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For jazz musician Ryan Oliver, Island life is where it's at

Tenor saxophonist Ryan Oliver plays Hermann’s Jazz Club in Victoria on Friday
Ryan Oliver will play Hermann’s Jazz Club on Friday, June 14. HANDOUT


Where: Hermann’s Jazz Club, 753 View St.
When: Friday, June 14, 7 p.m. (doors at 5:30)
Tickets: $25 ($15 for students) from

Ryan Oliver does not regret his decision to leave Toronto for Victoria in 2016, as the tenor saxophonist returned to a thriving jazz community that nurtured him as a teenager.

“It’s a different lifestyle, but the Island still has a really great music scene,” Oliver, 46, said. “There are a lot of really great players here.”

Born and raised in Williams Lake, B.C., Oliver moved to Nanaimo in 1996 to study at the former Malaspina College. He was mentored by guitarist Pat Coleman, an instructor at the college, who provided the leadership Oliver need to continue with music as a career. “When I look back on it, I was pretty lucky. It’s hard. A lot of people go to music school, but it’s hard to stay in the industry and play music as their main thing.”

Oliver has extensive schooling, which he acquired after leaving Vancouver Island in 2001. He has a degree in jazz performance from Humber College in Etobicoke, Ontario, and a master’s degree from Rutgers University in New Jersey. By 2010, he was a member of the Richard Underhill-led Shuffle Demons, and during his tenure with the Juno-nominated Toronto group, he performed in China, Thailand, Japan, India, Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua, Mexico, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Aruba, and the United States.

As the bandleader of the Ryan Oliver Quartet and the Cookers Quintet, he employs a somewhat traditional jazz approach, with standards woven into his original material. Shades of the Shuffle Demons — a hard-charging, street-savvy bunch that favours improvisation — is never far from the surface, however. Their impact on his playing was immeasurable, Oliver said. “The Demons are chordless, and it’s wild and it’s out there, but there’s a lot of room just to be yourself in that band. My roots have always been a bit more mainstream — I love playing in a quartet with piano, bass and drums — but if you can be in the moment and play to what’s happening around you, that’s a big part of it.”

Oliver is performing Friday at Hermann’s with pianist Tony Genge, bassist Ken Lister, and drummer Joe Poole, in celebration of his third solo release, Live in Vancouver, which was recorded last year at Frankie’s Jazz Club. There was no crossover between the musicians he used on the live recording and the ones he favours in the live setting, which was by design, Oliver said. The jazz community in and around Victoria has much to offer, and he wants to explore its abundance.

“I try to stress this sometimes to people, but Victoria and Vancouver Island is an amazing spot in that way. The idea of moving to Vancouver was off the table to me. I was already living in a giant city, like Toronto, and if you want something else, this is a very unique place. There’s really good players, places to play, and a scene that supports it. Having said all that, it’s important to recognize the value of that.”

Some of his classmates at Malaspina College were pianist Brent Jarvis, bassist Alex Coleman, and drummer Robbie Kuster, all of whom continue to play professionally. They joined Oliver and a long list of others who used the Nanaimo school as a jumping off point in the careers, but that momentum will not exist for future generations. Oliver’s alma mater, now known as Vancouver Island University, announced last month it is be closing its music programs, which has been in place since 1969.

Oliver teaches extensively in Victoria, when he’s not performing, and remains grateful for the opportunity. He runs the school music programs at Christ Church Cathedral, in addition to teaching at the Victoria Conservatory of Music and Camosun College. But the loss of schooling in a smaller city like Nanaimo — birthplace of homegrown jazz legend Diana Krall — is a concern.

There is hope, he said, and learning opportunities abound, up and down the Island. “I’m always telling my students, you’ve got to go out and hear music. That’s what it’s all about. As much as it is about practicing and getting better on your instrument, and doing your own thing, you have to be part of the community, part of the scene. It’s the best thing you can do for your own career, but also because you want [live performance] to be there. You miss a lot by not supporting shows that are around you. And slowly but surely, some of those things can disappear.”

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