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What We Live: Never Was

Robert Spencer By

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What We Live, a trio consisting of Larry Ochs (tenor and sopranino saxophones), Lisle Ellis (bass), and Don Robinson (drums), creates a series of reflective soundscapes on Never Was. Ochs, a titan of the Bay Area music scene and one of the mainstays of the innovative and breathtakingly virtuosic Rova saxophone quartet, is a versatile tenor man with a terrific, blues-inflected grainy tone. By virtue of the hierarchy of expectations his seems at first hearing to be the lead voice. This trio, however, is made up of three masters of the idioms of improvised music; they know how to work with one another in ways far broader than the usual lead/rhythm setup. As often as Ochs sets the tone of a piece or a motif (for these pieces often vary considerably in mood and tempo from start to finish), he reacts to or interacts with Ellis' hornlike bass bowing or Robinson's highly coloristic percussion accents.

Occasionally there is a steady beat, but often there isn't, and the sound and time expands - apparently into infinity, giving these pieces a spread-out, unhurried, even un-timebound feel. Sometimes Robinson sets up a steady pulse for part of a piece and even moves in and out of it several times in the course of the track. "will be" drives along with great intensity of purpose, and "nothing infinite" lopes around the edges of a walking blues without ever falling in. "never was," on the other hand, crackles at the electric edge between sound and silence with the understated fury of Ochs' and Ellis' interaction, with Robinson.

Ochs employs the full possibilities of his horn, from relatively conventional lines to great multiphonic wails and upper-upper register cries. His architectonic skill is clear from all these tracks, with the longer "as is" and "strength in numbers" giving him ample room and opportunity to roam. Step by step Ellis and Robinson underscore or contrast his lines, always finding striking ways to create and resolve tension.

This is improvised music of the highest order.


Title: Never Was | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: Black Saint


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