Concert Hall in Middletown, has only released two albums: "Cloth," from 2003, and "Wheels" a decade later. On both recordings, Lake builds upon the legacy of his teacher, Oliver Nelson, with whom he studied in the 1960s, along with the formidable tracks laid by Ellington, Mingus and Ra. "I don't think of them while I'm composing," he said, "but they were inspirations to me. I'm just going for what's best in the music, but I know I'm writing in a tradition and standing on the shoulders of giants."

"Is It Real," the second composition on "Wheels," unfurls a theme that Lake subjects to a series of variations, each more outside than the previous, over an unwavering pulse, until the melody effectively dissolves into free, contrapuntal noise. It's another complex form on an album full of surprises. (There's also a funky, shuffling cover of OutKast's "The Whole World.")

In the studio, Lake's 17-member ensemble — four trombones, two alto saxes (in addition to Lake), two tenors and a baritone, four trumpets and a piano-trio rhythm section — had only one or two chances to nail his arrangements. "If we're all together and everything's articulated as written, I go from there," Lake said about choosing which takes to preserve, "but generally I don't think we did anything more than three times." He's a stickler for the quality of the recordings, relying on longtime collaborator Peter Karl, who runs a Brooklyn studio, to capture everything perfectly. Instead of the usual single-day session, Lake had the luxury of two days in the studio, courtesy of an Aaron Copland Recording Grant. "A lot of the guys have been playing with the big band for a long time, and they knew what kind of writing it was," he said.

At Wesleyan, Lake's Big Band will focus primarily on "Wheels" material (they'll perform some, but not all, of the "Suite"), with vibraphonist and Wesleyan professor Jay Hoggard joining the group for one number. (Josh Evans, a trumpet player in the group, graduated from Wethersfield High School in 2002 and later studied with Jackie McLean at the Artists Collective.) One challenge for Lake — or any big-band composer, really — is leaving enough space for improv. "It's a concern," Lake said. "I have to try to make sure everybody gets their share of improvisation, especially during live performances. I try to make everybody feel complete… It's difficult to do that on a recording, and when you have 16 or 17 musicians on stage, it's a challenge." And since opportunities for large ensembles to work are relatively rare, Lake approaches every Big Band performance as a special event.

"There are some very dedicated musicians in the group," Lake said. "It's an interesting journey to be on, getting to hear the power of a big band playing my compositions."

THE OLIVER LAKE BIG BAND performs on Saturday, April 26, at Crowell Concert Hall, 50 Wyllys Ave. on the Wesleyan University campus, Middletown. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $6-$20. Information: 860-685-3355, wesleyan.edu.