What We Live / Quintet For A Day

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


Track Listing: A Brush With the Groove (4:56); Here Today (9:49); The Turquoise Lament (First Synopsis) (1:53); Yours and Mine (14:51); The Undersized Shadow (Synopsis Three) (3:49); The Big Hunt (Fourth Synopsis) (2:30); The Blackbird (Synopsis Two) (2:24); Gone Tomorrow (14:59); Coda (1:58);

All compositions Ochs, Ellis, Robinson, Douglas, Smith. With special guests (on all tracks): Dave Douglas, Trumpet (left channel) / Wadada Leo Smith, Trumpet (right channel)

Producer: Larry Ochs, Engineer: Ben Leinbach, Mixing and mastering engineer: Myles Boisen. Recorded on April 4 and 5, 1998 at Spark, Emeryville, California. Mixed at Division Hi Fi, San Francisco. Mastered at Headless Buddha Mastering Lab, Oakland. Cover Art: Vanessa Clark. Section from the installation Orange Cross (1998). Acrylic and urethane on canvas, 8" x 8". Cover Design: Bob Defrin Design, Inc., NYC

Original CD liner Notes by Duck Baker:

It is dangerous to talk about evolution in art; one person’s idea of what’s cutting edge is another’s wasteland. Even the use of the term has the implicit danger of presenting what is new and different as ipso facto superior to what conforms to more traditional structures. But the music on this CD does represent an interesting development that bears discussion. This doesn’t have to do with breaking new ground, but with the fact that musicians experienced in ground-breaking can at this point participate in a more measured approach to collective improvising. Of course what makes this development worthy of discussion is the fact that the music itself is so impressive. It unfolds with a measured sense of compositional drama quite different from the apocalyptic outpourings that improvisers tend to fall into when they just get together and blow, not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I am reminded of how Eugene Chadbourne explained to me the desirability of using the new compositional approaches that people like Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, or John Zorn were introducing in the seventies: “If you get five guys together and play free, it sounds pretty much the same every time. If the same five people play one of these compositions, each performance will sound different.”

The five guys on this CD are improvising freely and it sounds different every time, in large part because of their experience with new compositional approaches, which often require improvisers to relate to each other and the flow of what’s happening in different kinds of ways. Here they use the skills acquired in these situations to allow truly spontaneous free compositions to take place before our eyes and ears. Much of what happens this way is, as has been indicated, conservative compared to the more jarring sonorities of contemporary free improvising; it is closer in feeling to the free jazz of the fifties and sixties. I am reminded of some of Don Cherry’s work with Gato or Sun Ra’s Heliocentric period, but those recordings were definitely structured as to how and when the free playing would occur. In a way, this is comparable to the achievement of mainstream players of the time (Ruby Braff, Ike Quebec, Benny Green, to name divergent examples), whose preference for earlier styles led them to build convincing music on older foundations. The difference is that this contemporary “mainstream” approach is possible only for players who have long experience with the new music.

The Bay Area–based trio of Larry Ochs, Lisle Ellis, and Donald Robinson was formed in 1994 as What We Live, with the idea of performing compositions (mostly by Ellis) with the group expanded to a quartet by various guest artists. This experience fostered a desire on the part of the trio members to get to know each other better as improvisers, and that process has proved to be so fulfilling that they haven’t felt the need to return to using compositions. They have however continued the original idea of adding different quartet members over the years, and Wadada Leo Smith and Dave Douglas have both participated. The opportunity to record with the two together arose when they both had Bay Area gigs at about the same time, which led to the unique session heard here. The title Quintet for a Day refers to the unaccustomed larger format.

In many ways Lisle Ellis seems to be the central reference point for the music’s flow, whether the context is the trio or an expanded group. It is logical that the strongest early influence on Ellis’s development was Cecil Taylor: His approach reflects the blues-based propulsion of the Taylor1 school. In the seventies Lisle worked with many of the musicians most closely associated with the pianist, like Andrew Cyrille, Alan Silva, the late Jimmy Lyons, and others. He was later (1995) a member of Taylor’s Unit. Ellis has also worked extensively with another significant pianist, Paul Plimley.

An important association shared by Ellis, Robinson, and Ochs is the great tenor Glenn Spearman, whose recent passing has deprived the Bay Area of one of its musical touchstones. All three were involved in various projects with Spearman. Donald Robinson first hooked up with Glenn in the early seventies, when he was based in Paris studying with Kenny Clarke and working with the likes of Braxton, Silva, and Oliver Lake, among others. After his relocation to Oakland in 1975, he and Spearman became almost constant musical companions. Robinson has also been the driving force of many a local funk band, which is an interesting contrast to his approach for this music, as though his sense of the basic groove is so ingrained that he can make you feel it while engaging in the subtlest commentaries. The extensive history Lisle and Donald share as a rhythm team is reflected in the highly developed rapport that is basic to the music here.

Larry Ochs is probably best known for his work with the Rova Saxophone Quartet, the long- standing paragon of Bay Area new-music groups. In recent years Larry has done some great work in a variety of other contexts as well, including What We Live and another improvisatory group, Invisible. Larry has dealt convincingly with the challenge posed to younger tenor men who want to find their own way along the path indicated by the stylistic legacy of Coltrane, Ayler, Sanders, and Shepp. What can be added to such spectacular testimonials? Larry evolved his own answers some time ago, and, as you’ll hear, has found lots of other questions to address.

Since hitting the scene in the seventies, Wadada Leo Smith has contributed mightily as a trumpet master, leader, and composer. Smith’s concepts in the latter capacity are absolutely original and almost frighteningly deep, as anyone who has ever tried playing his music can attest. We see in his work how the mind of the composer enters the realm of improvisation and how the improviser informs the composer.

Dave Douglas has made quite an impact in the past few years. A lot of us first heard him in the context of John Zorn’s Masada, with whom he still works. His 1995 New World CD In Our Lifetime showed Dave using the challenging legacy of the late Booker Little as a springboard into his own creative realms. Each project since then has provided further evidence of his dedication and musicianship. The present situation allows us to see him in more of an outside context than some of his listeners may be used to.

There is a sixth element of the group chemistry here, and that is the space that everyone leaves open, without which the music couldn’t take its ever-changing shape. Perhaps we should think of this sixth element as the leader/arranger of Quintet for a Day. The ability to read the leader’s invisible charts is one way of defining what’s special about this music, and when you hear the fantastic ideas indicated by these arrangements you’ll be amazed by the beautiful interpretations.

Duck Baker
Guitarist/composer Duck Baker has worked in many styles of American traditional music and jazz. He contributes to various guitar magazines as well as Coda, Jazz Times, and The East Bay Express.

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