Wednesday, June 28, 2017
   
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The Walrus Guitar Quartet: all together

Four eminent Canadian jazz guitarists will come together in Ottawa at GigSpace on Saturday, March 3, for their premiere performance as a quartet.

The Walrus Guitar Quartet: David Occhipinti, Roddy Ellias, Ted Quinlan, and Kim Ratcliffe, has been rehearsing and recording since last fall. But this week will be the first time audiences will be hearing them all together, and with the new compositions each has written for the quartet.

It will be only guitars. No bass, no drums, no piano. "Do you need anything else?" Ellias asks, laughing.

For many of the pieces, all four will be playing together. Each is fluent on different types of guitars, and they'll be using electric, nylon-string classical, and steel-string acoustic guitars in different combinations for each piece.

Four guitars is not a typical jazz group, but it's one that Occhipinti had dreamed of trying for more than a decade, ever since he heard American guitarist Fred Frith's Guitar Quartet. At the beginning of last year, he made a New Year's resolution that he had to start the quarter. Later that year, he talked with Ellias about it, and then "it seemed to take off. ... And of course we're in the studio doing a demo the 28th of December, so I just made it by the end of the year."

The other three guitarists are "just really good people," Occhipinti said, "and because we play the same instrument we very rarely get to spend time together: there's usually one guitar player on a gig, if that. And also sonically the kind of textures you can create especially with electric guitars combined with acoustic guitars and all the effects we have. We love using effects and talking about gear and that kind of thing. I thought it would be really great."

"Roddy brings the composition element. He's a great composer, so he brings that element to the quartet and has a beautiful sound on nylon-string. And Ted Quinlan is just a fluid virtuoso, he's wonderful to watch play. As a guitarist, I love just watching how fluid he is in his approach to playing. That's wonderful. And Kim gets a lot of great sounds out of the instrument. He's a great guy to be around, and I wanted to work with him."

Each of the musicians is contributing original compositions to the concert, many written and arranged directly for the group. There's not likely to be any standards, Ellias said, although they will be playing Occhipinti's arrangement of an Erik Satie piece.

"The idea of the group is to focus on original music. But it's accessible original music, it's good we're all trained composers and everything, but at the same time we're trying to bring music to people. Bring good music to people. There's nothing avant-garde or alienating, although there are some adventurous spots for sure."

Each musician's compositional style is quite different, Ellias said: "We can go in all those different directions which is kind of neat because everybody is so open and flexible and capable. The nicest thing, too, is that we're really compatible. It's just felt good instantly from the first note.

"They're all really phenomenal guitarists; they're really phenomenal musicians, so they play real music on the guitar, not guitar wanking stuff. We've all been around for a few years. Everybody has a really wide range of experience and everybody has a really open mind and open ears, and so I think everybody brings a very open approach to music. I think all of us play melodically and all of us play rhythmically and we all have those basic skills down, but I think what makes it nice is that we all connect musically. We all have a non-dogmatic approach to music."

So what will listeners hear? Mostly the interplay of four guitars, although there may be a few duets. "Chords and notes and melodies, that kind of writing," Occhipinti says. "And we have some pieces that will have some improv, so they'll hear us improvising in this quartet setting. It's just a completely different beast, I guess."

"It's the first real gig, so we'll see what happens. It should be interesting. It's probably going to develop the more gigs we do, too, but people can hear the initial vibe of the thing. And the recording went really well, the demo we did."

The quartet doesn't have any further gigs scheduled yet, Ellias said, because "the only thing that books quickly are jazz clubs, and we're not thinking that. It's more of a concert thing, and we need people to listen." The group is looking for concert series and festivals instead now that it's got its repertoire together, he said.

And why the Walrus Quartet? They each put forward several names, and Occhipinti's suggestion was the unanimous favourite.

"I wanted some sort of Beatles reference because for me, the Beatles were the reason I started playing the guitar. I wanted that element, and my wife Mascia mentioned, 'How about the Walrus Quartet?' And I thought that's perfect and I really liked it. And of course, there's the Lewis Carroll reference because I guess that John Lennon, when he wrote 'I am the Walrus' he was thinking about Alice in Wonderland and 'The Walrus and the Carpenter'. I read, too, that Lennon thought about it afterwards, and said, 'oh, the Walrus is the bad guy', but he said he couldn't change it to 'I am the Carpenter'. Otherwise we might be The Carpenter Quartet. Or the Carpenters! No, no, no..."

"The whole idea of it, too: like Lewis Carroll being psychedelic and the Beatles also. And this group being four guitars, it's nice that it has that element. It takes you out of the norm, I guess."

Ellias has a different take: "It could be just a nice Canadian animal with strength. And a walrus doesn't have horns, and neither do we."

    – Alayne McGregor