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What We Live's free jazz

By Ed Hazell

APRIL 26, 1999:  Free improvisation is not as prevalent in new jazz as it is in European new music. European musicians of the past several generations, from Derek Bailey and Peter Brötzmann to John Butcher and Georg Grawe, improvise without precondition more often than they play compositions (the formal ironies of the Dutch being the exception to this generalization). New American improvisation has its roots deep in jazz, which carries with it a heritage of improvisation on compositions, whether Tin Pan Alley standards, Duke Ellington's big-band numbers, or Anthony Braxton's analytical charts. Even Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz, an important inspiration for free improvisers on both sides of the Atlantic, used a written framework, however slight. For Americans working in new music in a jazz tradition, such as William Parker, Tim Berne, Ken Vandermark, and Joe Morris, free improvisation is an option, not a way of life.

The San Francisco-based trio What We Live, with composer-improvisers saxophonist Larry Ochs (the "O" in ROVA Saxophone Quartet), bassist Lisle Ellis, and drummer Donald Robinson, dedicate themselves to free improvisation in the American vein. And their two latest albums, Never Was (Black Saint) and Quintet for a Day (New World), show what happens when the jazz sensibility meets free improvisation. Coherently spontaneous and thoughtfully wild, these releases sound at times as if they were through-composed, yet every note is improvised. The habits of compositional structure are so ingrained in the players that even on the tabula rasa of free improv they create order and beauty rather than chaos. The rhythmic characteristics of swing and the textural qualities of the blues also inform their playing, but in the widest possible terms, not in the literal Lincoln Center way. The music has a gritty immediacy and a compelling propulsive feel even at its most abstract.

Never Was is full of details a composer might think of, but executed on the spur of the moment. Robinson's recurring snare-rim motif on "Were" helps unify the opening moments of the track before new material is introduced by Ochs; the redwood solidity of Ellis's ostinatos lend continuity to "Will Be." The trio's collective sense for orchestration is impressive. "As Is" and the title track use several different duo combinations in addition to the full trio to vary the color and texture. All three members improvise melodic or rhythm building blocks that interlock in different ways to create larger structures, and they are careful not to repeat themselves from track to track.

From the beginning, the trio intended to have regular guests join them. Their previous Black Saint album, What We Live Fo(u)r, consists of quartet tracks with tenor-saxophonist Glenn Spearman, koto player Miya Masaoka, violinist India Cook, and several others. If anything, the addition of trumpeters Dave Douglas and Wadada Leo Smith on Quintet for a Day makes the music even richer and more varied -- and, paradoxically, more tightly structured. (A Black Saint CD due this fall will also feature the trio with Smith and Douglas in separate performances.) The dialogue among the quintet is assured and their responses to one another confident. On "A Brush with the Groove" Douglas and Smith finish each other's phrases with eerie regularity and seeming ease. On "Here Today," all five contribute sections of melody that they string end to end in a sustained real-time composition full of unexpected twists and turns. "Yours and Mine" reaches a level of intuitive, spontaneous unity very few groups ever attain, with improvised arrangements of folksong-like themes and inspired soloing from Smith and Ochs.

What We Live and their guests create group music that's somehow expressive of individual will and personality. Ultimately that's how the music can transcend its formal aspects and its arcane vocabulary of sounds (though those sounds give pleasure). The "We" in the band's name refers not only to the collective identity that forges the music but to us as well; it's a conspiratorial "we" that shares the aspirations and feelings expressed by the trio.

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