Pianist Steve Boudreau and guitarist Garry Elliott will formally release their first duo CD, Pre-Dawn Skies, at a concert at GigSpace this Saturday. A project almost two years in the making, it's a thoughtful album of quiet, introspective, and highly melodic jazz, containing originals written by each of them.
Pre-Dawn Skies reflects more than 15 years of friendship based on similar musical tastes and the ability to bring out the best in each other's compositions. And given how closely both are tied to this city, perhaps it reflects bit of Ottawa, too.
Elliott has been an important part of Ottawa's jazz and classical scenes for decades. Originally from St. Lambert Quebec, "I came to the University of Ottawa when I was 20 and I just stayed."
Boudreau grew up in Ottawa and took his first music degree at Carleton University. He spent two years studying for his Masters at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, and has been on the road with traveling musicals for a good part of the last few years, but otherwise has lived here, playing both jazz and classical, augmented by the occasional Beach Boys rethink.
Alayne McGregor interviewed Boudreau and Elliott together in September for OttawaJazzScene.ca. It was immediately obvious how comfortable they were with each other. They completed each other's sentences, annotated the other's statements, and easily made each other laugh.
That extends to their music too. They performed a short preview of the album at the Ottawa Jazz Festival this June, along with bassist John Geggie and drummer Jeff Asselin, who will also be with them at GigSpace. The music easily flowed among the four, and kept the attention of a capacity audience in the normally noisy and busy Rideau Centre.
This is an edited version of our conversation. It started at the beginning of their relationship:
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How did you two meet?
Garry Elliott: Well, I guess it would go back 15 years ago, maybe. Steve used to take classical guitar lessons with me.
Elliott: Yup. At the Nepean Symphony School.
Steve Boudreau: The Bells Corners Academy of Music now.
Elliott: And he never practiced. He just wanted to play jazz, so we ended up just jamming, and he could just play along on guitar. He could figure out the chords; he had no problem.
Boudreau: It was fun.
Elliott: They really weren't classical guitar lessons at all. [laughs]
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How did you actually start playing together?
Boudreau: I think what happened was I started playing more around town, like [at] Vineyards, when I was in my 20s.
This was probably already six years after I'd had the guitar lessons, when I started seriously wanting to be a jazz pianist and practicing. And at some point, I guess, I just thought it would be nice if we did a gig together.
I think I asked you if you would do it. I felt like I had to work up my courage to do that ...
Elliott: That's funny. I thought I asked you.
Boudreau: Oh yeah? It's funny because I felt like it was that way because ... I found I was playing a lot with people who were younger than me, and I wanted to play with somebody who I could learn [from] while I was playing with them.
That was a big part of it at the beginning for sure. I wanted a knowledge-sharing and a learning experience thing. I knew that we had a sympathetic kind of music we liked with the Bill Evans stuff we had done in the lessons, and just some of the song material that we talked about, like prog-rock a little bit. So I knew that our taste in music was pretty compatible, and I think that's why.
So it's funny that we don't really remember who actually asked who out to the dance. But it's still nice that it just kind of fell into a thing.
It's funny that we don't really remember who actually asked who out to the dance. But it's still nice that it just kind of fell into a thing.
- Steve Boudreau
Elliott: You were finished Carleton by that time.
Boudreau: Yeah, I think I was in my 20s. It was when I was just working around town.
And then through that we became friends. And when I was in Boston, we'd already been playing enough that we thought about recording and doing this record. It had already kind of come into being I moved to Boston.
Elliott: That's right, because I went down to visit Steve for the 40th anniversary of the New England Conservatory. And they had a big event, and Wayne Shorter was there with the group, and they played with the school orchestra. Steve and I got together and played then, and things just really felt good, and they always have.
Especially, I think, like Steve was saying, [we have] similar tastes, like that sort of Bill Evans sensibility, that – would you call it a romanticism?
Boudreau: I would call it a harmonic thing, too...
Elliott: ... and a way of breathing and phrasing.
Boudreau: ...Voice leading and a melodic thing, yeah.
Elliott: So that seemed to fall quite naturally into place with us more so than I find playing with a lot of other people.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What about you, Steve? What appeals to you about Garry's music?
Boudreau: For me everything comes down to melody, and I [see that] when I play with the people I've played with that I've enjoyed with the most, like Hugh O'Connor, and some singers.
I think it's because on just the surface level, there's a melody that your ear is attracted to, and I feel like that's something that we both really try to bring out in our improvising, and in our writing. I guess that's the entry point for my playing and playing with Garry.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: So you like playing together, and you've written some compositions, but what actually inspired the album? When did you start thinking seriously about putting out an album?
Elliott: It was at a [JazzWorks] Jazz Camp, when we were together there.
Boudreau: Yeah, it was a couple years ago where they had a lot of singers at CAMMAC at the Jazz workshop, and so they hired me to be a third vocal accompanist. And Garry's been doing that [for] quite a few years.
Yeah. And so we actually took that opportunity to play [together] every night. We'd do some practicing,
Elliott: Go out in a shed.
Boudreau: Yeah. We'd go and play in one of the rooms when everyone was doing something else, and it was a good chance to play more.
At that point, it was getting easier to record. Mark Ferguson and Mike Tremblay did their duo album at Ottawa Pianos, and I always wanted to get in there and try a recording on that piano.
I thought it would be nice to record this band, and also to push it to the next level to make sure we had originals that we would have to work on. We were getting together already pretty regularly and practicing. This would give us something that we would also be practicing on our own if we had to do originals.
I would be learning his originals, and he would be learning mine. We'd also have to practice our own stuff because it's not often you write this stuff and get a chance to play it very often, so it's as unfamiliar to you as most songs in the Fake Book would be.
You constructed it, but actual experience playing it, is not always as much as you would with other tunes. I think that that was why we got the idea to do the record, was just kind of to push us to do more playing and writing together, and bring it to that level of really working on it.
Elliott: I enjoy working on Steve's tunes just because they're challenging. I learn a lot from that, so it's just a good experience that way, learning and sharing, and talking about the tunes, too.
[We talk about] how could we improve this? I had written a tune called “Sharr”. I'd originally intended it as a waltz. It's in 5/4, and then I thought, “Why don't we do it in 5?”, and Steve helped me change the melody around a bit. I was quite happy with the results, so it's nice that we can talk back and forth about the compositions themselves and the arrangements.
This is one of those lucky instances where we both trusted each other to have the technical ability to play anything we wrote. Which is very rare.
- Steve Boudreau
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How long a period were the compositions written over?
Elliott: For me, some of these go back a long way. “Sharr” is pretty recent. That was probably written last summer.
"Mix Live": that's a tune that's in 11/8. I went to New York City on a trip with my sister about four years ago and I was really inspired. There was this trio playing at Smalls called Dred Scott, and he was really playing some interesting stuff. I was so just inspired, I just went home and said “I got to write a tune in a different time signature to regular stuff!”
"Chelsea Trees": that was written about two years ago. I used to take lessons in Alexander technique with a woman out in Chelsea. I always would feel good driving there and driving back: you drive through such beautiful trees. I just felt the whole... the Alexander technique, the drive, and just appreciating the beauty of it.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What about you, Steve?
Boudreau: Mine span a lot, too, the oldest being "Solitarian", which I wrote it the first time I did a little cruise ship work. I think that might have been almost 10 years ago. I worked that one up at Petit Chicago with the Asselins.
It's the oldest tune I still play, I think. But the other ones mostly were written during my time in Boston, either as part of a class or inspired by a class – just because there's just so much information being thrown at you that I would come up with ideas. I think the newest one is "Irreversibly". That one I wrote just a couple years ago when I was on the road with a show, because I would still be trying to keep writing.
It's a little harder [to write] when I'm also working, because I find I have to sit down and actively make myself write. If I don't have time that's the first thing that goes in my practice.
So most of the songs are from that time where I was at school and I had time to write, and I had more time to think about that stuff. So 2008 to 2010. It's interesting because I'd say more than half of the material we do, we wrote around the same time as we were already playing together, and so we had the idea that we would be playing it together.
But we didn't write it for each other. We just wrote it and knew that the other guy would be able to fit in. So it's nice to have that in your composing.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Yes, because there's so much communication – the guitar and the piano are flowing around each other – that I was wondering if you were thinking about each other when you were writing.
Boudreau: I'm going to say this is one of those lucky instances where we both trusted each other to have the technical ability to play anything we wrote. Which is very rare: usually when I write for an ensemble, I want to write to people's strengths.
For instance, I wrote "Pre-Dawn Sky" basically for solo piano and melodic instrument, but when we recorded it, it sounded so nice that we switched it and he played the piano part on the classical guitar, and I just played the melody on the piano.
That's an instance where, even though I'd specifically written it to be one way, we were able to change it up because of Garry's great ability to read all kinds of hard music. It was really nice to know that we have all these options when we write stuff, that we can get something to come of it.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Shortly after JazzWorks, you headed off to start playing in a lot of traveling shows. You spent a lot of the last two years doing that?
Boudreau: Yes, it's been about two and a half years. I was always home every six to eight weeks for a break, and [Garry and I] usually tended to play around that time. I think we usually had a show almost every time I came back. So it was work, but I also had lots of time to be practicing when I was on the road.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What shows were you in?
Boudreau: I did Fiddler On The Roof for year and a half, and I did this new one called Catch Me If You Can for the last year. It was based on the movie with the same name.
We couldn't have done this without Matt [Ouimet]. Matt is that old-school of producing engineer where he can also say, “You know, I think the vibe was better on take one.” - Steve Boudreau
OttawaJazzScene.ca: When was the first time that you actually showcased this music?
Elliott: Actually, the first time we showcased this music was the jazz festival last year [June, 2012]. We played at the Brookstreet [Hotel Options Jazz Lounge] as part of the series there – a duet.
We actually had a lot more music that we had recorded. We just decided to pick nine out of what we sent, so we have a lot more stuff that we have been playing.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: You also were at the jazz festival this year as well?
OttawaJazzScene.ca: So what kind of reaction were you getting at both those jazz festival concerts? The Rideau Centre can be a pretty noisy place.
Boudreau: We were with the quartet [at the Rideau Centre].
Elliott: Yes, that seemed to go over really well. I think the response was quite good. It was the first time we'd played this music with a quartet, so having the interaction with such great players as John Geggie and Jeff Asselin was really a nice contribution, and took it to another level. When we do our CD release in October, we'll have John and Jeff with us as well.
Boudreau: The Brookstreet one was great because it was a listening audience.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Now Ottawa Pianos: how did you do the recording there? Were you in the showroom?
Boudreau: We actually first recorded there in January, 2012, before we did the jazz fest show. They don't do a lot of stuff there: it's just their showroom where they show their new pianos. It's on Bank Street: it's the official Yamaha Grand Piano dealership in Ottawa.
They don't really rent the room out for that purpose a lot, and so they didn't really have a system. They said, basically, if you pay for the tuning of the piano and donate some money to CHEO on their behalf, they would let us use the room, which is really nice of them.
We had problems that winter with grounding in the heater. We had a lot of good material, but it had this really strong buzzing noise in it. So we came back again a year ago.
Elliott: It was my birthday.
Boudreau: Yeah, that's right [laughter]. So about a year ago right now is when we actually did it again, because, first of all, the heater wasn't on, and, secondly, Matt Ouimet, who recorded everything for us, he also brought gear to compensate for that.
The fact that they basically gave it to us for a charitable donation was pretty amazing because [their piano] was just an inspiring instrument for me to play on. I think we had this nine foot Yamaha, brand-new, that they tuned the day of.
Matt also mixed the record. I think he co-mastered it as well at Phil Bova's studio. [Phil is] a legendary mastering engineer, which is a very small niche to have in Ottawa, but he does stuff all over the world, people are sending stuff for him to master.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: It's a beautifully clear sound. I'm not hearing any buzz.
Boudreau: Yes, it really turned out, and they did really great work. We couldn't have done this without Matt. There's an older tradition of what I would call the producing engineer, and they don't teach that anymore in school. It's the recording engineer who also listens to your material and can give you musical advice at the same time. Matt is that old-school of producing engineer where he can also say, “You know, I think the vibe was better on take one.”
Actually when we got home the next day and he sent us the tracks. he had little marks saying what he thought the better takes were, and we could use that as a start.
Elliott: It's really nice to have an extra third ear to give you more of an objective standpoint.
Boudreau: ... having someone that wasn't playing the material.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: So why is the album called Pre-Dawn Skies?
Elliott: That's the song that Steve composed – "Pre-Dawn Sky" – and I just thought, what a beautiful title, and what a nice concept.
Pre-Dawn Skies: I think it sets the mood for the album, because it's very introspective.
[The album is] a real departure from just going out and playing a gig where we play standards, which is what I've done most of my jazz life.
- Garry Elliott
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Can you tell me more about the album itself?
Boudreau: This is going to be pretty far-reaching, but I think of jazz as all kinds of music that has improvisation in it. Jazz is a huge, huge broad category, and so when we say this is a jazz CD, really all it is is music that we play together that has some improvising in it. And even at that, the title song “Pre-Dawn Sky” actually has no improvising. It's a fully composed piece, but the improvising spirit is still in it.
I think it almost lends itself more towards what a lot of people who aren't into jazz might consider more to be like chamber music. It has more of a classical sound because it doesn't always have a swinging feel, although there's some swinging tunes on there.
We're doing this house concert on [September 14]; usually, this gentleman hosts these concerts for classical musicians, and we're the first jazz duo that's going to be playing this series.
I think that we're probably a good in-between thing, because we both play classical music, we both play jazz music. Our original material kind of reflects that we're both really far-reaching in our stylistic appreciation.
I had this problem when we put the CD on iTunes. They have to ask, “Your material sounds like?” And I left it blank. I'd hate to say, "Oh, your material sounds like so-and-so", and then when somebody's looking at it, [iTunes is] like, “Why don't you check out Steve Boudreau?” I'd feel totally silly about that, so I don't really tend to describe my music in terms of [that]. But there are elements of jazz and elements of chamber music.
Again, it's like it doesn't really describe it by saying it's jazz and classical, and improvisation, but really I think that's about as good as we can get.
Elliott: I think for me it's a real departure from just going out and playing a gig where we play standards, which is what I've done most of my jazz life. So I think it's just [that] the compositions reflect a different side and a different style of music. A lot of classical influence, and modern jazz harmonies. Just searching for things that I wouldn't normally do if I was playing standards. When I go to compose a tune, I'm just looking for different sounds that I wouldn't normally play.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: You're also going to be playing at St. Luke's in November, which again, is primarily a classical concert venue.
Elliott: But I've been playing that series for, I don't know maybe 10 years. A lot of times solo, classical guitar, or in a duo with flute, and last year I did one with John Geggie.
Actually [John and I] did one a couple of years back as well, too. So Bob lets us get away with that. I think he seems to like having that in his series.
Boudreau: Getting away with jazz? [laughs]
Elliott: To me, it's always been necessary to play both. It just fulfills two different sides because sometimes I really just enjoy working on the classical guitar.
And then on the other side, I don't think I'd just be happy playing classical guitar. I started out as a rock player, and improvisation was the thing. It's kind of complete in its incomplete kind of way, playing both types of music.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Steve, do you prefer piano (as you'll be playing at GigSpace) over keyboards?
Boudreau: I think it's logistics. GigSpace is going to be a real treat because they have a beautiful piano there. The piano at Ottawa Pianos, like I said, was amazing. It's more out of necessity: the [jazz festival] Rideau Centre series, they don't provide a piano.
I do have some keyboards I prefer over others when we play together, but generally speaking, I really like the sound of acoustic piano and acoustic guitar. [But] Garry's been playing a lot more electric lately, and so it actually works when we play with the Rhodes and with the electric keyboards, it's actually easy to balance those instruments.
But from a basic acoustics point of view, it's really nice to be doing some music that doesn't require to be plugged in. It's just like music that's being made by real things doing real physical actions, and I prefer it.
I had a good conversation with Ethan Iverson [of The Bad Plus] about this because he made a decision not to play electric keyboards. He's just a pianist. But he said, "You know, you listen to some of these records: there's records of Herbie Hancock playing the crappiest keyboards in the 70s, and he still sounds awesome."
So you have to not think, “Oh well, it's a keyboard. I'm not going to play as good.” It's still down to the musician. So I try not to look down at keyboard gigs, as not as good as piano gigs. I prefer a good instrument, but it's the musician and not the instrument.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Garry, are you going to be playing acoustic guitar at the GigSpace show? Or electric, or a bit of both?
Elliott: Probably mostly electric, because with the quartet it's hard to use [acoustic]. But maybe we'll do few things as a duo, and I think a couple will work with the classical [guitar], if they're open spaced tunes. So I'm going to try to do a nice mix.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What inspires you about the Ottawa jazz scene? What keeps you here?
Boudreau: The Ottawa jazz scene is really tight-knit. Everyone knows everybody.
When I was in Boston, for instance, the scene is just... there's so many students there that there's always people playing who are great, that you've never met before, and you may never meet again. If you go two years later, everyone's going to be different because the schools, there's a turnaround of students.
That isn't really appealing to me. I mean I still have friends there that I want to play with at some point, but [in] Ottawa, it's just nice to have a family feeling with the jazz scene here.
Then in terms of the city itself, I have family here and having lived here my whole life, I do have a fondness for a lot Ottawa's features, and the scenery and the places around here as well as the people.
Elliott: The Ottawa jazz scene? Well, I think there's a lot of friendly people in town. You don't get a real strong sense of people being cut throat about gigs and that. There might be maybe a little bit on a very peripheral level, but having lived here, geez, 35 years or something like that, I've had a lot of fabulous mentors in Ottawa.
Dave Hildinger was an amazing mentor to me when I was at school, and even after. He recommended me for gigs and stuff like that. Roddy Ellias has been a great friend and a fabulous player. I've always looked up to him, and we get together and play. So a lot of older musicians: Gerry Hilke, who passed away. Over the years, I think the Ottawa jazz scene has been amazing.
I just wish now there were more venues to play at. There's a lot of young players that are doing some really neat things, too, like Alex Moxon and the Chocolate Hot Pockets, and Renée Yoxon, and the IMOO. It's just great that they're doing those things.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Do you have any plans for a follow-up record?
Boudreau: If we try to record again, it will be with the quartet.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: There are no specific plans?
Boudreau: Not yet. Maybe next summer. When you have four people, again, it's harder to organize. Because me and Garry can get together almost every week to play, if we want to. When have time, we do that – sometimes twice a week. But with four people, that's just not really a thing, and part of the reason I think the CD works so well is because we put the time into it.
– Alayne McGregor
Steve Boudreau and Garry Elliott will officially release Pre-Dawn Skies on October 12 at GigSpace in a quartet concert with John Geggie and Jeff Asselin.