Sucker Punch Requiem
An Homage to Jean-Michel Basquiat
- Lisle Ellis, bass, electronics, sound design
- Pamela Z, voice and electronics
- Holly Hofmann, flutes
- Oliver Lake, saxophones
- George Lewis, trombone
- Mike Wofford, piano
- Susie Ibarra, drums and percussion
Jimmy Best on his back to the sucker punch of his childhood files was a graffiti tag that was not hard to miss if you spent any time wandering the streets of lower Manhattan in the late 1970's. This quote refers to the systematic destruction of the lives of young men of color by racist policies of justice and imprisonment. The cryptic tag's author was SAMO, aka Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was to take a step beyond enigmatic inner city wall poetry to smote the contemporary art world with a mighty knockout punch.
During my student days of that same time in New York the graffiti of SAMO was of little consequence to me. I was pursuing my music studies yet I also felt a strong connection to visual art; I always carried a book or pad with me for drawing and writing, but it would not be until twenty years later that I would begin to explore my own aspirations as painter.
By the late 1990's I was feeling the tug of painting like an irresistible gravity and it was an important turning point. I did something that would have been inconceivable to me at any other time, I took up painting almost to the total exclusion of music. As it turned out, my painting activity led me back to music and to something new: electronic music.
Through out this phase of painting and electronic exploration I had with me a constant companion: the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat. I found we shared certain artistic sensibilities such as recognizing that the vision to break new ground was a result, and a continuation, of the work of others who had come before. That, along with a distinct sociopolitical attitude, was the synthesis I had always searched for in art. JMB's fearless pursuit of his ideals was a true source of inspiration.
Conceived as a gesture of respect and gratitude to JMB I began composing the Sucker Punch Requiem shortly after relocating to New York from California in 2005 and completed it eighteen months later. Much like JMB may have begun a painting by perusing a favorite source such as Gray's Anatomy, I started by researching the requiem form historically and discovered a number of variations used by composers throughout history. However, in the interest of having the simplest possible structure as a starting point, I settled on the traditional six part "mass for the dead" of the Roman Catholic Church. I wrote themes for each of the parts and then began to do what I felt Basquiat would have done if he had been constructing and deconstructing a painting. I densely overwrote some parts (so much so that we did not get it all recorded) in a manner similar to how he would paint, layering layer upon layer. Then, still following his example, I removed some layers to expose sonic images and overlapping musical shapes . . . inventing, discarding, retrieving, copying and reusing musical gestures and ideas.
I only hope that Sucker Punch Requiem, unrecognizable from its earliest incarnation, captures the spirit of Basquiat.
Perhaps, you the listener will find that quality in this music that Basquiat was purported to say existed in his own music and painting, that it was at once "incomplete, abrasive and yet oddly beautiful."
Lisle Ellis is a multifaceted creator whose work reflects his interests in music, visual art, computers/technology, and community. As a composer and improvisor-bassist his oeuvre spans three decades and two countries and has brought him international recognition as an artist with an exceptional vision. Ellis's distinct instrumental voice has been heard in concerts in the company of legends of the avant-garde such as Paul Bley, Peter Broetzmann, Andrew Cyrille, and Joe Mcphee, and on more than 40 recordings for international labels such as Black Saint, DIW, and Hat Art, and New World. Currently, Ellis's principal interest is in developing an electro-acoustic architecture he calls string-circuitry confluence; he continues projects with his long standing trio with Larry Ochs and Donald Robinson, What We Live,; Di Terra, an Italian based trio with Alberto Braida and Fabrizio Spera; and duos with pianists Paul Plimley and Mike Wofford.
Pamela Z is a composer/performer who makes solo works combining a wide range of vocal techniques with electronic processing, sampled sounds, and The BodySynthª gesture controller. She has also composed scores for dance, film, and new music chamber ensembles. Her audio works have been presented in exhibitions at the Whitney in NY and the Dišzesanmueum in Cologne. She has toured throughout the US, Europe, and Japan in concerts and festivals including Bang on a Can, the Japan Interlink Festival, Other Minds, and the Venice Biennale. Her numerous awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Creative Capital Fund, the CalArts Alpert Award, the ASCAP Award, and the NEA/JUSFC Fellowship.
Holly Hofmann "One of the most accomplished jazz flutists in the U.S., she has single-handedly destroyed the stereotype of the delicate female flutist, thanks to her muscular attack and improvisational abandon." (L.A. Times) Since receiving two degrees in music from Cleveland Institute of Music and University of Northern Colorado, Holly now makes her home in San Diego, California where she is the Music Director for several series and festivals. She has gained international notice for her work in jazz with the likes of Ray Brown, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, and Mike Wofford to name a few. She has eleven critically acclaimed recordings as a leader and currently tours with her quartet and quintet with string orchestra.
Oliver Lake is a renaissance man who paints, composes and performs and views it all as parts of the same whole. Lake attributes much of his diverse array of musical styles to his experience with the Black Artists Group (BAG), the legendary St. Louis collective he co-founded over 35 years ago. He also cofounded the World Saxophone Quartet with Hemphill, Hamiet Bluiett and David Murray in 1977. A recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship. Other commissions received include Library of Congress, the Rockefeller Foundation ASCAP, the Int. Assoc. for Jazz Education, McKim Foundation, Mary Flagler Cary Trust and the Lila Wallace Arts Partners Program.
George E. Lewis, improvisor-trombonist, composer and computer/installation artist, is the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University. The recipient of a MacArthur "genius" Fellowship in 2002, a Cal Arts/Alpert Award in the Arts in 1999, and numerous fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Lewis studied composition with Muhal Richard Abrams at the AACM School of Music, and trombone with Dean Hey. He has explored electronic and computer music, computer-based multimedia installations, text-sound works, and notated forms. A member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) since 1971, Lewis's work as composer, improvisor, performer and interpreter is documented on more than 120 recordings.
Mike Wofford "A jazz pianist who makes equal use of brain, heart and muscle." (JazzTimes) He has a long list of associations with such widely diverse artists as Harry "Sweets" Edison, Zoot Sims, Charlie Haden, Shelly Manne, Benny Golson, Vinnie Golia and George Lewis. Wofford is also known for his creative work as pianist and Music Director for the late Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald and for his composing and arranging for many years in Los Angeles. Now residing in San Diego, he primarily records and performs with his own trio, as well as in a duo and quartet with his wife, flutist Holly Hofmann.
Susie Ibarra, percussionist, improviser and composer, Ibarra performs both as a soloist and a collaborator. One of her passionate interests is the folkloric and indigenous music of the Philippines which influences her contemporary work. Several recent composition and performances include "Pintados Dream/The Painted's Dream" music for orchestra and drums commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra, "Drum Sketches," "These Trees That Speak" commissioned for Ethos Percussion, "Dancesteps" for solo piano, "Black and White" solo violin and field recordings, "Dream Etudes" music for Susie Ibarra Trio, and "Paradiso" music for Electric Kulintang. She received her music diploma from Mannes College of Music, B.A. from Goddard College, and has studied drumset with Milford Graves, Vernel Fournier and Buster Smith and Philippine Kulintang with Danongan Kalanduyan.
An utterly brilliant conceptual piece that mixes notated materials, electronic post-manipulations and improvisation to realize an expression of a fractured requiem to Jean-Michel Basquiat. The final sound owes much to Ellis' explorations as a painter as a mixed media offering that fills its hour-long canvas with brilliant colors and fresh sonic turns. The line between live realization of the written source material, free improvisation and aggressive electronic manipulation blurs along an exquisite frame of clear, artistic focus. Highly recommended.
- Devin Hurd, Hurd Audio
Non esiste coerenza nel sound-design di Lisle Ellis.
"Sucker Punch Requiem" pressa in un format varie estetiche dell'emisfero nu-contemporanea: fermezze avant-jazz, assennati sballottamenti elettro-beat, loop molestati dai fiati e da vocalizzi oltremodo destrutturati (di routine per signorine-nichiliste quali Pamela Z), organismi acustici rianimati da parentesi minimal-ambient. Dj Spooky pacificato in riunione con la crm de la crm dei cosiddetti downtown cats, Matthew Ship e Guillermo E. Brown. In un flash, l'imprinting delle produzioni Thirsty Ear e Nu Bop, tirato come un boomerang, che torna sempre (utile?) nelle impalcature di Zio Lisle: interprete maturo della new-music - e guarda come piccolo il mondo - co-firmatario nel 2005, insieme a due purosangue di casa nostra, Alberto Braida e Fabrizio Spera, di una raccolta di improvvisazioni, "Di Terra", proposta proprio dall'etichetta di Varese (la menzionata N.B.).
Ai giorni nostri, Ellis rientra nel tram-tram della Grande Mela dopo un riposino intellettuale nella Bay-Area costato, appunto, un paio di calendari; spicchio di tempo dove il fare-musica, posto in sordina, 'staccato in corsa' dallo studio (sebbene timoroso e non accademico) su tendenze-di-forma pittoriche, ovviamente confacenti all'era post-moderna. Librando l'intelletto tra le cavitˆ colorate della pop-art e del graffitismo militante, il laboratorio cerebrale del nostro riconverge sulla composizione, rendendo viva una recita con le note esibite e gettate come colore, ispirandosi palesemente all'azione pittorica come arrampicata strutturale. Improvvisazione o jazz-tronica, swing o colta che sia, "Sucker Punch Requiem" concepito come se a dirigere vi fosse la mente, l'ansia, la liberazione e la decisione di un pittore, e non quella di un classico sarto dei suoni.
L'atmosfera da sottobosco metropolitano di scena parallelamente nella selezione dei compagni di ventura: la cantante Pamela Z (esperta in auto distorsione alla voce e importata direttamente dai viaggi californiani), Holly Hoffman (flautista tra il classico e Dolphy, forse l'unica a provenire dai 'quartieri alti' dello swing), Oliver Lake (occupato ininterrottamente dal sax con digressioni free o notturne), George E. Lewis (al trombone e memorabile nella dominazione ritmica di For Blues And Other Spells), Mike Wofford (pianista arioso, propenso ad adattarsi ovunque: in situazioni rischiose quanto nelle pi tradizionali), Susie Ibarra (improviser di nicchia alle pelli).
Il deus ex machina, al fianco del familiare contrabbasso, sperimenta il lato elettronico del proprio umore, scrivendo una serie distaccata e specifica di 'corti'. I diversi Perishable FigÉ, di fatti, sono una melma costituita da samples strumentali e gettate di noise 'n' beat autoctono.
Tutto l'ambaradan costantemente accerchiato dal ricordo di Jean-Michel Basquiat, al quale Ellis in segno di pura e semplice fratellanza dedica in partenza tutto il cd.
- Sergio Eletto, Recensioni
La ricerca dell´espressione artistica nel contrabbassista Lisle Ellis (su questo CD anche agli effetti elettronici)) è passata di recente attraverso la pittura, ed è così che spunta fuoti un omaggio, musicale, beninteso, a Jean-Michel Basquiat, artista figurativo travolto dalle droghe e da quello che girava intorno alla vita degli artisti per portarli ad un magggiore grado di conoscenza presso il pubblico. Il recente (ri)trasferimento di Ellis dalla California a New York, gli ha permesso di riprendere contatti con artisti da lui conociuti molto tempo prima e di mettere insieme un gruppo in grado di seguirne le molteplici idee. Le sue composizioni sono state costruite utilizzando tecniche prese a prestito dall´arte figurativa, puzzle ad esempio, nuclei intorno a cui addensare l´immagine, stratificazioni che vengono aggiunte o levate.
Il progetto segue una via complessa, con brani tagliati ed incollati, vicende elettroniche e sviluppi acustici, dialoghi serrati fra musicisti che provengono da situazioni diverse, dall´avanguardia al mainstream, riuniti in formazioni diverse e con brani che a loro volta compongono un´opera dalle sfaccettature cangianti, in cui l´intenso sassofono contralto di Oliver Lake si dà il cambio con gli effetti elettronici di Pamela Z, chiamata pure a recitare. Gli altri protagonisti sono la flautista Holly Hoffmann, George Lewis al trombone, Mike Woodford al pianoforte e la batterista Susie Ibarra.
Ellis agisce come strumentista - fra l´altro, sarebbe il caso di dire. È anche compositore, leader, organizzatore e produttore. Tanti compiti da lui svolti nel modo migliore. Il disco mostra ben sedici brani, in cui si affrontano situazioni diverse e che focalizzano l´attenzione su musicisti che svolgono il loro lavoro nel modo migliore. Ci sono sistuazioni più ortodosse, come "Las Pulgas", che fanno pensare ad un mainstream di tipo moderno, ma pure brani come "Summonings" o i "Perishable", in cui è l´elettronica a prevalere. Si evitano i confini fra i generi, si abbattono steccati fra acustico ed elettronico, richiedendo all´ascoltatore un pò di attenzione. Alla fine tutto funziona alla perfezione, specie nella sequela dei brani, che danno l´idea di un´opera compatta, riuscita bene attraverso i passaggi che vanno dall´ideazione alla messa in opera alla pubblicazione (scegliendo fra il tanto materiale inciso!).
- Cosimo Parisi, Musicboom
Lisle Ellis a composé une suite somptueuse en hommage à Jean Michel Basquiat. Il s’en explique dans les notes de pochette : « à la fin des années 90 je me suis senti irrésistiblement attiré par la peinture. Ç’a été un tournant très important. J’ai fait là quelque chose qui aurait été inconcevable pour moi à tout autre moment. Je me suis mis à peindre, jusqu’à en exclure presque totalement la musique de ma vie. En fait, peindre m’a reconduit à la musique avec quelque chose de nouveau, la musique électronique. Pour traverser cette phase de peinture et d’exploration de l’électronique j’avais constamment avec moi le travail de Jean-Michel Basquiat. Il me semblait que nous partagions certaines sensibilités artistiques, comme le fait de reconnaître que la vision qui permet de conquérir de nouvelles terres est la continuation des travaux de ceux qui sont venus avant » (les textes de pochette en anglais, des biographies et de nombreux liens sont disponibles sur le site du label)
La prise de son est d’un équilibre remarquable. Summonings ouvre le disque entre musique contemporaine et dance floor. A un combo de jazz, soit dr/cb/p plus fl/sax/tb, Ellis ajoute l’électronique, les sons naturels et la voix savante ; en s’adjoignant Lake, Lewis et Ibarra il s’assure le concours de musiciens au spectre large et ce qu’il leur donne à jouer les stimule audiblement. L’improvisation est sollicitée d’une manière méditative, pour renforcer le caractère des morceaux. C’est l’œuvre d’un artiste plein d’expérience retourné à un moment de son existence par une expérience esthétique et éthique assez forte pour lui donner l’enthousiasme d’une nouvelle création. Lisle Ellis nous promène dans la beauté avec une musique toute de précision sans raideur, un rêve.
- Noel Tachet, Improjazz France
Canadian born bassist and Renaissance man, Lisle Ellis opens a new chapter in his development with Sucker Punch Requiem. A tribute to the revered painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ellis' all-star septet offers a diverse program of musical ideas that mirrors Basquiat's idiosyncratic vision.
With ties across Canada, New York City and the Bay Area, Ellis has been a highly valued collaborator for almost three decades. A brief hiatus from performing in the late 1990s found him channeling his creative energies into painting and electronic composition. After spending the majority of his professional career in California, Ellis relocated to New York City in 2005, when he began composing a requiem for Basquiat as a "gesture of respect and gratitude."
Using the Roman Catholic Church's six part mass for the dead as a guide, Ellis staggers recurrent motifs and concise transitory themes with multi-sectional compositions. Alternating between melancholy impressionism and bittersweet euphony, the suite encompasses a range of emotions. By shifting instrumental emphasis between brief electronic sketches and heavily arranged acoustic tunes, he exposes layers beneath the surface of the overall work.
Pianist Mike Wofford and flutist Holly Hoffman provide a neo-classical patina, lending gravitas and austerity to Ellis' contemplative chamber pieces. They add genteel lyricism to lilting swingers like "Suicide Study," featuring a rare bass solo from the magnanimous leader. Drummer Susie Ibarra supplies subtle shadings and an undulating pulse, while Pamela Z injects occasional samples and processed vocals on electronic fanfares like "Summonings" and "Incantation and Ascent."
Legends of the Loft Jazz era, saxophonist Oliver Lake and trombonist George Lewis supply the album's most heated exchanges. The episodic, suite-like "For Blues and Other Spells" and dramatically expansive "Untitled (Life Stilled)," find the duo embroiled in turbulent discourse, their interplay fearsome and uncompromising.
A diverse stylist, Lake pairs well with Hoffman, offering plaintive keening and thorny spirals on the boppish "Las Pulgas" in solidarity with her pithy interjections. With his plangent alto, Lake's presence transforms the electronic "Incantation and Ascent" into an acoustic lament, his incisive commentary on the turbulent "Bas Relief" providing drive and focus.
Boasting fluid ensemble interplay, dramatic stylistic shifts and rich harmonic writing, Sucker Punch Requiem blends forward thinking experimentation with old school craft, resulting in one of Ellis' most accessible and rewarding albums.
- Troy Collins, All About Jazz
LISLE ELLIS - Sucker Punch Requiem: An Homage To Jean-Michel Basquiat (Henceforth 104; USA) Featuring Oliver Lake on saxes, George Lewis on trombone, Pamela Z on voice & electronics, Holly Hofmann on flutes, Mike Wofford on piano, Lisle Ellis on bass & electronics and Susie Ibarra on drums & percussion. If you haven't already read the lengthy interview with the great bassist, Lisle Ellis, in the current January -March edition of Cadence magazine, you really should, it is quite fascinating and filled with many insights into the mind and history of our of finest bassists and composers. I've known Lisle for some 20+ years, since hearing him with Paul Plimley up at an early Victo fest. The interview really filled in much of mystery/history of this enigmatic artist.
'Sucker Punch Requiem' is a most fascinating work. It is an homage to the late, great downtown "street" artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Lisle has been working with a unique electronics set-up over the past few years and live, he often seems to struggling to get it work right. On this disc, Lisle has had time to work at length with his electronics and manipulations and the results often stunning. Each of the 16 pieces is relatively short and quite focused. Each piece is like a painting with attention to each detail on the canvas. "Incantation and Ascent" sounds as if it is from a scene in a film noir flick with Oliver Lake's lonely sax cry drifting in perfectly near the end. Straight ahead pianist Mike Wofford seemed like an odd choice at first but he fits perfectly by playing these often haunting, sublime, oblique notes throughout. Lisle has chosen each of these musicians for their ability to see or hear above those genres that critics or marketing knuckleheads too often limit musicians to. Hence this music is an interesting hybrid of different interconnected styles, yet remains seamlessly interwoven with different ideas and scenery. Lisle has also composed a number of fine, contemplative melodies here, that add a special charm to much of the proceedings. "Sucker Punch Requiem" is a wonderful endeavor overall and not very "out." This might come as a surprise to some who expect more outside sounds from Lisle based on his previous recordings. Forget those expectations and enjoy this special gift.
- Bruce Gallanter, Downtown Music Gallery
One of the advantages of the &etc slowdown is spending more time getting to know albums - less need for a quick turn around. Especially if the album suffers from first-track selection issues. It must be hard to pick the opener, and can be an issue - the Breketc album took a while to get past the two long improvs, and I remember when I went to hear PiL's Second Edition at the local record store they started with the second track as Albatross was thought to be not representative (Poptones on that album still gives me shivers, as does The Jam's Down in the tube station at midnight). Anyway, on to this release.
Created by Lisle Ellis, Sucker Punch Requiem (Henceforth 104) is 'An homage to Jean-Michael Basquiat' based around a group on voice/electronics, flutes, sax, trombone, piano, bass/electronics and drums/percussion. Planned by Lisle over an extended period, 2 days of recording, then editing/constructing finalising. Which brings us to the getting into. The first track is Summonings: this is a 3:40 minute musique concrete construction that reminded me of Wall or Doyle: voice, percussion and some of the instruments in a cut&paste collage calling on SAMO (a Basquiat tag). This continues in the opening of Incantation and ascent - bubbling electronica and manipulation. I listened a few times but wasn't in the mood for abstract expressionist music and so it sort of laid around, occasionally sampled when some other sides seemed to be striving for a hearing.
And then, during a full listening, I realised that there were two aspects to the album. A smaller part is the constructed stream, from the opening it appears in a number of 'interludes' - shorter pieces which are titled Perishable fig. 1a to 3. These create interesting contrasts to the longer parts, and carry the themes of the opening.
Most of the album, however, is more straightforward jazz from the group. In Incantation... a gentle piano comes in, modern romantic, sax and brush percussion and some electronica as background - all quite stately. Some of the shorter tracks feature sub-groups - X-ray gray has piano over a bed of bowed bass, Bas Relief bright piano/sax/percussion. When the whole group gets together for most of the other tracks there is a nice swing and groove to their playing, solos scattered throughout, shifting between subtle understatement, playfullness and some edgy improvs. The three tracks Colour bind (oracle)/Suicide study/colour bind (oracle) has the wind playing chordal progressions (which reminds me of Zappa I think) then the piano enters with bass and sax as the flute trills sliding into a flute/piano duet on the second track until a piano/bass/percussion trio takes the running and then returning to the chords for a running jumping group tilt at the oracle.
To conclude the album, Perishable Fig.3 invokes madness before Untitled (life stilled) is a gentle reflective group-based finale with haunting vocals. This album eventually unfolded its strengths to me - the balance between strong group pieces and the concrete elements eventually works once you get into the album. For some people there may be too much dissonance between the two components as the bulk of the album is accessible and fresh from an obviously talented ensemble. However, that accessibility should allow people to enjoy all aspects of this satisfying and complex work.
- Jeremy, Ampersand Etcetera
As you may have noticed, I am not a fan of vocal jazz (with some exceptions), and frankly speaking I am not too often impressed by flute-playing in a jazz environment (I just don't like the sound of it), nor am I too much in favor of post-editing, mixing and electronics. But then you get this album : with Pamela Z on vocals and electronics and Holly Hofmann on flutes. You put it on out of curiosity, and what you get is a different musical world than the one you know. Add Oliver Lake on sax, George Lewis on trombone, Mike Wofford on piano, Lisle Ellis on bass and electronics and Susie Ibarra on drums and percussion. Also, forget your knowledge of Lisle Ellis's former CDs with the likes of Joe McPhee, Marco Eneidi or Larry Ochs. Ellis manages to create his own musical world here, based on the example of - and in homage to - graffitti poet and painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. The title from the album goes back to one of Basquiat's graffitti lines "Jimmy Best on his back to the sucker punch of his childhood files". Ellis describes in the liner notes how he uses Basquiat's painting technique to create the music : to use the simplest possible structure as a starting point, namely the traditional six part Mass Of The Dead of the Roman Catholic Church, then start making layers and layers of music over the theme, much like paint on a canvas, and then start removing parts of layers to uncover what lays below "to expose sonic images and overlapping musical shapes". When you read that, you may also think of the worst kind of hermetically closed avant-garde music. But again that's not what you get. The album consists of 16 tracks of relatively accessible musical explorations, with the electronics in a functional and serving role, and with relatively sparse instrumentation. The compositions are abstract, but full of emotions. The Roman Catholic Church may have offered the structure, but that's about all. The themes are jazz, and so are the rhythms. Some tracks are outright mainstream, such as the long "Suicide Study", with great walking bass, gentle piano playing and subtle drumming. Other tracks (luckily the shorter ones, all called "Perishables") use electronics and some hard to identify distorted instruments. The overall effect is excellent. It is bizarre at times, but always recognizable, in a way that you can relate to what is being played, while you can still be surprised at how it's brought. And the musicianship is truly great, with special mention for Lake and Ibarra : every note Lake plays is full of emotion, and with a broad range, Ibarra's drumming is very creative and unexpected at times, but always full of ideas and effect. It will not be to everyone's taste because of its novel approach and abstract, sometimes cerebral compositions, but its emotional value will become clearer with each listen.
- stef, Free Jazz
Street fightin' man
Lisle Ellis - composer, improviser, artistic provocateur - lands a 'Sucker Punch'
April 24, 2008
Former San Diego bassist Lisle Ellis has collaborated with such genre-shredding musical visionaries as Cecil Taylor, John Zorn and Dave Douglas. His own work fuses laptop-generated, experimental electronic music with acoustic instrumentation and a variety of jazz styles, from post-bop to cutting edge and various points in between.
The provocative results, as demonstrated on Ellis' new album, "Sucker Punch Requiem," are both challenging and rewarding. Subtitled "An Homage to Jean-Michel Basquiat," in honor of the late New York painter, it is the latest release on Henceforth Records, the enterprising indie label founded by former Spruce Street Forum honcho Bonnie Wright.
Coincidentally, the now-defunct Spruce Street Forum also served as an art gallery that once hosted a show of Ellis' own paintings. His sensitivity to the visual, as well as musical, realms makes him ideally suited to salute Basquiat's graffiti-inspired paintings. His music on this album dances between - and around - form and abstraction, tradition and confrontation, clarity and distortion.
Ellis doesn't take a solo until the seventh of the 16 selections on the 63-minute-long "Sucker Punch Requiem," which he has loosely structured using the Roman Catholic Church's traditional six-part Requiem Mass for the Dead as a musical foundation. But his presence is felt throughout, thanks to his strength as a composer, improviser and artistic provocateur.
He employs recurring motifs to provide flow and cohesion, yet allows those themes to change shape so that they are fluid aural signifiers, not rigid signposts. He also benefits greatly from the muy simpatico performances of an all-star musical cast that gives "Sucker Punch Requiem" much of its force and finesse.
The esteemed lineup includes San Diego's Holly Hofmann and Mike Wofford on flute and piano, respectively, along with trombone great (and former UCSD professor) George Lewis. Also featured are saxophonist Oliver Lake, drummer Susie Ibarra and voice and electronics maverick Pamela Z.
Together with Ellis, they create a series of musical portraits that invite contemplative listening, be it on the suite-like "For Blues and Other Spells," or the otherworldly elegy "Incantation and Ascent." Equally notable is the exquisite balladry of "Suicide Study," a stunning showcase for both Hofmann and Wofford, but no less so for Ellis, whose gently propulsive bass lines are felt as much as heard.
- George Varga, San Diego Union-Tribune
Painter, graffitist and collagist Jean-Michel Basquiat was an unmistakable force in New York during the late '70s and into the '80s, certainly the latter decade's first American art stars and one of the art world's first black stars. Initially known by his tag SAMO (referencing both Sambo and "Same Old..."), he was championed by Warhol for his use of street language and vernacular elements in a proliferation of large, abstract paintings. He was also guitarist in the no wave band Gray and a cast member in the projects of Fab Five Freddy and Glenn O'Brien. Despite Basquiat's frequent references to jazz, bassist/composer/painter Lisle Ellis is the first in the jazz world to create an album-length homage to the painter's life and work.
Joining Ellis are saxophonist Oliver Lake, trombonist George Lewis, drummer Susie Ibarra, pianist Mike Wofford, vocalist Pamela Z, and flutist Holly Hoffman. The suite is divided into sixteen parts ranging from jazzical tone poems to electronic splatter and bookended by two vocal pieces. The set is naturally programmatic and almost filmic or theatricalÑsome of it is incredibly dense and other parts are quite sparse. The point of the project is as a springboard, something to be revisited time and again as Ellis solidifies the relationship between the painter's immense oeuvre and his own work. Basquiat's art is best seen in an installation of a number of pieces Ñ they are feisty and often compete with one another, but when done well, the effect is of a landscape more solemn and wistful than jagged words and images might belie.
Ellis' suite is atmospheric even at its most jaunty, the rhythm section keeping a distant flow as Lake's tart liquidity scrapes and scumbles phrases. Arranged sections have a quality of "popping out," much as a knife-wielding stick figure on a canvas. Alternately, the electronic and vocal pieces are slathered on, gestural but not particularly colorfulÑsignifiers of action rather than content. Strangely, text is not obviously integrated into the proceedings, though it might be because the vocal sections are almost overpowering and not entirely convincing. Obviously Basquiat's work has made a huge impact on Lisle Ellis, and it will be interesting to see how he tackles and integrates this subject into future projects.
- Clifford Allen, All About Jazz