May 31, 2023

Guitarist Reg Schwager and sax supremo Ryan Oliver are two top jazz musicians currently residing in Canada, both sporting a list of credits as long as your proverbial arm. Born in the Netherlands, Schwager has been playing professionally since he was 15, having collaborated with such luminaries as Mel Tormé and Diana Krall amongst others, and winning Guitarist of the Year at the Canadian National Jazz Awards four years in a row. Oliverhas toured the world with The Shuffle Demons, and also featured in the horn section of first nation Canadian native Derek Miller’s Derek Miller and Double Trouble,which features Stevie Ray Vaughan’s band and country giant Willie Nelson. Their latest collaboration Senza Resa was the brainchild of producer Luigi Porretta, who pulled together Schwager, Oliver and three other hand-picked performers from the length and breadth of Canada to form a quintet of such brilliance that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Firstly, all five are band leaders in their own right and unquestionably virtuosos, and all Juno award winners or nominees. Bassist Rene Worst, known from fusion band Skywalk, Brazilian band Novo Tempo and ambient new age outfit Mythos, is equally at home on bass guitar, fretted or fretless, and upright, and has toured with such notables as Chet Baker and Joe Pass, as well as performing on records for such varied acts as Jennifer Love Hewitt, David Bowie, Aerosmith and Poison. Genius drummer Ernesto Cervini leads his own sextet named Ernesto Cervini’s Turboprop. UK-born Nick Peck’s piano and keyboard talents were honed at the Guildhall School Of Music and Drama in London, under Simon Purcell, John Taylor and Ian Carr, and having relocated to Canada ten years ago, he is now counted amongst the country’s best.

Senza Resa (Italian for ‘No Surrender’), is half original compositions and half covers of tracks selected by Porretta – he sent the guys their parts well ahead of time, so they could familiarise themselves with them, then pulled them in for a day’s rehearsal and a live show in preparation for two days’ recording. The fact that they were able to turn in nine faultless tracks is a testament both to the musicians’ prowess, and Porretta’s organization and production skills, as well as those of Ron ‘Obvious’ Vermuelen, who engineered, mixed and mastered the whole thing. Add some stunning photo-collage cover art from designer Fran Walsh in County Cork, Ireland, (a long-time Porretta collaborator), and the whole package catches the eye as much as the ear.

The set kicks off unobtrusively enough, with the smooth jazz of Neil Richardson’s Another Happening, which some readers may recognise as the theme from TV documentary series Britain On Film. The drumming drives the rhythm changes as the band members take it in turns to solo, with Oliver turning in both sax and flute passages – check out the live rendition (sans flute) at the foot of this page. The Schwager composition Rushbrooke alternates between a rapid 9-8 and straight 4-4 rhythms, with sax and guitar playing the melody in sync, which forms a template for a number of pieces on this album. Peck’s piano composition 4JT was composed as a tribute to his mentor John Taylor, and is probably the most musically complex number on the set – it ranges from a Gershwin-esque intro to Keith Emerson prog, via some passages that are almost freeform, taking the form of a piano/drum/bass trio for the most part, with Oliver and Schwager dropping in just to play their solos and do the playout melody together.

Left to right: Nick Peck, Ernesto Cervini, Ryan Oliver, Luigi Porretta, Reg Schwager, Rene Worst

So far so good, but the guys really meld into a single unit on Ronnie Matthews’ The Orient, with a truly virtuoso tenor sax turn from Oliver and a tremendous piano solo from Peck, driven along by some truly groovy upright bass. In a nice bit of track sequencing, the tempo then slows to the ballad Tender Love, with its folky flute line à la Focus, brush drums and minimal classical guitar backing. Worst contributes a great fretless bass solo to this one too. Oliver’s 8½ minute Blues For Josie Rose is a bit of a surprise, with several rounds of an up-tempo, almost rocky 12-bar riff, before exploding into a classic jazz fusion jam, with Schwager clicking up a gear for a fast, smooth and fluid guitar solo, and Peck turning in another incredible piano slot. Main kudos for this number go to Cervini on drums though – I don’t know how many limbs this guy has, but there is more going on than seems to be physically possible, hitching almost telepathically to Worst’s bass work. It’s a close call, but I would have to make this one the highlight of the album.

Schwager turns up the fuzz for an overdriven guitar solo in The Keith Tippett Group’s Black Horse, with Oliver playing his sax solo through an octave splitter at one point, the two players teaming up for an answerback section later on. Drummer Cervini contributes the tune Squagels, another light, cheerful number played with brushes, presented as a classic tuxes and bow-tie lounge jazz quartet with no horns. The band is really soaring by this point though, the number rolling along on rails, before they settle back for a cover of Passport’s fusion-fuelled The Kat From Katmandu, on which Oliver swaps between tenor and soprano saxes.

These nine tracks already run to an hour overall, but just for the fun of it, a bonus track is included; a 12-minute live workout of Blues For Josie Rose. Maybe not as tight, but the production is as clear as the studio version, the guys are clearly having a great time, and an otherwise-silent audience offer polite applause after every solo. This track brings the total length up to over 70 minutes, a generous helping indeed, all killer, no filler. Personally, I can’t wait to hear what else emanates from the Porretta stable.

Senza Resa by the Schwager-Oliver Quintet will be available from 9th June, on CD from Quadwrangle Music, and digitally via Cellar Live