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Original voices shine in holiday show

Saorsa (Patrick Smith, Dan Pitt, Harrison Vetro)
Keagan Eskritt and Roddy Ellias
Pressed
Wednesday, December 21, 2016 – 9 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of the Eskritt/Ellias performance
View photos by Brett Delmage of the Saorsa performance

Two up-and-coming Ottawa musicians demonstrated another growth spurt in their music in a eye-opening, two-part performance at Pressed in December.

Keagan Eskritt and Roddy Ellias' performance attracted an intent audience ©Brett Delmage, 2016

Saxophonist Patrick Smith and drummer Keagan Eskritt grew up here in Ottawa, played in local student bands, participated in the jazzfest's Jazz-Ed program taught by master guitarist Roddy Ellias, and won scholarships and awards. For the past few years, both have been studying jazz performance at the University of Toronto – but over the holidays they came back, and performed for a home-city crowd.

The show opened with a 45-minute duo performance by Eskritt and Ellias, followed by an hour-long set by Saorsa, an improvising jazz fusion group which Smith has formed with two fellow U of T students, guitarist Dan Pitt and drummer Harrison Vetro.

Ellias is one of Eskritt's mentors and they've played together several times before. They opened the show with a lyrical set of guitar and drums, very much in the jazz tradition but with strong original voices of their own.

Eskritt's “Volo”, their first number, began very quietly, with atmospheric cymbals and deliberate, ringing guitar notes slowly coalescing into a deep and thoughtful composition. It built up with vibrating guitar lines and ringing bells – more atmospheric than melodic – to an intense, almost argumentative feel before fading to its close.

Another Eskritt piece, “Should I Lose You”, was similarly evocative. Ellias created its initial melancholy theme with long, held notes. Eskritt's brushed cymbals filled in the space around the notes, and then both added a flamenco-style fast rethink of the melody before modulating to a quiet and romantic feel, and then slowly fading out.

The duo also performed the classic standard “Time After Time”, with Ellias stretching and twisting the melody while still keeping it recognizable and energetic and Eskritt adding a fantasia of cymbals, and two holiday-themed numbers: an unsentimental “Christmas Time is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas, followed by an inflected and varied “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”. Throughout, you could hear how the two were carefully attuned to each other, working together to reinterpret each tune and keep them fresh and unhackneyed.

They closed the set with an Ellias composition, “Sonnet”, which began with a quick repeated riff and then alternated a melody of held notes with fast flurries of dancing notes – perhaps reflecting the two-section structure of a poetic sonnet? There were many abrupt turns and switches and changes in dynamics in the tune, and Ellias and Eskritt negotiated them smoothly and in sync. The audience greeted their finale with strong applause.

Saorsa: very careful listening and immediate responsiveness among the three musicians ©Brett Delmage, 2016

After a short break, Saorsa took the stage with a startlingly different sound. “Saorsa” is a Scots Gaelic word meaning freedom or liberty, and the trio used that freedom to create intense and arresting soundscapes.

This was the closing show of a mini-tour of Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa/Gatineau which they had undertaken in the previous week, including hosting Jazz Mondays at Le Petit Chicago two days before.

Their 12-minute opening number, Dan Pitt's “Plant”, was loud and fierce, as much a rock as a jazz number, and almost too fortissimo for the compact coffeehouse. Pitt opened with fast, vibrating guitar lines, using effect pedals to add echo and emphasis. He created a pulsing soundscape, to which Vetro added chiming cymbals and light, insistent drumming. Smith joined in with powerful tenor saxophone lines, calling out. Together, they created a bone-crushing wall of sound – at one point, a small cymbal flew off Vetro's drumset because he was playing so hard. The music quietened for a moment and then rebounded back before ending abruptly. It was an absorbing piece, but I thought the loudness made it difficult to grasp properly.

Their next number – a combination of pieces by Vetro and Smith – was a complete change. More immediately appealing, it began with a quiet, lonely tenor saxophone line soaring over light mallets and brushes on drums and barely-there guitar. It developed into a shimmering soundscape – reminding me of the Northern Lights – and, as Smith switched to soprano sax, became more intense and varied. The piece built in waves, with each musician contributing to the crest, and had a large dynamic range, and finally ended with circling sax lines.

The trio's third piece began with an untitled number by American drummer Tom Rainey and then morphed into Vetro's “She Belongs to No One”. The music began fast and punctuated, with Pitt using his effects pedals to particular good effect, creating metallic sounds at one point, and looping himself at another. It was a strongly multi-layered effort, with sounds ranging from atonal mix-ups to gleaming soprano sax and reflective guitar lines, and showed off the musicians' technical abilities.

For both of his pieces in this show, Vetro didn't use standard charts, but instead provided graphic scores to inspire the trio, with colour pictures providing a vision of the music. The trio said that improvisation was a major part of their performance, and I could certainly see and hear some very careful listening and immediate responsiveness among the three musicians.

The show ended strongly with Patrick Smith's composition, “One”, a varied and more straight-ahead piece which allowed all three musicians room to explore. At one moment, it was a ballad, the next fast and syncopated with a strong mutual riff and Brecker-Brothers-like horn passages. Overall, though, the tune felt unified and dynamic – and at the end was applauded strongly.

It was really interesting to see how both Eskritt and Smith have developed and expanded their musical visions beyond the straight-ahead jazz tradition. Both halves of the show were well worth hearing, although I thought the quieter passages better suited the venue. I'm looking forward to hearing more from Eskritt, and from Smith and his bandmates in Saorsa.

    – Alayne McGregor

Set List

Keagan Eskritt and Roddy Ellias

  • Volo (Keagan Eskritt)
  • Time After Time (Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne)
  • Should I Lose You (Keagan Eskritt)
  • Christmas Time is Here (from A Charlie Brown Christmas) (Lee Mendelson and Vince Guaraldi)
  • Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie)
  • Sonnet (Roddy Ellias)

Saorsa

  • Plant (Dan Pitt)
  • Up North (Harrison Vetro) followed by Lost in Translation (Patrick Smith)
  • Untitled (Tom Rainey) followed by She Belongs to No One (Harrison Vetro)
  • One (Patrick Smith)

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