"The melody is what's going to keep you on track. Not counting bars, not visualizing chord symbols, but hearing the melody. You can't go wrong: if you always know where the melody is, you'll always know where you are."
– Roddy Ellias, speaking to students at a workshop at the Carleton University Jazz Camp, Friday, August 12, 2011
The melody: that's a commitment that both guitarist Roddy Ellias and pianist Brian Browne share in their music. And that's what Ellias says they will be emphasizing when they perform, together with Montreal bassist Michel Donato, this Saturday evening at Café Paradiso.
They will play standards: "Just some nice standards. A few unusual ones, and some regular ones. We figure it really doesn't matter what we play, it's how you play it."
All three musicians share a similar attitude to music. With Browne, Ellias said, "when it comes to playing standards, I think we have a very similar approach and that's basically what I went over in the workshop the other day, too. The basics: melody, playing off the tune, trying to play music."
And both he and Donato are 'ear' players. "I know a lot of theory and everything, but we both like playing. We're both listeners and play off each other and like good rhythm, good chords."
The three will form a "real classic trio", like those of Oscar Peterson, Jim Hall, or Nat King Cole, with the guitar becoming more like a horn. "You stay out of each other's way: if [the piano is] in a high register, I play the low register. You try to not duplicate what the other's doing."
Surprisingly enough, this is the first time ever for this trio. The last time Ellias and Donato played together in Ottawa was at the long-closed After Eight club on Sparks Street. And, although both Browne and Ellias have been around the Ottawa scene and known each other for decades, the two have never had a gig together before.
"His brother, Terry, was a mentor of mine. He was a guitar player in town when I was in high school. He was a little older – maybe about 10 years older, and he was playing all the good gigs. He was encouraging and passed a few gigs onto me. A really good guitar player. He later became a bass player who played with Brian."
One point Ellias emphasized in the workshop was leaving space in the music: taking your hand off the guitar or the horn out of your mouth, in order to improve your phrasing. Browne does this too, he said, "but being a piano player you've got a big instrument there, so you're doing other things. So you might leave space in the melody, but you're filling it with the chords or stuff like that. He's a good, full player, but I wouldn't call him busy. He leaves phrasing space. There's always something going on because he plays so much piano."
"The thing I like about Brian is that there's a lot of energy and feel: he just goes for it. And he's so melodic. And he plays the piano; he's not a keyboard player. He plays the piano: it's a full, rich sound."
The audience won't be seeing sheet music on the stage; Ellias said he didn't believe in using sheet music when playing standards. About four or five of the tunes will be standard ones that everyone knows, because they allow the musicians to get more deeply into the music without having to think about the mechanics of the tune. "Because, again, it really doesn't matter what you play; it's how you play it."
Songs like "Autumn Leaves", or "All the Things You Are" allow musicians to "get into it to a certain depth" because of their familiarity, he said, whereas "playing a tune that you haven't played that often, of course you can play it and you can make it sound good, but it's sometimes harder to get [that depth]."
"I think what the audience is looking for and what we're looking for is more like the communication. So keep it simple, and communicate on stuff we're strong on. Obviously, if we're forming a group and we're going to do standards as part of the group, we're going to get tired of playing those tunes and we're going to stretch out and get other tunes."
But there will be more tunes that are, if not obscure, at least not "played a million times": "We're doing "Django", "I Fall in Love Too Easily": some songs like that. "Once I Loved", "Crystal Silence". We're definitely doing some not-so-often-heard standards. A mixture: some comfort standards, and some [not]."
Ellias went silent for a moment when I asked him if he thought his message of melody, and growing solos from the melody, and leaving space, got through to the students at the workshop, but he did point out that a lot of the students took notes.
"I hope so. What I was trying to do was to just touch on things that they can work on: things that are often left out of curriculum and books. Real basic things. And they're always the hardest things to work on. As the saying goes, if you reach one person in the audience, you've done your job."
"It's not an easy thing to do when you're young to leave space. But if you tell them when they're young, they work at it."
If you miss Saturday's show, Ellias will be playing again with fellow guitarist Vic Juris at Café Paradiso later this fall. Or you could catch him in Chicago next month. Browne plays solo every Thursday at Juniper Kitchen, and will appear in concert with his trio at the NAC Fourth Stage in November. Donato will be appearing in two concerts in Gatineau in November.
– Alayne McGregor