When Roddy Ellias, Marc Copland, and Adrian Vedady entered the studio last May to record their first album together, they dumped their egos outside the door.
"There was nobody saying, 'Well, I'm playing this'. Everybody's listening to everybody and trying to just find something that fits together nicely. It's a real group dynamic and a group approach, with no ego," Ellias said.
The Ottawa guitarist, NYC pianist, and Montreal bassist debuted as a trio in Ottawa in 2012. They're back this weekend for two shows – Saturday in Montreal and Sunday in Ottawa – which will mark the official release of their first album, Sticks and Stones.
When the three performed at the Ottawa Jazz Festival last June, listeners who responded to OttawaJazzScene.ca's Jazz Festival Favs Poll were delighted. Descriptions of the show ranged from "Superb interactive musicianship and excellent compositions" to "Wonderfully simpatico with each other".
For Ellias, this trio has been a very special experience. "It's rare when you get three people so connected. The group dynamic is fantastic – it's a dream!"
While all three musicians take solos in the music, "none of us are over-extending. We're just trying to stay in the mood of the piece, and play the the piece. It's more about playing together and the group thing and making musical statements."
"Regardless of what instruments we play, there's no role-playing. Obviously the bass plays the bass line in the tunes mostly, but, no, we're three interactive soloists and three interactive group players. This traditional rhythm section and soloists concept is not really what we're going after. It's more like a conversation between the three of us. So Adrian was like me or like Marc, no difference that way."
Ellias suggested doing the album: "I think I just said, 'Let's record' and they went, 'OK'." They sent their compositions to each other beforehand and then rehearsed in Montreal for a full day before the recording session, going through each composition several times and working out arrangements on the spot.
More ideas were added in the moment. "A lot of what might not sound improvised is improvised. So [we're] trying to blur the line between improvisation and the compositions."
They recorded for two days at Studio 451 in Montreal. Copland had recorded there before and really liked the work of engineer Padraig Buttner-Schnirer. "The guy had a phenomenal ear for sound and music and everything. It's totally nuanced, and he did a great job," Ellias said.
That skill allowed Ellias to play his preferred nylon-string guitar by BC luthier Martin Blackwell for the recording (rather than the steel-stringed archtop guitar by Dan Koentopp which he often uses for noisier shows). He also played the Blackwell guitar on his previous trio CD with Vedady, Monday's Dream.
"That's the guitar I play live as often I could, but sometimes it's hard. You need a really good sound system and a sound person. Recording it you need a really good engineer."
We have similar aesthetics. We both love harmony and colour. And we both listen a lot … we don't have set things that we're going to do no matter what somebody else does.
– Roddy Ellias
The CD includes five pieces by Ellias and one each by Copland and Vedady. Ellias wrote three pieces for this album – "I wrote them very quickly, like in a couple of weeks" – and brought forward two others that he had written the year before for a quartet album which he has recorded but not yet released.
The CD's liner notes say that the music on the album "seeks to find light and humanity in the darkness" of current world politics.
Although the material "sounds easy when you listen to it", it was "super-challenging" to play, he said. One of the most difficult was the title tune, Ellias' "Sticks and Stones", whose title comes from an Albert Einstein quote about the dangers to civilization of all-out war. That tune took multiple takes to record.
"We finished, we did like 5000 takes of it, and then Marc said, 'Let's play Nardis!' " – which is how that jazz standard also ended up on the album. It's a song all three knew well, "and it's a fun, easy tune to play, and it allowed us to just to play without having to think about anything, which was really nice."
Leaving space for each others' instruments
Ellias and Copland first met in 2011, through Vedady, who also plays separately with each of them. Close in age (Ellias is 68 and Copland 69), they have a similar approach to music. While both have composed many original pieces, they're also well-known as interpreters of jazz standards.
"We have similar aesthetics. We both love harmony and colour. And we both listen a lot … we don't have set things that we're going to do no matter what somebody else does. We're conversational in our approach. We're both very much into sound, the sound of our instruments," Ellias said.
Those two sounds aren't necessarily easy to combine in a trio. As Copland once said in an interview with AllAboutJazz, "Playing without guitar, I can play pretty much any chord that I hear and I don't have to worry about anything else in the midrange clashing with it. Playing with guitar I have to co-ordinate with another chord instrument. By listening carefully and working together, it's possible to get absolutely stunning effects, textures, colors, orchestral sounds."
But both have worked extensively in the piano-guitar format. Ellias played with Ottawa pianist Dave Hildinger for 10 years as a duo, while Copland has recorded with notable jazz guitarists including Vic Juris, Nir Felder, and Ralph Towner, and performed extensively with John Abercrombie.
Copland has "a phenomenal ear for … and he has a temperament that leaves space for the guitar, and he listens," Ellias said.
By the second day of the trio's recording session, Ellias said, Vedady told him that he and Copland were so in tune that Vedady couldn't tell which of them was comping. "[He said] it sounded like one instrument, which is the goal."
The trio had tried recording together five years ago, but Ellias wasn't happy with the guitar sound and describes the result as more of a demo.
"We only actually had one day, a few hours in the studio so it wasn't really enough, There were some good things that came out of it. And it was only after having played one gig, so it was just a little premature, that's all. So it was more like a getting-acquainted session than a lets-make-a-record session."
Finding rooms where you can hear every note
At this weekend's shows, the trio will play music from the CD, and some other new tunes and possibly a standard or two.
With the tiniest of sounds all contributing to their music, they're best heard in a quiet room with a very good piano before a "totally listening audience" – such as the National Arts Centre Fourth Stage, where they will play on Sunday in Ottawa. But those rooms aren't always easy to find.
After the two shows this weekend, the trio's next Canadian tour will be in October, because these halls need to be booked well in advance. "As a matter of fact, the Yardbird Suite [in Edmonton], where we're playing in October, we just emailed him a few months ago, and he said, 'Well, we usually book 15 to 18 months ahead, but it just so happens we have an opening around then.' "
The October tour currently includes stops in Kitchener-Waterloo, Quebec City, and the OFF Festival in Montreal. Ellias is working to add more.
He already has a busy summer planned – playing in the host band at the Jazz Festival late-night jams in June, a show with his own trio (with Vedady and drummer Thom Gossage) at the Festival Desjardins in Aylmer in late July – and writing and presenting a chamber opera at the 2018 Music and Beyond festival on July 11 and 12, with four vocalists and 13-14 instrumentalists.
This album is Ellias' eighth as leader, in an oeuvre that ranges from jazz and jazz fusion to chamber jazz to classical. Although he started in 1979 with A Night for Stars, he only released two more until 2010, because of other demands including full-time university professorships.
His next CD, already recorded, is a quartet album with Toronto vocalist Felicity Williams, and long-time collaborators Jim Lewis on trumpet and John Geggie on double bass. He expects to release that one "any time now".
"I have students that have more CDs out than I do. But there's a lot more coming now. I don't like just recording for the sake of recording, obviously, but I finally feel like I've got lots of things to say and put out there."
Read earlier OttawaJazzScene.ca stories about this trio and about these musicians:
- Marc Copland and Roddy Ellias: finding connections 
- 2017 Jazz Festival Favs poll story including the Ellias-Copland-Vedady concert
- "Now This" trio (with Copland) reaches listeners' hearts at the 2017 Ottawa Jazz Festival
- Roddy Ellias stops fidgeting and hits the Record button 
ECV (Roddy Ellias on guitar, Marc Copland on piano, and Adrian Vedady on double bass) will perform at the NAC Fourth Stage on Sunday, April 22, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 and are available via the event webpage (with surcharge) or in person from the NAC Box Office (no surcharge). The National Arts Centre is located at 1 Elgin Street in downtown Ottawa. All OC Transpo downtown Transitway routes and downtown-bound regular bus routes stop only a few blocks away. Routes 5 and 14 stop on Elgin Street close by.
The trio will also perform two shows at the Upstairs Jazz Bar in Montreal on Saturday, April 21: at 7 p.m. ($18.50+tx), and at 9.45 p.m. ($16.50+tx). The club is located at 1254 rue MacKay; phone 514-931-6808 for reservations.