Lisle Ellis Pro/File: Bass and Circuitry

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Lisle Ellis
Photo: Bonnie Wright

New York City has always been a hotbed of experimentation, especially when it comes to avant-garde jazz. For bassist Lisle Ellis, who has worked with certified heavyweights (Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley) and contemporary rebels (John Zorn, Peter Brötzmann), the legacy of the city's arts and music scenes has been a near-constant source of inspiration going back to the late '70s, when he lived in the city and studied at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock.

Ellis recently relocated to New York after spending more than two decades in Canada and California. During that time, he co-founded two key collectives and released a string of studio albums.

Toward the end of the '90s, Ellis turned almost exclusively to painting, which, in an unexpected way, ended up pushing him in a new musical direction. “With visual art, because you work alone, you tend to have music in your environment, so I started listening to electronic music on the radio late at night,” he says. “I got so excited by it that I just decided, ‘Well, I've got to learn how to do that.'”

As Ellis incorporated electronic influences into his music, his playing setup evolved into what he now refers to as “bass and circuitry.” His current rig features an Eminence upright bass outfitted with dual pickups: a magnetic String Charger, which feeds a laptop running Ableton Live and Native Instruments Reaktor, and, at times, Kenaxis software; and a piezo that comes standard with the Eminence. The piezo unit “has the [more] natural bass sound,” he says, “which goes directly into the mains.”

Last year's Sucker Punch Requiem (Henceforth, 2008), conceived as an homage to painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, demonstrated his hybrid approach. Tracked with a seasoned ensemble featuring Oliver Lake (sax), Holly Hofmann (flutes), George Lewis (trombone), Mike Wofford (piano), Susie Ibarra (drums), and Pamela Z (voice/electronics), the album captured the immediacy of acoustic jazz, but with electronic overtones.

The album was largely edited in Digidesign Pro Tools, but the most overtly processed moments occurred in the track “Summonings” and in the three “Perishables,” which Ellis put together in Ableton Live. At times, the musicians seem to mimic electronic sounds acoustically, with Ellis acting as the conduit. (He also supplemented the atmospherics with synth pads built with Native Instruments Absynth and Korg's Wavestation plug-in.)

“For me, bass playing is a very tactile experience,” he explains, “so I needed to find that with electronic music — something visceral, something I could touch. And then I thought about how pushing a fader relates to how much I love pulling on a string. It's not just about being able to write code and program. You can engage hardware, and that was an epiphany for me.”

Ellis continues to explore his bass-and-circuitry paradigm in new contexts; he's working on a recording with his trio Audible Means, and has also been collaborating with Matmos and Baltimore-based Jason Willet. “I've been fortunate enough to work with some amazing, creative people,” Ellis says. “And a lot of these connections I'm talking about — whether it's to Basquiat or to bass playing through string circuitry — it's all flowing in some direction. I guess I started it with my artistic life. Where it's going, I don't really know, but I'm very excited by it.”

Home base: New York City

Go-to software: Ableton Live, Native Instruments Reaktor

Soft synths of choice: Korg Wavestation, Native Instruments Absynth