Ace of Bass

For over two decades, Lisle Ellis has been expanding the vocabulary of the jazz bassist by adding blues and classical features

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.

Jessica Benson


Wednesday, Oct. 30, at 8 p.m.

The Jack DeJohnette/John Surman Duo headlines

Tickets are $22-35


Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard (at Third Street), S.F.

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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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