WHAT WE LIVE

Especially the Traveller Tomorrow
Metalanguage MLX 2002

Always be suspicious of reviews that tell you that one track on a release is worth the price of the disc. It can’t be, or you’d be paying for a collection of second-rate music as well as that one track. However, frequently, one track on an otherwise highly competent CD stands out among the others. So it is with the nearly 33-minute title track on this disc by What We Live.

By itself, the tune shows how three veteran improvisers, familiar with one anothers’ capabilities after working together for almost a decade, can reach the heights of interactive excellence when conditions are right. Obviously they were during this session, recorded during a French tour by the San Francisco-based group in 2000.

Starting with a musette-like multiphonic wail from Larry Ochs sopranino saxophone, the roiling tune develops as drummer Donald Robinson shows off his skill solving variegated percussion puzzles and bassist Lisle Ellis exhibits an unvarying, glue-like pulse that holds the improvisations together. Using unexpected harmonies and overtones, throughout, Ochs, best known for his membership in the ROVA saxophone quartet, varies his output from a straightahead Trane-like altered tone on tenor sax to snake-charmer sonority on the smaller horn. Robinson, a long-time associate of the late California saxophonist Glenn Spearman, uses his hi-hat, bass drum and a steady rat tat tat on the snare to make his points, but does so subtly enough that he doesn’t interrupt the flow of the composition. The drummer carefully weighs each beat as he decides whether to decorate the proceedings with rim shots or a bass drum fusillade. Vancouver-native Ellis, whose playing partners have included fellow Canadian, pianist Paul Plimley, multi-reedist Joe McPhee and pianist Cecil Taylor, sticks to the role of vibrant accompaniment.

Sporting a harsh tone on tenor that sometimes recalls Sonny Rollins’ during his most adventurous trio outings, Ochs smears tones and sucks out quirky harmonies and substitutions, sometimes climbing up to mountain top heights or pumping out constant low tones. There are even times that he’s able to use circular breathing to play one note then answer it himself, a call-and-response pattern he’s likely familiar with from ROVA.

Although the three proceeding tunes in this nearly 75-minute disc are expansive enough at almost 8½, 16½ and more than 17 minutes, they’re a bit laid back — to use a 1960s expression — compared to the title track. Ellis, especially, seems inhibited, confining himself in the main to standard, walking accompaniment, except for a small portion of “As Yet Unknown”, where a detour into the top portion of his bull fiddle suggests a viola or perhaps string samples. Surprisingly lyrical elsewhere, Ochs has a section on “Spelled Backwards”, where he seems to be aurally examining notes under a jeweler’s eyepiece, holding each up to the light and turning it every which way to reveal its facets. Elsewhere, he tries some double-timing and overblowing, but calmly, as if he’s running the changes to keep momentum going. Robinson certainly provides that drive, whether it’s with gentle brush strokes on the snares or pounding a woodblock to produce a Spanish tinge.

What We Live was first formed by Ellis after he began working with the other two musicians in Spearman’s double trio, which dissolved after the tenorman’s death in 1998. Since that time, in between their other commitments — Ochs, especially, has been occupied working in bassist John Lindberg’s group, and in one with guitarist Fred Frith and koto-player Miya Masaoka — the band has toured and put out five other CDs. However since three featured such guests as trumpeter Dave Douglas, Spearman and Masaoka, this is the band’s first real trio session since 1998.

Released on Ochs’ own newly revived, Berkeley, Calif., Metalanguage label, which has been inactive since the mid-1980s, it may not be that easy to find. But it’s definitely something worth seeking out.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. As Yet Unknown 2. Spelled Backwards 3. Xanic Rides 4. Especially the Traveller Tomorrow

Personnel: Larry Ochs (sopranino and tenor saxophones); Lisle Ellis (bass); Donald Robinson (drums)