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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.
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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 Ellis.
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."