I started my interview with Ottawa jazz guitarist Roddy Ellias by reminding him of an interview he did 26 years ago.
Talking to Toronto jazz critic Mark Miller, Ellias had said, "When I'm 60, I don't want to be like one musician I know, who has to depend on a club owner for his next meal."
He was momentarily silent, and then he laughed – and reminded me he was now 61, and had dodged that eventuality by taking on an academic career. For the last 20-odd years he's been teaching at Canadian universities, first at St. Francois Xavier and now in the music department at Concordia University in Montreal. His increasing responsibilities there, however, have not interfered with a continuing and notable presence in the Ottawa jazz scene.
This weekend, he played twice with New York guitarist Vic Juris to capacity or near-capacity crowds. On Monday, he has a reunion concert with bassist Ron Seguin, who used to play in Ottawa but now lives in Italy. Next month, Ellias will be back at Café Paradiso with his new trio.
And that's typical: in the last three years, Ellias has had two concert series at Paradiso with local and imported musicians including an organ quartet with Kirk MacDonald, a Fourth Stage showcase of his own jazz compositions, an Ottawa Jazz Festival concert with Jeri Brown, several festival workshop and Composers' Collective concerts, as well as appearances with John Geggie, Anna Williams, Tena Palmer, Garry Elliott, Petr Cancura, and many others. And his classical compositions were featured at this year's Music and Beyond festival.
He's on a roll right now. This is his last year at Concordia: he finishes teaching at the end of December, and his administrative responsibilities will be over by late next spring. After that, he's got music – and a lot of it.
Starting with Vic Juris, who also played with Ellias in his 2009 Café Paradiso guitar series. I asked Ellias what attracted him to the way Juris plays the guitar.
"He's damn good. I like his approach. Philosophically, it's my approach: to try to find melodies. He's got technique up the ying-yang, he's got as much technique as anybody on the planet, but his main concern is playing melodically. He's not just doing pyrotechnics."
They're about the same age and have similar backgrounds, Ellias said, as well as similar approaches. "We have played with some of the same people, too. We sound different – I like that, too: we sound very different. He plays electric guitar; I play acoustic guitar. He uses pedals. I don't. The actual tone and approach to the guitar are totally different, but the approach to music I think is quite similar."
Playing with Juris a second time makes things better, too. "The more and more you play with someone the better it gets. That's why groups always do better. Those Miles Davis groups he didn't just call people up and go into the studio; they were on the road for a year before they recorded. It always gets better and better the more you play."
Ellias said the program was mostly standards. "With Vic, Vic does a lot of gigs where he's reading music. He's happy to come up and play standard tunes; it's a common repertoire. We will send each other a list and pick from that. I'll send him my favourite tunes and he'll send me some of his favourites and there'll be lots in common. The nice thing about standards is that you both know them well and you can just relax and get into them and just play music."
At the previous Paradiso show, they did only standards, but this time they both sent each other some originals, and played a few of those as well.
Before the show, Ellias said he didn't expect a serious noise problem, if only because of the admission charge. "Hopefully if people are paying $20 to get in, plus whatever it's costing them to eat and drink, they'll listen. There's always going to be people talking. One thing I've learned over the years, though, is if the crowd gets louder, I don't. It just becomes a competition: you turn it up, they turn it up, you turn it up, they turn it up. I actually get quieter."
The approach worked, as listeners at the Friday night show heard.
An unexpected reunion
On Monday, October 18, Ellias will be back at Paradiso with bassist Ron Seguin – a homecoming of sorts, because they played together in Ottawa off and on for several years in the 1980s.
"When I was playing a lot here in town when I was young, there were two bass players: Scott Alexander and Ron. They were both awesome bass players and I was spoilt having them both. Then they both left. Scott moved to Toronto and Ron moved to Montreal. They were both about 20 when they moved. Ron became the main bass player in Montreal; he was taking gigs away from Michel Donato. He played with people like Sonny Greenwich and all the good players in town. And then about 15 years ago he moved to Italy. He's coming back to do a visit, see his family, and do a few gigs."
Seguin is a "phenomenal" bass player, Ellias said, and it was lucky that Paradiso owner Alex Demianenko was able to open on a Monday for this gig, because other music nights had been filled by the time Seguin contacted Ellias.
The new trio: "so good to play with"
At the beginning of November, Ottawa audiences will hear Ellias' new trio, with bassist Adrian Vedady and drummer John Fraboni. Both these musicians have played numerous times in Ottawa, both at Paradiso and at the NAC Fourth Stage, but not both together with Ellias. They will be playing the Diese Onze club in Montreal on November 3, and Cafe Paradiso on Friday, November 5.
"That's been a real joy: those guys are so good to play with." Even worth, he assured me, having to go to Montreal to hold practices.
He's been writing jazz tunes for the trio: "Actually they've been just flowing out: I can't stop. I start practicing and I end up writing a tune instead. I'm not getting any practicing done. I'm excited playing with Adrian; he's so fun to play with and so creative. They're both really into [the music], they like what I do and I like what they do, so it gives it a little extra kick."
After those gigs and possibly one in Toronto, Ellias hopes to get the trio in the studio as soon as possible, in order to have a CD ready for the beginning of 2011. "Once we've got a few gigs under our belt, and got comfortable with the tunes, we'll go right into the studio. You need a CD these days but I'd rather get comfortable with the material first and then record."
Longer-term, there's his collaboration with Montreal jazz vocalist Jeri Brown, with whom he played at the 2010 Ottawa Jazz Festival. They put out one CD this summer, and they're planning to do another one as soon as they have time. In December, he's recording a CD of chamber songs with Donna Brown (vocals), Jennifer Swartz (harp), Ken Simpson (marimba) and Frederic Lacroix (piano): the same group he played with at the Music and Beyond festival. They'll be recording in Montreal.
And he also has a continuing duo with "a phenomenal flute player from Montreal, Guy Pelletier, he's just incredible. We have a good rapport." They played together last February at Paradiso.
Not retiring, but quitting
So, his plans for next year and onwards are "nothing really horrendously different." He described leaving Concordia not as retiring, but as "just quitting a job, and it's going to give me a moderate pension and I'm going to continue playing music."
His experience teaching was "really, really enriching and rewarding, interacting with so many keen students: some of them really good and talented, others less talented but still keen and earnest and sincere. Some went on to be really good players and still keep in touch, ... some are still doing music in one way or another whether it's writing about it or whatever."
"It's taken a lot out of me in terms of there's been more administrative work than I would have liked, especially in the last few years as I've become a senior faculty. In the last ten years there's [been] more and more stuff to do like curriculum planning and meetings and all that stuff: politics, dealing with budget restraints. It takes you away from doing music and teaching. That's why I'm quitting."
And it will give him the opportunity to go further afield for longer: "We have some gigs tentatively coming up in Chicago and that area and maybe Brazil. I have some pokers in the fire and some things are going to happen which couldn't happen before. You just can't go anywhere when you're teaching full-time."
Musical influences: far more than guitarists
The day before I talked to Ellias, both of us had seen John Taylor play with John Geggie at the NAC Fourth Stage. I asked him whether he'd learned something from the concert: "Yes, I think so. I know John Taylor's music very very well: as a matter of fact, a former student was there, Min Rager. She was there and so was Josh, and she came up to me. The first or second year I taught at Concordia, she was in one of my classes, and she reminded me: "You remember you brought in all those John Taylor tunes? Ever since that, he's been one of my favourite piano players."
"So I've been a big fan of his for a long, long time. I studied his music, I transcribed it, and he sent me some of his music once. He was very nice about that. I loved it. I don't know if I learned a lot last night or if I just was reminded of some things. Well, I did learn; I always learn. Especially harmonically: unbelievable. And he did some rhythmic things that were really inspired. Just a couple times he got into it for 30 seconds at a time, and it was "wow!"."
In fact, Ellias said, his music has always been influenced by far more than jazz guitarists. "Historically for me, only a few guitar players [affected me]. I'm not one of these guitar players who listens to a lot of other guitar players, but the ones I listened to had a very profound effect on me. My mentor was a guitarist: Nelson Symonds from Montreal, and I learned an incredible amount from him. About music, about life, about the connection between music and life. And Sonny Greenwich: I learned a lot just listening to him, and the spiritual part of his playing. And Wes Montgomery as everybody else has, but not so much Wes.
"But I'm not one of these guys who listens to Pat Metheny and John Abercrombie and John Scofield. I prefer to listen to music, rather than to the instrument. I think Bill Evans had a very very strong [influence]. Ralph Towner is another guitarist, but not so much as a guitar player as a composer: the same with Egberto Gismonti. A lot of the contemporary classical composers like Ligeti had a very very big influence on me, Arvo Pärt, Keith Jarrett lately, Miles Davis. And singers like Nancy Wilson, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan. Indian musicians like Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan. Harip Sad, the flutist. And so and so on. Herbie Hancock. Jim Hall was another guitarist. I guess more guitarists than I thought. Coltrane. Wayne Shorter."
When he listens to music, he said, he listens for "what's there. Whatever is good, I listen for. If someone's tone is beautiful, I listen to that. I go with what I think they're trying to communicate. Sometimes I go and I'm trying to analyze; sometimes I'm listening for different things. I always have an agenda which is to try to learn something."
Ellias received the Ottawa Jazz Festival's 2009 Community Recognition Award. The festival's tribute said "His contribution to the local scene is enormous as a player, a teacher, a mentor, and one of music's great ambassadors." That was demonstrated when many Ottawa jazz listeners and musicians attended a surprise 60th birthday party for him at Café Paradiso in June 2009.
When asked about his contribution to the Ottawa jazz scene, Ellias' response is characteristically modest: "I don't know. It's hard to say. I think my association with Dave Hildinger: we had a duet for a good ten years. I think that music, which was some of the first chamber jazz around especially in Canada, I think that influenced people. I'd like to think there was some influence that way because I was a prominent player in this town and making it less of a standard jazz type of approach. So, hopefully that. And I've certainly taught a LOT of people. A lot of good guitar players, like Steve Fisk and Justin Haynes, Steve Raegele. It's always hard to say."
But, as he says himself, "I'm not young or trying to prove a point or carve out a career." Just as he's been doing for the last 26 years, Ellias just keeps playing and composing music.
– Alayne McGregor