Clip: Lisle Ellis
Ace of Bass For over two decades, Lisle Ellis has been expanding the
vocabulary of the jazz bassist by adding blues and classical featuresBY
For some people, the list of groundbreaking jazz bassists begins and ends
with Charles Mingus, who passed away in 1979. Perhaps it's Mingus' sheer
charisma as much as the music itself; he was as known for womanizing,
fisticuffs, and the occasional shotgun-waving scene as he was for his
unparalleled compositions. Often overlooked is the rich complexity of his
music, steeped in Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schönberg as much as Duke
Ellington and Count Basie, with nuance and feeling in equal measure to
rhythm and groove. Plus, Mingus achieved all this while playing the bass,
which Andrew Henkin of Webzine All About Jazz pointed out was "once thought
of in inconsequential terms, [but] is in actuality the most wide-ranging
and difficult instrument to play well."
If any Bay Area musician can drag the bass out of Mingus' enormous shadow,
it's Lisle Ellis. The Canadian expat's innovative playing and unique
background -- he spent years in both electric blues and classical ensembles
-- have brought him to the pinnacle of his profession: He's appeared on
over 40 recordings with such stars of the avant-jazz world as the late
Glenn Spearman, Rova's Larry Ochs, and pianist Paul Plimley. What Ellis'
collaborators point to again and again is his Zen-like attention to sound,
his ability to pluck or bow the perfect note rather than scatter a series
of slick-sounding riffs.
"He [is] so great because he has such an incredible knowledge of the
classical and jazz traditions, while of course knowing all of the modern
avant-garde techniques," Ellis' fellow bassist and former student Damon
Smith writes via e-mail.
Saxophonist Ochs agrees, calling Ellis simply "one of the best."
No one would have suspected a white boy from Vancouver could become the
heir apparent to Mingus' Black Saint -- least of all the white boy himself,
who cared little about jazz when he picked up the bass in 1963.
Growing up in Vancouver in the '60s, Lisle Ellis' first love was the blues.
"I had become really crazy about urban blues, Chicago blues especially,"
Ellis says via phone from his San Francisco home. "They'd come through
town, all the King guys -- B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert King." In fact,
Ellis went to a Doors concert during high school to see his hero Albert
King open the show. When a friend scored backstage passes, Ellis ignored
Jim Morrison and sought out the blues guitarist instead. "I got a photo
with Albert King -- it's still one of my treasures," he says.
Having begun playing electric bass for blues groups around Vancouver, Ellis
thought it would be a simple step to go to Chicago and jam with the
masters. When he arrived in the late '60s, however, not only had most of
the Chicago stars moved on to the festival circuit, but, adds Ellis, "there
was the whole race thing. It was not that easy to just say, "Hey, I'm from
Canada and I really like your music. Can I sit in?' But I was young and
naive and full of innocence and enthusiasm, and it was great to do that.
And by doing that, blues was a natural stepping stone to listening to
jazz." The more jazz Ellis heard, the more he embraced the stand-up double
bass, an intricate and complicated instrument. Feeling the need for further
training, Ellis promptly trekked back to Vancouver to study at Douglas
College's music conservatory.
Swinging 180 degrees from the blues-crazy teenager who pursued his heroes
in the bad part of Chicago, Ellis now contemplated a career as a classical
musician. "At a certain point I thought maybe I would become a section bass
player in a symphony, because it seemed like a good living," he says. But
gradually the semantics of the situation began to sink in. "The
conservatory was conservative; they don't call it a conservatory for
nothing," he laughs. The real turning point for Ellis occurred when one of
his teachers began holding clandestine jam sessions in which the
classically trained musicians were encouraged to dive into jazz
arrangements of Bach. Suddenly, whole new worlds of music opened up for
When his teacher died in 1975, Ellis headed to New York City, where he
caught up with a different set of Chicago icons -- avant-garde jazz
players, many from the Association for the Advancement of Creative
Musicians. "It was a great scene," he says. "[Saxophonist] Sam Rivers had a
place, musicians had places, rents were cheap, people would have concerts,
and a lot of Chicago people that had gone to Europe, all the AACM people,
had recently arrived in New York." Ellis' biggest influence of the time was
Cecil Taylor, the wild-man pianist and experimentalist, whom Ellis met at
the Creative Music Studio, where he was studying in 1979. Not only did
Taylor cement Ellis' resolve to explore every musical nook and cranny, but
he introduced him to the "next generation of players," one of whom would
cause yet another major shift in Ellis' life.
In 1988, after returning from Vancouver, where he'd founded the New
Orchestra Workshop, Ellis met S.F. saxophonist Glenn Spearman while helping
to organize a new-music festival produced by bassist Peter Kowald. Ellis
and Spearman hit it off immediately, and a few months later, Ellis moved to
the Bay Area to take part in the burgeoning experimental scene. Ellis
eventually joined Spearman's influential Double Trio, which combined the
talents of saxophonist Larry Ochs, drummer William Winant, and electronics
wiz Chris Brown with Spearman's own trio of himself, Ellis, and drummer
The music that Ellis and Spearman made together represents Ellis' final
maturation as a musician, and still stands among some of the best
avant-jazz produced in the '90s. Spearman's fiery playing found the perfect
grounding in Ellis' impeccable bowing technique and lightning-quick
fingers. Ellis brought his classical chops to the largely improvised,
freewheeling setting; his unique ability to frame the cacophonous sounds
with just the right bow tone or complicated chord progression, all done on
the fly, created the impression of a completely calibrated composition,
even in the midst of the wildest improvisations.
The same could be said for another of Ellis' main projects, What We Live, a
trio with Ochs and Robinson. The sound of the band is more consciously
blues-oriented but no less democratic. On "As Yet Unknown," the opening
track of the threesome's 2002 live album Especially the Traveller Tomorrow,
Ochs floats a simple horn phrase, allowing Ellis and Robinson to chime in
or disagree with his part. While Robinson smashes ahead, gradually
trampling Ochs' horn riff, Ellis hangs around like an expert negotiator,
providing an unusual blues progression to mediate.
With pianist Paul Plimley, meanwhile, Ellis crafts some of his most
stunning work. The two have collaborated since they met in the '70s, with a
discography that goes back almost 15 years. Their 1989 offering, Both Sides
of the Same Mirror , finds them trading riffs that gradually grow more and
more abstract, with Ellis' rich, sardonic tone playing off Plimley's
discordant clusters of notes.
By the mid-'90s Ellis had reached the top of the avant-jazz scene, working
in three of the premier ensembles in the world, touring Europe regularly,
and recording for such prestigious labels as Black Saint and Tzadik.
But Glenn Spearman's premature death from colon cancer in 1998 sent Ellis
into a creative tailspin. Ellis says that he was devastated by the loss and
"took a lot inside," which he believes contributed to the contraction of
his own debilitating illness. Though reluctant to talk about the ailment,
which forced him to drop out of the scene, Ellis will say that conventional
medicine proved no help, and that he subsequently fled to "a place where I
feel really safe and people I feel safe with, a healing place in the world
During that time, his exploratory nature led him to pick up electronics and
painting, both of which he pursued with the same relish that made him a
legend in the world of jazz. As Ellis' health improved, he began performing
again, quickly regaining his sought-after status.
When asked what makes Ellis so special, Ochs says, "Sometimes you're in the
middle of something, and he'll just go booong , and that's it. As opposed
to playing some complicated run or a whole bunch of sound effects, he'll
look for the center of the question, some particular sound, and just
announce what the music is about."