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Clip: Lisle Ellis

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  • Carl Zimring
    http://www.sfweekly.com/issues/2002-10-30/music.html/1/index.html Ace of Bass For over two decades, Lisle Ellis has been expanding the vocabulary of the jazz
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 1, 2002
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      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
      Donald Robinson.

      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
      for me."

      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."
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