Ryan Oliver made a jubilant return home to Williams Lake last weekend with his five-piece Toronto jazz band The Cookers.
They packed the Studio Theatre twice on Friday and Saturday nights, April 12 and 13, then did an afternoon workshop and evening house concert at the home of Rudy Wassenaar on Sunday, April 14, before concluding their Williams Lake tour with an early morning workshop Monday, April 15 with band students at Williams Lake Secondary School.
Oliver grew up in Williams Lake and started playing tenor saxophone at 15 years old under the tutelage of Michael Butterfield.
He and his group of world-class jazz musicians, which include Tim Hamel on trumpet, Alex Coleman on stand-up bass, Richard Whiteman on piano, and Joel Haynes on drums, are on a 27-day tour of western Canada.
“We’ve played collectively as a band for four years,” Oliver says, “but within the band we’ve been playing together a long time.”
When he was 16 Butterfield invited Oliver to play in his Hot Buttered Blues band, and this gave him the chance to solo in front of an audience and build his confidence.
“I was probably terrible, I can’t remember. We always made the point to learn the parts and not read them, so I had the chance to blow some solos.”
Blowing solos is something Oliver and fellow horn player Tim Hamel did plenty of on stage in Williams Lake. They’ve been playing together for 13 years and it shows. It was uncanny how they married the sound of their two instruments, the trumpet and tenor saxophone, like they were bedfellows or birds in flight.
“Tim and I play so much music together we know where the other guy is going to be. All these tunes we spend a lot of time running together. You build up trust. We all make mistakes, but you make far fewer mistakes when you don’t worry about it.”
When Oliver graduated from high school, Mike Butterfield encouraged Oliver to attend the Malaspina College music program in Nanaimo (now Vancouver Island University). Instead of going for the usual audition, he met the head of the music program at a downtown hotel and was invited to get into a jam session.
As he was getting up to play, Butterfield gave him one last piece of advice.
“After it is done, don’t ever forget to tell the rest of the guys in the band how great they sounded.”
Oliver says he remembered that as he followed his career to Toronto, Amsterdam, New York and eventually back to Toronto where he lives and plays his saxophone professionally. Slowly but surely he is working on his music doctorate at York University.
He says he has found a musical home in the Toronto jazz scene.
“I spend time in New York where I go to hear my heroes on stage, but for me Toronto is a place where I can be part of the scene as opposed to just enjoying it as a listener. In Toronto I’ll play three or four times a week with guys who are some of my favourite musicians.”
When Butterfield introduced The Cookers to the Williams Lake audience, he encouraged people to listen to each of the five musicians.
“Every person in a jazz band is important,” he said. “Every person is just burning in their own thing. They are all very important and each one contributes to every song.”
For Oliver the local support for his music was overwhelming.
“It’s a treat to see the support from the community and the people who come out. I saw both my Kindergarten teachers, one on Friday night and the other on Saturday. You can’t buy that at Berkeley. Those are the things that are most special.”
He says people might come out to his concerts because they know him or his family.
“But in the end I hope they leave and say, that’s awesome.”
Someone asked Oliver if it was strange for his group to play in a small venue like the Studio Theatre. On the contrary, he said the ambience of that space is special.
“In Toronto you’re playing the clubs and it’s kind of a fight. The Studio Theatre is a small room and a soft-seater. The audience is locked in and actually listening to you. This is the chance we get to spread out. You feel more like the artist.”
He says Williams Lake is a vibrant musical community, and he is honoured to bring such esteemed musicians to his home town. “They are all top-shelf performers.”
He says their tour is funded by Canada Council for the Arts to expose the smaller communities to some of the top musicians in Canada.
“We’re trying to pass on what we see as the important parts of music.”
Oliver says he himself was inspired when Mike Butterfield brought in Ross Taggart to sit in with the blues band.
“Ross, who just passed away recently from renal cancer, was a dynamite tenor player.
“I was already super passionate about music and ready to go, but the story is, a great musician could connect with the worst kid in the band and something clicks.
“That’s the beauty of it. We love passing on the tradition of Canadian jazz musicians. It helps us get back to the roots of why we’re doing what we’re doing.”