Gene Bertoncini (l) and Roddy Ellias (r) ©Brett Delmage, 2013
Gene Bertoncini (l) and Roddy Ellias (r) ©Brett Delmage, 2013

Roddy Ellias and Gene Bertoncini
Roddy Ellias 2012-13 Concert Series, #5
Saturday, January 19, 2013
GigSpace Performance Studio

The next show in Roddy's concert series is this Saturday, February 23: the Roddy Ellias Ensemble, with pipa, flutes, bass, and guitar.

View photos of this concert

One of the joys of hearing two master guitarists play together is their unpredictability. They have the whole ocean of jazz and jazz standards to splash around in, and they needn't just grab from the shallows, or keep to the pre-planned course.

If they want to ad-lib: well, the audience is there to hear them, not any one particular song.

Guitarists Roddy Ellias (Ottawa) and Gene Bertoncini (NYC) played two back-to-back concerts mid-January in the intimate confines of GigSpace. The 7 p.m. show was not only sold out but oversold; we heard the last few minutes, which were very quiet and intense. attended the 9 p.m. show, which was less packed and a bit more relaxed.

Ellias and Bertoncini have played together at least once before, in the first “Roddy and Friends” invitational series at Café Paradiso in 2009. They were at ease with each other, having fun playing, trading stories, and sharing the joy of the music.

A few times, they changed the set-list on a dime after a quick consultation. Bertoncini's decades of experience playing for dinner jazz listeners, as well as with jazz greats like Benny Goodman, Buddy Rich, Wayne Shorter, or Paul Desmond, has given him an enviable repertoire. Ellias has had a similar experience, and they had little problem finding common ground.

They opened with "I'm All Smiles" by Mickey Leonard, one of two songs which survived a disastrous Broadway adaptation of The Yearling. It deserves to be better known: it's a lovely melody, and together and apart they played it simply and beautifully.

Bertoncini began the second piece almost like a Bach cantata, very stylized and formal – and then suddenly it became more vibrant and turned into “I'm Old-Fashioned”. The two guitarists took the melody into places far afield, each playing separately but in a coordinated manner. One heard two interesting voices, but never a squabble.

They took a similar – although by no means identical – approach to standards like “I Remember You”, “My One and Only Love”, and “My Funny Valentine”. You could see the two listening deeply to each other and responding, sometimes surprising each other but always remaining true to the tune.

Bertoncini has accompanied many jazz singers, including Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Nancy Wilson, Vic Damone, and Eydie Gorme, and has grown to love the lyrics of songs almost as much as their melodies. He's also well-known for his guitar interpretations of Brazilian music. On “Estate”, a song made famous by João Gilberto on his album Amoroso, he combined those two – and surprised the audience – by singing as well as playing.

Bertoncini's voice doesn't have the depth or richness of a trained singer's, but he put considerable feeling into the words, singing about love lost one summer (the song title is Italian for “summer”). He introduced the song by saying he knew Joel Siegel, who wrote the English lyrics. On guitar, Bertoncini's light riffs were complemented by greater depth and resonance from Ellias.

Bertoncini also sang the elegant lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman on “A Love Like Ours”, noting that he once had the honour of playing at their house. His guitar's interpretation of the music by Dave Grusin was equally expressive, both telling the story.

On “Mood Indigo” by Duke Ellington, Ellias moved to electric guitar for a sophisticated, fun rendition, which reminded me of a shimmying walk by a sexy woman. At one point, Bertoncini played rhythm while Ellias played a bass-heavy lead; at other points they played different but coordinating rhythms.

A particular highlight was “Joy” by Gerry Niewood, which Ellias said he had heard first in its rendition by Chuck Mangione, but still fell in love with. Ellias performed it alone, starting with strong Latin rhythms, and then alternating different tempos with occasional strong riffs providing alerts to the audience.

The show ended with a bright-sounding version of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”, which morphed at the end into “How Much is that Doggy in the Window?”, and everyone laughed and applauded.

The audience – many of whom were local jazz artists – was strongly in tune with the two musicians. At one point they helped Bertoncini find his reading glasses (and proffered substitutes during the search). They clearly enjoyed the music, and the loose, fun vibe of the concert.

     – Alayne McGregor

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All photos ©Brett Delmage 2013. Click on the thumbnails for a larger version.