This Saturday, Roddy Ellias will play very fresh music with three very long-time friends.
The music will be new – so new, in fact, that he was just beginning to write and arrange it when OttawaJazzScene.ca talked to him on Sunday. But the three prominent jazz musicians joining him at GigSpace are ones he's known for years and played with many times in many different combinations.
On stage, Ellias on guitar will be joined by Mark Ferguson on trombone and piano, Mike Tremblay on saxophones, and John Geggie on double bass. Ellias has known Geggie for about 35 years, and the others for not much less, and they've all played together hundreds of times over the years in both jazz and classical orchestras and jazz combos.
But only once before in this particular combination – about a year ago, at the official opening of the Canada Council office building.
“And it just sounded so nice. And I don't get to play enough with either horns or with those guys, so I thought it would be nice. So I'm excited about that.”
He's also excited about trying a “different kind of repertoire” than he normally plays.
“I'm aiming for a different concept. What I'm trying to do is think of it like a string quartet or even a small orchestra where rather than ... one common jazz approach is melody and harmony and somebody grabs the melody and maybe somebody harmonizes the melody with chords. I was thinking of more like each person is a separate section of a string quartet. So they'll have an independent part, so four independent parts. Sort of orchestral.”
“It's an approach that Duke Ellington took, in a way. With clarity and simplicity. So I don't know yet exactly how it's going to turn out, but that's what I'm going to go for, and we'll see what comes out of it.”
He pointed to clarinetist/saxophonist and composer Jimmy Giuffre and his ground-breaking collaborations with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow as a model: “independent chamber writing but with a real jazz feel.”
Ellias is used to taking a more classical approach to jazz. His music has crossed between chamber music (his Acts of Light CD with soprano Donna Brown) and jazz, and several of his concerts at GigSpace in the last few years with flutes and cello and other string instruments could be best termed chamber jazz. Back in the 70s and 80s, he played for a decade in a duo with Ottawa pianist Dave Hildinger, which he said was some of the first chamber jazz played in Canada.
“I've studied classical music all my life and listened to it, and my degree is actually in classical composition and in classical music.”
But he's even better known as a jazz guitarist, playing standards with guitar masters like Vic Juris and Gene Bertoncini, and as a composer. His most recent jazz trio CD, Monday's Dream, received a four-star review in Downbeat last year. In 2013, Ellias was named a Jazz Hero by the Jazz Journalists Association – the only Canadian to be recognized that year.
Saturday's concert may also include a few rearrangements – of some of Ellias' older tunes and of jazz standards.
“Ideally I'd like to have a whole repertoire of new pieces, but you have to be realistic, both in terms of being able to produce that much music before the gig, and also being able to have it rehearsed. So it's a balancing act, but we're definitely going to try some new things for sure, and new arrangements, too. And we'll probably throw a couple of standards in.”
With this group, he said, they may also stretch out more on each piece: fewer tunes and longer.
When I'm putting a band together, first of all I try to get musicians that are really good players and that I think will work together as people and as musical personalities. It's like, I guess, if you're putting together a hockey team – it's not just having all-star players, it's having good players that are compatible and have a vision that you're looking for, for the kind of music you're playing.
– Roddy Ellias
Ellias was delayed starting the compositions for Saturday's concert by end of school work (he's an associate performance teacher in Carleton University's Faculty of Music, as are the other members of the quartet), and playing in other people's projects – for example, Rob Frayne's Dream Band concert, which also included Ferguson and Tremblay.
In fact, if you mapped out all the musical connections among the four, it would look like an old-time telephone switchboard. All four are mainstays of the Ottawa jazz scene, whether as bandleaders, composers, arrangers, jazz camp artistic directors, and educators. On the classical side, all of them have performed with the National Arts Centre Orchestra in its Pops series.
Ellias met John Geggie in the late 70s/early 80s, when Geggie was a student in a course on jazz improvisation taught by Hildinger and Ellias. “We became friends and we were even roommates for a short while. And then we played together in various projects, with Dave Hildinger, with Rob Frayne, and with Chelsea Bridge. We've been playing together since that time.”
Mark Ferguson and Ellias were students at the University of Ottawa at the same time, and “we've been playing more and more together over the last few years and really enjoying it.” Mike Tremblay he knew about for many years, but they started playing together as part of the Carleton University Jazz Camp, which Tremblay directs. “We haven't played much together, but every time I've played with him, it's been great! He's a terrific player, and he's a great teacher, too. I've had students that he's taught.”
Each of them is “inspiring in different ways. They're all strong players, and listen, and clear players, and they're impeccable musicians.”
“When I'm putting a band together, first of all I try to get musicians that are really good players and that I think will work together as people and as musical personalities. It's like, I guess, if you're putting together a hockey team – it's not just having all-star players, it's having good players that are compatible and have a vision that you're looking for, for the kind of music you're playing.”
Once this show is over, Ellias will resume preparing for a cross-Canada tour of major jazz festivals, starting with a dip into the U.S. at the Rochester Jazz Festival on June 24, and continuing until July 9. He'll be playing with his trio – with bassist Adrian Vedady, and drummer Thom Gossage – and promoting Monday's Dream.
And (no surprise) “I'll write some new stuff as well.”
– Alayne McGregor
Read other OttawaJazzScene.ca stories about Roddy Ellias: