Art of Life Records is proud to present 28-year-old Canadian saxophonist Ryan Oliver's debut recording. Joining Ryan on "Convergence" are Duncan Hopkins on acoustic bass, Bob McLaren on drums, Bernie Senensky on piano and Jake Wilkinson on trumpet. The album features three standards, "It's Easy to Remember" by Rodgers & Hart, "The End of a Love Affair" by Edward C. Redding and "Mamacita" by Joe Henderson, as well as six original songs composed by Oliver. "Convergence" was recorded and mixed by Walter Sobczak at National Treasures Studio at Puck's Farm in Ontario, Canada on December 5th and 6th 2005 and was made possible through the generous support of the Ontario Arts Council. All tracks have been digitally mastered using 24-bit digital technology.
Although the tenor saxophone ranks second only to the trumpet in Barry Kernfeld's "Instrumentarium" of the most frequently played instruments in Jazz, it was an instrument without a lineage until Coleman Hawkins joined Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds in the early 1920s, codified a style with Fletcher Henderson's big band in the 1930s and became a mainstay of American popular culture in 1940 with his seminal recording of "Body and Soul." Hawkins's mastery of tone and harmony, improvisatory ideas, rhythmic drive and swagger with the horn informed and shaped the tastes of a listening public for nearly a century. In turn, Hawkins inspired (to greater or lesser degrees) such saxophonists as John Coltrane, Don Byas, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins and Michael Brecker, all of whom have become nearly as influential as "The Bean" himself. A younger generation of saxophonists (Joel Frahm, Eric Alexander, Phil Dwyer and Grant Stewart) have formed their respective styles with more than a passing nod to many of the above-mentioned Jazz masters. Like Armstrong's trumpet vocabulary or Bing Crosby's singing, aspects of Hawkins's saxophone language (sometimes three or four generations removed and in highly variegated forms) is alive and well and living in the playing of many contemporary musicians.
With so many top-drawer Jazz players gigging and recording today, new musicians walk a tight rope between honouring past performances and carving out their own place in Jazz history. Confident, musically mature and consistently swinging, twenty-eight year old Ryan Oliver has succeeded on both fronts with Convergence, his debut recording.
Born in Williams Lake, British Columbia, Oliver has been lighting up the bandstands of Canada's West Coast, Switzerland (Montreux Jazz Festival), Amsterdam (where he spent a year studying at the request of Misha Mengelberg) and Toronto since he was a teenager. Oliver is now a familiar face in many Toronto Jazz ensembles. As a single listening to Convergence makes clear, Oliver has synthesized his many influences into a coherent Jazz sound that is both reverential to his musical mentors and altogether sui generis. His unique musical voice caught the collective "ear" of many musicians, including bassist Dave Young, guitarist Pat Coleman and pianist Bernie Senensky, all of whom employ Oliver in their ensembles. Further, his unique "voice" distinguishes him from other Jazz saxophonists working in Toronto, Amsterdam and New York - three Jazz communities in which Oliver has participated. As the album's title rightly acknowledges, the lessons and influences of his various teachers and mentors (Coltrane, Gordon, Shorter, Rollins, Pat LaBarbera, Ralph Bowen, guitarist Pat Coleman and the aforementioned Dwyer) have converged into a singular improvisatory approach. The respective talents of Oliver and his well-chosen side musicians have similarly converged on this mixed program of standards and Oliver originals for a result that captures the immediately identifiable sound that is good Jazz music.
Joining Oliver on the recording are four of Canada's finest Jazz musicians. Trumpeter Jake Wilkinson, an alumnus of bands led by Bob Mover, Norman Marshall Villeneuve and John Hicks has been contributing muscular Bop lines and musical ideas to Toronto ensembles for over a decade. Featured on only four album cuts, Wilkinson makes a big impression here - from his rapid-fire negotiation of the "Countdown" changes Oliver applied to "The End of a Love Affair," to his earthy and expressive blues playing on Joe Henderson's "Mamacita."
Legendary pianist Bernie Senensky benefited from bandstand experience with George Coleman, Buddy DeFranco, Art Farmer, Frank Morgan, Art Pepper, Red Rodney, Zoot Sims, Joe Williams, Phil Woods and as a charter member of Moe Koffman's ensemble. A believer in the "pass-it-down" approach to Jazz pedagogy, Senensky often works with younger musicians, affording them valuable musical experience and keeping himself on the vanguard of Jazz. His relationship with Oliver has gone from one of employer to colleague and his musical contributions to this recording underscore why he is among the most sought after side musicians in Jazz.
With an impressive resume that belies his young age, bassist Duncan Hopkins contributes a woody tone, perfect time and swinging solos to everything he does. A former student of Red Mitchell, Hopkins (who has contributed his musicianship to bands led by Diana Krall, Norma Winstone, Lester Bowie, Sam Rivers, Sam Noto, Ed Bickert and the Boss Brass) acts as the band's anchor, holding sway while musical tempests flare up and subside around him.
Rounding out the group is Bob McLaren, a legendary drummer who, along with Montreal's Claude Ranger, probably comes closest to matching the swing, drive and polyrhythmic excitement of the late Elvin Jones. Some album cuts clearly use the famous Coltrane ensemble as a stylistic template and McLaren leads the charge in this department. A veteran of bands led by Randy Brecker, Clifford Jordan, George Coleman, Charles MacPherson, Sam Noto, Pat LaBarbera, Tom Harrell, Mulgrew Miller, Harold Maybern and Doug Riley, McLaren is clearly in his element here, propelling Oliver and ensemble to new improvisatory heights as only a great drummer can do.
From Oliver's sinewy minor line on "Tune for Bernie" (a double reference to both pianist Senensky and to Gerry Mulligan's better-known and similarly titled tune) to the haunting "Never Forget," it is clear that smart saxophone playing is only one part of the equation for Oliver. And because he composes to his strengths as a player, his compositions (like those of many great Jazz musicians) can be heard as frozen improvisations, his improvisations as liquid compositions.
Kudos to National Treasures Studio at Puck's Farm, the Ontario Arts Council and Art of Life Records for having faith in gimmick-free, first-rate, well-played swinging music. Congratulations to Ryan Oliver and company for their dedication to the art form of Jazz. Enjoy the music!
Dr. Andrew Scott - June 2006
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