Review: Prairie Roots Ensemble reimagines Ellen Froese tunes

·2 min read

When Emmett Fortosky started making music with folk/bluegrass musician Ellen Froese seven years ago, he had a goal in mind:

“I really want Ellen to play jazz.”

And on Sunday afternoon in Victoria Park, that is exactly what she did — joined by the Prairie Roots Ensemble, which includes Fortosky.

But first, Froese showed the audience what she sounds like in her own style, with a gentle, modern-folk performance of her single In The Sun.

Then came the jazz.

As Fortosky described it, Prairie Roots Ensemble “takes a lot of different artists’ work from across the Prairies, and we kinda jazzify it.”

This year, ensemble members have been busy writing new, jazz-inspired arrangements of Froese’s music.

Just as Fortosky promised the audience, Sunday’s show was “jazzy and funky” — showcasing Froese’s excellent lyrics over powerful chords, weaving in strong solo performances for every member of the ensemble.

The mutual respect between every musician on stage was wonderfully obvious. Froese is a gifted storyteller, bringing the audience into vivid, intimate moments with her words and melodies — and the Prairie Roots Ensemble arrangements were full of that same spark.

From this joint effort, Froese’s Life Oh Life, a bluegrass reflection on “drifting on the prairies as a young girl,” became a contemplative jazz ballad. It still sounded entirely like Froese, grounded in her experiences of growing up on a dairy farm in the heart of Saskatchewan, and was entirely jazz, too.

Every arrangement performed Sunday afternoon was smooth, exciting and collaborative — taking new inspiration from Froese’s songs without erasing her own artistry.

Midway through the show, Froese even lent her voice to a jazz standard — Chet Baker’s There Will Never Be Another You — showing a deeper, richer, smoky vocal range she rarely brings to her own folk or country music.

It wasn’t a flawless performance; there were a few false starts and technical issues that had to be resolved on the fly. But in those moments, the Prairie Roots Ensemble more than stepped up to the challenge, showing their improvisational skills in a way you couldn’t have planned if you tried.

From start to finish, as the performers hyped each other up and executed new plans on the fly, the show felt like a really fantastic open-air jam session we all got to sit in on — ephemeral, accessible and a lot of fun.

Julia Peterson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix

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