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Roddy Ellias Ensemble plays an intimate concert of intricate music

Yadong Guan brought unusual and beautiful sounds on her pipa to the concert ©Brett Delmage, 2013Roddy Ellias Ensemble with Yadong Guan, John Geggie, and Guy Pelletier
Roddy Ellias Concert Series
Saturday, February 23, 2013
GigSpace Performance Studio

View photos of this concert

Opposite Diana Krall on Saturday night was a much more intimate concert at the small venue inside Alcorn Studios: the GigSpace. It was a quiet concert of intricately-arranged pieces of music, music that ensemble leader and composer Roddy Ellias described as “chamber jazz”. 

The music had an enhancing complexity, not the kind that was complicated just to be nerdy. The pieces recalled the sounds of compositions by Claude Debussy and Wayne Shorter with their rich harmonies and their Oriental tint, but found a nice middle between their levels of improvisation and composition. The instrumentation, to my knowledge, was one of a kind; with Roddy Ellias on classical guitar, John Geggie on double bass, Guy Pelletier alternating between flute, bass flute and alto flute, and Yadong Guan on pipa.

The concert started with Roddy Ellias introducing the ensemble members, who were hidden behind their individual music stands on a stage that was just big enough for all four of them. Yadong Guan described her instrument to the audience, mentioning that it is tuned to A, D, E, A and has more than 2000 years of history in China. It was surprisingly loud for an instrument that lacked a sound hole and wasn’t amplified. She played it with five plastic nails to protect her fingers and she held the instrument vertically as it sat on her lap.

The first piece was a composition by Ellias in four movements, although the fourth was not played this evening. The first movement, fittingly named “Calm”, began with improvised sounds that were reminiscent of Lenny Breau’s solo guitar playing. Then the pipa and guitar played a melody in unison while the guitar also played accompaniment, like a piano playing the melody with the right hand and accompanying itself with the left.

The second movement titled “Shuffle Boogie” can be heard here in duo form. It featured the guitar and flute prominently, with some bass and pipa doubling lines here and there. This challenging piece seemed under-rehearsed, with Geggie and Guan dropping out at points that seemed unnatural and Pelletier missing a couple of notes or hitting the wrong one. Despite that, Pelletier displayed his prowess in this piece with pitch bending, slides, flutter tongue, tremolo and other virtuosic techniques that he did remarkably well for someone coming down from a cold. Pelletier began to solo freely with Ellias echoing his leads beautifully and after a climactic crescendo the two came back in sync with the flute dropping out to make room for a bass solo. Geggie took a solo with high pitched harmonics created by bowing the bridge of his instrument and then arpeggiated sweeps. It seemed uncalled-for considering the driving melodic accompaniment and also anti-climatic. The piece finished the way it started, with the head out and the audience remaining silent as the ensemble switched to the sheet music for the next movement.

The third movement was a piece fittingly named “Chorale” which featured the beautiful register of the bass flute. It was very soothing music. The guitar and flute played the melody in unison rubato time. Pelletier took a flamenco-like solo, full of trills and legato lines and the piece ended with a short Debussy-like lullaby on the guitar.

Next was a piece titled “Go”, which means “five” in Japanese. It was so named because it featured the pentatonic scale in abundance and had other Oriental qualities. The piece was a series of duos within the ensemble, beginning with flute and guitar; then bass and pipa came in together; then it was a flute and bass unison. Afterwards there was a very pentatonic-y pipa solo over guitar accompaniment, and then the guitar soloed over the bass with textural rhythmic sounds provided by the flute and pipa.

“What Did You Think Would Happen?” followed. It began with what was supposed to be a unison melody by the bass flute and arco bass, but Geggie ended up playing out of tune because of the high register and would slide into tune with the notes that Pelletier played. The guitar was also playing, often pianistically, the chords and the melody at the same time. There was a constant ostinato pedal tone from the pipa throughout the tune. Geggie took a beautiful bowed solo which crescendoed to its climactic end before the band returned to the melody as an intersection to the flute solo. It was accompanied by a doubled guitar and bass line, and then the piece finished with its unusual but pretty melody. After the applause, Ellias asked the audience if they liked the piece – to which one replied, “It’s hard to dance to.”

In addition to bringing a traditional Chinese instrument to the concert, Guan brought a traditional Chinese tune for the group to interpret. Its name translates to “Moonlit Night on Spring River”. This piece was led by the pipa as the others followed and imitated her sounds, like an echo that moved you like a Pacific Ocean wave. It was a piece free of time with lots of tremolo, a pitch-bending pipa solo and elegant right hand movements by Guan.

Sticking with the moon theme, the following piece was titled “By The Beat of The Moon”. It was a short piece with a rhythmic pipa riff and then some bass and guitar body thumps before the guitar joined in unison, and then some more thumps before they all came in together.

The eighth piece was a duo between Geggie and Ellias: probably the strongest of the evening. Ellias began the tune and Geggie took a gorgeous melodic solo. The end of his solo was echoed by Ellias on the guitar first with some tremolo and then with melodic leads and chordal passages that were mind-blowing.

The last piece of the night was titled “Looking Up”. It was a series of duos within the overall group that really reflected the chamber side of the music, with its intricately woven parts and beautiful design.

Overall, the music was driven by the guitar, full of beautiful compositions, intricately arranged with rich harmonies, and a fun exploration of musical possibilities in instrumentation. The music played with the question of where to draw the line between improvisation and composition, and demonstrated why Roddy Ellias is among Canada’s greatest living composers.

    – Justin Duhaime

Set List
  1. Untitled
  2. Movement 1: Calm
  3. Movement 2: Shuffle Boogie
  4. Movement 3: Choral
  5. Go
  1. What Did You Think Would Happen?
  2. Moonlit Night on Spring River (translated from Chinese)
  3. By The Beat of The Moon
  4. Blue Moon (?)
  5. Looking Up

All photos ©Brett Delmage, 2013

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