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ECV: Sticks and Stones

John Kelman By

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While a somewhat common secondary instrument for primarily electric guitarists including Vic Juris, Pat Metheny and Adam Rogers, there are but a handful of jazz six-stringers alive today who make the nylon-string acoustic guitar their main axe. Despite being known to pick up a warm-toned hollow body electric guitar when the need arises, Ottawa, Canada-based Roddy Ellias is, like the better-known Ralph Towner, a guitarist who has made its gentler acoustic cousin, played with fingers rather than plectrum, his primary instrument. Of course, this dovetails nicely into Ellias' broader musical purview as a composer who has not only written music for the jazz environs, but for the classical sphere as well, including commissioned pieces for artists like Anne Akiko Meyers, who performed his "Acts of Light" when the American violin virtuoso appeared at the renowned Ottawa Chamber Festival a few years back.

Like Monday's Dream (Kwimu Music, 2014), Sticks and Stones is a trio date that feels as if the musicians are performing just feet away in a small space...a living room, perhaps. But eschewing Monday's Dream's more conventional guitar/bass/drums configuration for a chamber-like guitar/piano/bass lineup renders Sticks and Stones even more intimate. It would be all too easy to compare Ellias to Towner, but in almost every way they are completely different players and composers, even though Sticks and Stones' spacious, largely introspective chamber-like setting would make it an easy fit for ECM Records, the American expat's label for more than 45 years.

Contrasting Monday's Dream's exclusive venue for his occasionally abstruse but eminently appealing writing, Sticks and Stones is a more egalitarian affair, its set of five new Ellias compositions augmented by one each from his trio mates, alongside Miles Davis' often covered (but never like this) "Nardis." That, and the trio's decisive three-way conversational nature is, perhaps, what motivated Ellias to name this trio ECV, more fully recognizing the equality shared with the sublime American pianist Marc Copland and Montreal-based double bassist Adrian Vedady.

Despite his star continuing to rise, in particular through his recent ECM recordings with bassist Gary Peacock and recently departed guitarist John Abercrombie, Copland remains a distinctive talent still deserving of far greater recognition. Between his work with Abercrombie and less frequent collaborations with Towner, few pianists understand and transcend the challenges of playing with another chordal instrument as well Copland. Ever-attuned to those around him, here Copland complements the similarly open-eared Ellias, the pair possessed of both uncanny empathy and an effortless avoidance of the potential train wrecks almost intrinsic to the instrumental pairing. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the pianist's "Waves," an effortlessly flowing piece of iridescent beauty.

Vedady, another player who is as much a deep listener as he is a musical instigator, provides both a firm anchor and contrapuntal foil on equal footing with his trio mates. He's also the direct connection between Ellias and Copland. The bassist goes back some years with Ellias, particularly when the now-retired guitarist was living in Montréal as professor emeritus at Montréal's Concordia University; he was also a participant on the guitarist's Monday's Dream. Sticks and Stones may be Ellias' first formal encounter with Copland, but the bassist has previously collaborated with the pianist, in particular at an impressive (but, thanks to a particularly noisy crowd during the first set, frustrating) date at Ottawa's now-defunct Café Paradiso.

The profound chemistry and specific sound evinced by this trio is all the more remarkable for its members having only met in Montréal's Studio 451 for two days of recording in May, 2017, followed by a well-received gig at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival two months later. The individual participants' differing compositional styles are responsible for the breadth that renders this 55-minute set so appealing from start to finish. Still, Sticks and Stones' success is predicated on how this trio breathes its own collective personality into the music, lending it a consistency and "whole greater than the sum of its parts" ethos, no matter whose material is being interpreted.

Even a tune as evergreen as the modal "Nardis" becomes something fresh and still-relevant almost 60 years after Davis wrote it for Julian "Cannonball" Adderley's Portrait of Cannonball (Riverside, 1958). Opening with a brief but set-defining a cappella solo from Ellias that hints at the melody without quite giving it away, when the trio enters for its familiar theme, it's with a combination of reverence and healthy irreverence, imbued with harmonic alterations that make clear who owns this reading of the piece.

It's a version that moves, seemingly effortlessly, between rhythmic ambiguity and definitive swing, not just because of Vedady's muscular yet ever-shifting support, but through Ellias and Copland's ability to, at times, imply a pulse while, at other times, providing one that's more definitive. Copland solos first, his motivic inventions often mirrored with transcendent synchronicity by Ellias. If Copland's reputation has been built largely on his distinctive pedal work and a delicate touch few can match, here he demonstrates a firmer, more muscular approach as well, even as there's not a single note wasted or lacking in significance.

As Copland's solo closes with a simple but ambiguous ascending phrase, Ellias picks it up as the pianist moves to more dissonant voicings that lead to one of the guitarist's most exhilarating solos of the set. From initially spare intervallic leaps, the guitarist builds his solo gradually, his lines building in motion and density as he occasionally peppers them with chordal injections. Copland and Vedady move alongside Ellias with subtle synchronicity, the trio collectively picking up and running with ideas that might come from any one of them, only to be pushed in a different direction by another. This is communication at its most mitochondrial.

Vedady also takes an impressive solo on "Nardis," but it's his own dark-hued "Requiem" that demonstrates the bassist's true mettle. From a deceivingly challenging, long-form theme to a solo that, over the sparest of accompaniment, weaves melodies through its changes and sets a high bar, which the bassist easily meets and raises throughout the set, it positions Vedady as a musician well-deserving of greater recognition.

As is true of Ellias. He has managed some good press over the years, in both the contemporary new music scene and in the jazz world where, as just one example, he was called to sit in for the unavailable Peter Bernstein, at the last minute, for a 2007 TD Ottawa Jazz Festival gig with Dr. Lonnie Smith, quickly fitting in with the organist and drummer Anthony Pinciotti as if he was meant to be there all along. And he's been busier still, since retiring from Concordia and returning to Ottawa, where he garnered a Jazz Hero award from the Jazz Journalists Association in 2013. But it's Ellias' living in multiple musical spheres that has turned him into the unique player and composer that he surely is, clearly comfortable within and at the more sophisticated edges of the jazz tradition, but also imbued with compositional concepts that extend beyond its furthest reaches.

His CD-opening "Folksong" is just one of five examples on Sticks and Stones where the guitarist demonstrates such breadth in composition...and performance. A gently finger-picked opening with a simply ascending melody, first by Ellias alone, then doubled by Vedady and Copland, and, finally, with the pianist adding supporting arpeggiations, leading to a series of solos, Ellias' is notable for his injection of slight Middle Eastern sonorities that suggest even broader touchstones.

Elsewhere, "Hymn" begins with a harmonic bass ostinato, over which the guitarist layers first a single, finger-picked chord, followed by a series of initially dissonant changes which ultimately resolve into a more pastoral context where, with its harmonic specificity and thematic stops and starts, ECV comes closest to evoking Towner and his longstanding group Oregon. "Sonnet" is more complex, with Ellias' metrically shifting arpeggios creating a foundation for Copland's particularly spare theme. Featuring some of Vedady's most impressive playing of the set, it's as much a showcase for the deep conversational connection shared with Copland, who does more than support but less than trade-off before the two shift roles, with Copland assuming greater dominance. Ellias' solo is another marvel, as Vedady carries the pulse and the guitarist builds his improvisation with both care and abandon, constantly engaging Copland in a marvelous example of musical push-and-pull, inside and out.

From Ellias' oblique title track to the gentle closer, "Nostalgia," Ellias, Copland and Vedady demonstrate a rare ability to get to the heart of the material, no matter if it's more thoughtful or thought-provoking. The album title references Albert Einstein, who once said "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones." Given the dangerous times in which we now seem to live, Ellias' brief liner notes suggest that Sticks and Stones "seeks to find light and humanity in the darkness." A resounding success on that and many other fronts, in a time when so many artists are forced to release their music independently, ECV is a trio that merits broader attention, and Sticks and Stones an album that shouts, in its most soft and luminescent fashion, for a follow-up.

Track Listing: Folksong; Requiem; Waves; Hymn; Sonnet; Nardis; Sticks and Stones; Nostalgia.

Personnel: Roddy Ellias: guitar; Marc Copland: piano; Adrian Vedanta: bass.

Title: Sticks and Stones | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Kwimu Music

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