Though the San Francisco trio What We Live is practically unknown in Chicago, two of its members have been playing in town since before the band's inception. Bassist Lisle Ellis, a fixture on the improvised-music scenes in San Francisco and Vancouver, appeared here in the late 80s and 90s in groups led by pianist Paul Plimley; kinetic and soulful reedist Larry Ochs has visited repeatedly with ROVA, the saxophone quartet he helped found a quarter century ago. Ellis conceived What We Live in 1994, having played in duos both with Ochs and with the group's third member, San Francisco drummer Don Robinson. Placed in a trio, ideas that germinated in each duo fully flower, thanks in no small part to Robinson: his light touch recalls Steve McCall's 70s work in the trio Air, and on brushes he's a balletic shadowboxer, feinting and weaving and sometimes barely kissing the skins. His ability to shape the music forcefully without resorting to overpowering volume gives What We Live a refreshing spaciousness and latitude. All three musicians share an interest in balancing unfettered improvisation with well-defined, even restrictive structures--the yin and yang of the modern avant-garde (and a push-pull that marks Ochs's work in ROVA as well). On What We Live's 1998 release Never Was (Black Saint), Ellis and Robinson act much more as a traditional rhythm section than you'd expect in a free-jazz trio: they don't just lock into a pulse but craft sophisticated patterns that any composer-arranger could take pride in, and which Ochs can either interact with or play against. It all makes for well-rounded and consistently luminous music, not to be missed. Friday, June 21, 10 PM, HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo; 312-362-9707.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/LisaDJ Prima/Laurence M. Svirchev/Helmut Fruhauf.