Three award-winning jazz musicians – whose ages and experience span more than 40 years – will open a double-bill of mostly original jazz at Pressed tonight as a trio.

And you can thank bassist Gene Simmons of the rock band Kiss, for persuading their leader to get interested in playing.

Ben Heard ©Brett Delmage, 2014
Ben Heard ©Brett Delmage, 2014

Bassist Ben Heard, who leads tonight's group, is completing his final two months at Canterbury High School. He's invited Jazz Hero and Ottawa master guitarist Roddy Ellias, and longtime friend and musical collaborator, drummer Keagan Eskritt, now studying music at the University of Toronto, to play with him for this special occasion.

“It's not an entirely new band so we have some rapport going into things. It's great. I'm really excited,” Heard said.

“We had a big connection right from the start. I always love playing with him, “ Heard says about his friend Eskritt, whom he met in Grade 9 and played with “almost constantly for the past three years.”

In 2013, they both participated in the Ottawa Jazz Festival's first JazzEd program, which is where they met Ellias. He taught the group of promising high school students weekly for several months leading up to the festival.

“At least in my mind, Roddy was another tier, an older generation and had another entire aura of distinction to him. It's so funny because you meet Roddy and he's got his wicked wit and he's really modest. And also just the wealth of knowledge that comes from him. He really did do the more old-school upbringing in jazz. He played,” Heard said. “He's got this HUGE amount of knowledge that I've been lucky to get to learn from him for the past two years.”

But the final performance of the JazzEd band at the Ottawa Jazz Festival wasn't the end of their musical interaction, but a start that led to tonight's performance.

“We started playing, just the three of us, off and on since before Christmas 2013. We went over to Roddy's place. He was always super, super supportive of any compositions I would be doing. When I was working on something I'd [send] it to Roddy and say 'Can you get me input?' and he'd always be super-helpful. So that led to us getting together to play some of these tunes. And then with schedules, especially Roddy, he's a busy guy, we never got around to actually getting the gig. And then this came up.”

All three will bring two original songs to the show. Heard's contributing two songs he wrote for a trio with Eskritt and local guitarist Justin Orok. “They're almost guitar-specific. I don't know how I managed to write tunes that are so nice on the guitar, because I'm by no means a guitarist. Justin always told me they work really well. It's the same format, a trio, so I'm using those again.”

At the other end, Ellias' tunes are brand-new.

“He was almost as new to some of his songs as we were,” Heard said. “It's a work in progress and it's really cool because all of Roddy's stuff that I've seen has always been super-polished – obviously it sounds polished, it sounds incredible. He's an amazing writer but it's interesting to get that look into how he does things. It seems as long as I've known Roddy he writes a big batch of stuff, then he really, really works that repertoire and really gets familiar with it. So it's been cool when he was sitting next to us today [during a pre-concert rehearsal] to be a part of the process for these new tunes.

“So maybe you'll get to hear some different versions with me and Keagan, the young blood.”

It's an evolution and that's why music's so great.
  – Ben Heard

Quite likely. Over the past two years, Ellias has treated listeners at his Ottawa concerts to new interpretations of songs from his recent jazz album, Monday's Dream.

Heard was even younger blood when he first took up the bass “in Grade 3 or 4” and started his musical explorations.

“It's pretty far off from jazz, how I started. My favourite band growing up as a kid was Kiss. My favourite member of that band was Gene Simmons. And Gene Simmons plays the bass so I wanted to play the bass too. So I got a little, short scale electric bass for Christmas, started getting lessons thereafter. Did the whole rock thing for a while.”

The next step was Weather Report. “I had one bass teacher who introduced me to Jaco Pastorius and Victor Wooten and all these more 'musically literate' bass players coming from the more jazz side of things or fusion at least. He started having me playing the Bach cello suites on electric bass. The cello suites got me more mindful to acoustic and classical side of things. Weather Report also kind of led me to – this is so cliché – but I bought Kind of Blue or I was given it, and I listened to it and was 'Wow, this is amazing'.

“And I realized that if I wanted to get serious about that kind of music that I would need to switch to an acoustic bass. So I did that. It's an evolution and that's why music's so great.”

Keagan Eskritt (drums) and Ben Heard (bass) ©Brett Delmage, 2014
Keagan Eskritt (drums) and Ben Heard (bass) ©Brett Delmage, 2014

Heard's personal evolution will continue in the fall, when he'll study classical performance at the Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. It's a similar route to that followed by Ottawa bassist John Geggie, with whom Heard has been studying: “balancing jazz and classical”.

And another link to Ellias, whose university studies were all in classical music. “It was astonishing to me when I first really discovered just how much he'd done in his capacity as a classical composer. And I've always enjoyed being able to talk to him too about the classical stuff. He's very opinionated – about everything, and the classical stuff too.”

That classical training will complement the experience Heard's gained around jazz in recent years: JazzEd, the National Youth Jazz Combo and Humber in the City Summer Workshop in 2014 and playing in various jazz, and classical, bands around town.

But before Heard leaves Ottawa, you'll be able to hear him playing at Pressed – a double dose tonight, when he also plays in the Chris Maskell Quartet following his trios' opening performance. It will be an evening which he feels “will make for a good balance” of originals and less-common standards.

His trio's show won't be predictable: “There's a bit of free-ish stuff going on. You know what Roddy's stuff can be like. And obviously Keagan and I have had the pleasure of coming up under him a bit. So especially in my case there's a bit more of the interactive improvising going on, as opposed to the old formulaic changes and blowing ending off one player to the next.”

“There's some tough tunes in both bands. So I've got my work cut out for me.”

And on June 19, he'll play in the Mike Tremblay Trio, recording a CD live at GigSpace, with guitarist Tim Bedner. It's a performance that Tremblay has spoken enthusiastically about.

And who is Heard listening to, when you aren't listening to him play?

“I went through a huge phase where I was super into free stuff, and lately all I've been listening to is the Basie Band with Sinatra or Ella. I'm going through this huge phase of the Basie Band with singers, great singers, and I wonder, should I be listening to other stuff ? Like this is pretty straight ahead.

It's still great music. That's all that matters.”

   – Brett Delmage

Ben Heard, Roddy Ellias and Keagan Eskritt perform an all-originals set at Pressed (750 Gladstone Avenue) at 8  p.m. Tuesday, May 19, opening for The Chris Maskell Quartet.

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