Lisle Ellis, Bass and Circuitry / Donald Robinson, Drums / Larry Ochs, Sopranino and Tenor Saxophones

What We Live is a San Francisco based jazz/improvised music group formed by bassist/composer Lisle Ellis in 1994. The three regular members are Lisle  Ellis: acoustic bass; Lawrence Ochs, tenor and sopranino saxophones; Don Robinson, drums and percussion. The ensemble's formation was inspired by and a direct result of Ellis' work with Ochs and Robinson within the context of The Glenn Spearman Double Trio, which performed and recorded from 1991 until the leader's death in 1998. Ellis' initial vision was to bring together a small group of musicians to investigate concepts central to the tradition of jazz-based improvisation: swing, song form, modalities, etc - in a less explicit manner than the mainstream but in a more emphatically traditional way than offered by the practice of free jazz. Over a period of time the concept of the trio evolved more towards a collective situation rather than being solely the vision of an individual musician. A group voice or sound has emerged that is immediately recognizable. Compositions by Ellis and Ochs as well as group compositions make up the music.

In 1995, What We Live performed at the DuMaurier Jazz and Blues Festival in Vancouver, Canada and Jazz a Mulhouse Festival in France. A spring 1996 tour took the trio to Italy, Austria, and Hungary including a live broadcast for RAI Radio, Rome. The trio returned to Europe in July for Nickelsdorf Jazz Konfrontationem, near Vienna. In October '96, performances in US and Canada included the Seattle World Jazz Festival and Time Flies, Vancouver as well as concerts in Chicago, Madison, Ann Arbor, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and others. In Seattle and Vancouver, the group became What We Live Four, adding trumpeter Dave Douglas to make a quartet. Marilyn Crispell joined the trio in Madison for one set, and this format of adding one guest to the trio has been tried successfully several other times with great success. In 1997, a tour in France occurred following an appearance at 1997 San Francisco Jazz Festival. A European tour with Wadada Leo Smith occurred in November 1998. The trio appeared at Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival in New York City in June 1999. A tour of France took place in 2000, and a recording from that tour was released in 2002 (“Especially the Traveller Tomorrow;” see Ochs’ discography).

In 2003, the trio was featured at Festival Contraindicazioni in Rome, Italy as part of a tour that took them to Switzerland and Austria as well. Included in the tour were two "What We Live Four" concerts with special guest Saadet Turkoez.  Those two meetings led to a USA tour with Tuerkoez in fall 2004 and again in spring 2006. A recording with Tuerkoez called “Soundcatcher” was recorded live in Buffalo on the 2004 tour and released in 2006, in time for  A fall 2006 European tour including performances in Barcelona, Marseille, and Leipzig Jazz Festival.

What We Live's Free Jazz By Ed Hazell

Free improvisation is not as prevalent in new jazz as it is in European new music. European musicians of the past several generations, from Derek Bailey and Peter Brötzmann to John Butcher and Georg Grawe, improvise without precondition more often than they play compositions (the formal ironies of the Dutch being the exception to this generalization). New American improvisation has its roots deep in jazz, which carries with it a heritage of improvisation on compositions, whether Tin Pan Alley standards, Duke Ellington's big-band numbers, or Anthony Braxton's analytical charts. Even Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz, an important inspiration for free improvisers on both sides of the Atlantic, used a written framework, however slight. For Americans working in new music in a jazz tradition, such as William Parker, Tim Berne, Ken Vandermark, and Joe Morris, free improvisation is an option, not a way of life.

The San Francisco-based trio What We Live, with composer-improvisers saxophonist Larry Ochs (the "O" in ROVA Saxophone Quartet), bassist Lisle Ellis, and drummer Donald Robinson, dedicate themselves to free improvisation in the American vein. And their two latest albums, Never Was (Black Saint) and Quintet for a Day (New World), show what happens when the jazz sensibility meets free improvisation. Coherently spontaneous and thoughtfully wild, these releases sound at times as if they were through-composed, yet every note is improvised. The habits of compositional structure are so ingrained in the players that even on the tabula rasa of free improv they create order and beauty rather than chaos. The rhythmic characteristics of swing and the textural qualities of the blues also inform their playing, but in the widest possible terms, not in the literal Lincoln Center way. The music has a gritty immediacy and a compelling propulsive feel even at its most abstract.

Never Was is full of details a composer might think of, but executed on the spur of the moment. Robinson's recurring snare-rim motif on "Were" helps unify the opening moments of the track before new material is introduced by Ochs; the redwood solidity of Ellis's ostinatos lend continuity to "Will Be." The trio's collective sense for orchestration is impressive. "As Is" and the title track use several different duo combinations in addition to the full trio to vary the color and texture. All three members improvise melodic or rhythm building blocks that interlock in different ways to create larger structures, and they are careful not to repeat themselves from track to track.

From the beginning, the trio intended to have regular guests join them. Their previous Black Saint album, What We Live Fo(u)r, consists of quartet tracks with tenor-saxophonist Glenn Spearman, koto player Miya Masaoka, violinist India Cook, and several others. If anything, the addition of trumpeters Dave Douglas and Wadada Leo Smith on Quintet for a Day makes the music even richer and more varied -- and, paradoxically, more tightly structured. (A Black Saint CD due this fall will also feature the trio with Smith and Douglas in separate performances.) The dialogue among the quintet is assured and their responses to one another confident. On "A Brush with the Groove" Douglas and Smith finish each other's phrases with eerie regularity and seeming ease. On "Here Today," all five contribute sections of melody that they string end to end in a sustained real-time composition full of unexpected twists and turns. "Yours and Mine" reaches a level of intuitive, spontaneous unity very few groups ever attain, with improvised arrangements of folksong-like themes and inspired soloing from Smith and Ochs.

What We Live and their guests create group music that's somehow expressive of individual will and personality. Ultimately that's how the music can transcend its formal aspects and its arcane vocabulary of sounds (though those sounds give pleasure). The "We" in the band's name refers not only to the collective identity that forges the music but to us as well; it's a conspiratorial "we" that shares the aspirations and feelings expressed by the trio. — The Boston Phoenix's Music Archives

Lisle Ellis → Bass and Circuity Visit Website

Originally from Canada, Lisle Ellis was the first recipient of the prestigious Fred Stone Award in 1990, given annually in Canada to a musician who demonstrated innovation and integrity in their field. He has performed with the Cecil Taylor Unit and with Paul Bley among many, many others. Under his own name, a 1993 release entitled Elevations (Victo/Canada) was on many top CD lists for that year. He has also recorded on Music + Arts and Hat Art, His most recent recording a leader is Children in Peril (Music + Arts, 1998).

Donald Robinson → Drums

Since 1971, drummer Donald Robinson has worked with many of the well - known leaders in contemporary jazz including Oliver Lake, Cecil Taylor, John Tchicai, Raphe Malik, Anthony Braxton and Glenn Spearman. In the early seventies he studied in Paris with Kenny Clarke and Alan Silva. Robinson, as well as Ochs and Ellis, was a member of the Glenn Spearman Double Trio from 1992 until the leader's death in 1998. The group toured Canada and Europe and recorded four CDs. All three players were also heard on the 1997 award- winning recording by violinist India Cooke entitled Red Handed (Music + Arts, USA).

Larry Ochs → Sopranino and Tenor Saxophones

As a member of Rova, the saxophone quartet, Lawrence Ochs has made more than two dozen CDs and 30 tours to Western and Eastern Europe. Compositions of his for Rova and other ensembles have been commissioned by festivals and by Meet the Composer/Reader's Digest Commissioning Fund as well as Chamber Music America. He has performed with Terry Riley, Kronos Quartet, John Zorn, Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, Fred Frith, John Lindberg, Andrew Cyrille, Butch Morris, George Lewis, Henry Kaiser, Miya Masaoka, Wadada Leo Smith and many others.

Latest Release

What We Live : Quintet For A Day

New World Records (1999)  Read more..

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