What We Live | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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.

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