Monday, February 27, 2006

what we live

SUNDAY FEB 26 @ 8PM - An Die Musik, Baltimore MD
What We Live
Lisle Ellis - acoustic bass
Donald Robinson - drums
Larry Ochs - sopranino, tenor saxophones
special guest: Saadet Türköz, vocals

over the course of two extended improvisations lasting nearly 90 minutes, this group collapsed the space-time continuum in very intriguing and yet not unproblematic ways. like many shows at an die musik, the big comfy armchairs encourage the listener to sink into the atmosphere, a feeling only encouraged by the band's preference for dimmed lighting along with the captivating musicianship these four improvisers displayed.

i have some familiarity with this trio -- recordings for black saint and victo from the 1990s that often find the group's ranks significantly expanded -- and of course ochs' previous work with ROVA saxophone quartet. (ochs is also married to one our our favorite poets, lyn hejinian.) and though i have some glenn spearman CDs as well, i have not heard his double trio, from which what we live apparently emerged. my increasing interest in asian folks musics and their affinities with western improvised musics made this show something i definitely wanted to check out. (see promo material below, which i only read closely just now.)

overall i was not disappointed. i thought türköz's vocals were quite impressive and expressive. she had a great deal of power, particularly in the lower registers, which she often withheld actually. her pitch range did not seem very extensive, in that she rarely if ever ventured into the upper-middle or upper registers. but the quality of her vocals ranged very broadly, from whispers and inhales to glottal swallowings to incredible vibratos -- all of which struck me as being consonant with her kazakh heritage, smack in the middle of the eurasian landmass, with "asian" and "arabic" tendancies very difficult to sort out (given my earnest but limited exposure to asian vocal styles). there was no real question of the meaningful content of her lyrics, regardless of what language they were in.

if there is a frontman to the trio ellis indeed seems to be it, as his electric upright bass and mac-driven electronics contributed significantly to the group's overall sound. in addition to the unaltered fretted and bowed bass work, his electronics enabled him to distort the natural sound of the amplified bass, sample and loop his own playing, and create a wide range of otherwise seemingly unrelated electronic sounds. this probably gave him the widest tonal palette of anyone in the group. sometimes the bass sounds on the more "natural" end of his spectrum evoked the asian stringed instruments that complimented türköz's trad/folk stylings, while at other times the spacey wash of electronics made the whole feel like sun ra had gone buddhist. the risk ellis continually took was that, having to manipulate (literally, with his hands) two devices at once, he would overcommit to one at the expense of the other (i.e. keep going back to fiddling with electronics instead of playing bass, or vice versa). but i found he negotiated this risk fairly successfully overall.

larry ochs has a tenor sound that i would characterize as thin and brittle. this characterization is of his sound is colored by phrasing as well, which is frequently broken, distorted, and twisted. he rarely goes for pyrotechnics or overt virtuosity and is interested in almost anything other than a big full tenor sound: multiphonics, buzzes scrapes and squeaks. (in classic parlance, he's all lester young, no coleman hawkins. think also perhaps joe henderson as filtered through roscoe mitchell.) he complimented türköz best tho on the sopranino, as the full-bore tenor would have simply drowned her out. (maybe? she was holding back and i thought had she really cut loose at the right register she may have been able to cut the tenor.) and it was in the stretch (maybe 40 minutes into the whole performance) when türköz sat out that the group took the opportunity to explore the area of a more conventional tenor-bass-drums trio.

donald robinson was in the back and so i could never see very well what he was doing, but his playing sounded very solid. nice brushwork in the first improv, making interesting use of different pressures and areas of the brushes (tips versus, i dunno, stems?). with the sticks he had great control and economy of hand motion, getting lots of nice timbres from the kit in good blackwell fashion. at several points he stood up from behind the kit and sort of slapped the tops of his cymbals with the sticks, immediately muting them with his hand and rubbing them with the flat part of the sticks: quite a sound i've never heard or seen anyone do before. he used the mallets a bit too, tho i'm surprised he didn't do more with the potential gong sound he could have got from mallets mallets. again during the tenor trio section he "swung" hard.

i more than got my money's worth on this one and was glad that bernard arranged with the band for one long set rather than two sets with separate admissions. if anything i may have, with 20 minutes or so to go in the perfomance, felt like i'd experienced the full range of what this group could do and that the rest was just reiteration. nevertheless, this is a show i wish i had a recording of to play for the folks back home, since the blend of times (ancient to the future as the AACM says) and spaces (asian, middle eastern, western) was truly something to behold and behear, and something i'm surprised that more improvising musicians are (to my knowledge) not exploring.

What We Live are joined by Saadet Türköz, a stunning singer of Kazakh heritage.

This will be a unique concert where Middle Eastern song-forms and aesthetics merge and co-mingle with the blues-based influences that suffuse the music of WWL.

Saadet Türköz was born in Istanbul in 1961. Due to the political pressures of the Chinese government upon the Turk people in East Turkestan (Uyghur Autonomous Region), her parents fled to Istanbul, where they settled as Kazakh refugees. They transmitted to Ms. Türköz the rich oral and musical traditions of Central Asia. As a child, living in Istanbul, Saadet was fascinated by the Arabic language and the melodious texts of the Koran which gave her the first opportunity to deliberately improvise without paying attention to sense and correctness.

At 20 years old, she left Istanbul for Switzerland, where she experienced an exciting new world of music: free jazz, improvisation and a refreshing openness towards experimentation which paralleled her unbiased approach to the musical traditions of her origins.

In her performances of Kazakh and Turkish songs, Ms. Türköz is looking to transform memory. She seeks to evoke pictures and atmosphere by means of voice and music which transcends cultural boundaries. Memory is everywhere and every time the same - not changeable - but the expression is different: Individual perception develops a universal impression of the cultural life.

What We Live is a San Francisco based jazz/improvised music group formed by bassist/composer Lisle Ellis in 1994. The three regular members are Lisle ELLIS: acoustic bass; Lawrence OCHS, tenor and sopranino saxophones; Don ROBINSON, drums and percussion. The ensemble's formation was inspired by and a direct result of Ellis' work with Ochs and Robinson within the context of The Glenn Spearman Double Trio, which performed and recorded from 1991 until the leader's death in 1998. Ellis' initial vision was to bring together a small group of musicians to investigate concepts central to the tradition of jazz-based improvisation — swing, song form, modalities, etc - in a less explicit manner than the mainstream but in a more emphatically traditional way than offered by the practice of free jazz. Over a period of time the concept of the trio evolved more towards a collective situation rather than being solely the vision of an individual musician. A group voice or sound has emerged that is immediately recognizable. Compositions by Ellis and Ochs as well as group compositions make up the music.

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