One of Canada’s most eloquent guitarists is back on the scene. After retiring last month from his full-time job with PG Music, the Band-in-a-Box company, Oliver Gannon is sounding better than ever. Since the inception of this popular musical accompaniment software 17 years ago, he has worked with his brother Peter, the inventor, and has limited his performing to select gigs, like opening for Oscar Peterson and leading his quartet at the Cellar. Now Gannon is free to return to playing the guitar in full swing.
His father, Joe, played piano professionally in Dublin, Ireland. Music was in the blood and Oliver, the oldest of six children, was in his mid-teens when the family moved to Winnipeg in 1957. As an engineering student at the age of 18, Oliver bought an electric guitar and, by chance, started listening to the Barney Kessel trio. “I guess engineering had helped to develop my analytical mind so after listening to the first side of The Poll Winners about a thousand times, I was able to figure out what Barney was doing,” he recalls. “I went from zero-to-60 fairly fast and played my first gig with my father’s quartet a few months later.”
Engineering eventually went out the window; Gannon packed his bags and guitar and headed for the Berklee School of Music in Boston. “I was there for about five years and then came to Vancouver. For most of the time I was at Berklee I had a six-night-a-week gig, playing guitar with a very good bass player, so it worked out nicely. I arrived in Vancouver in ’69 and soon found myself working as a regular member of the Fraser MacPherson big band at the Cave Supper Club. Through that, I got to meet other musicians who had radio and TV shows, like Doug Parker and Bobby Hales. I was very lucky; I was in the right place at the right time.
“Around the mid-’70s, Fraser started a trio with myself and bassist Wyatt Ruther. A CBC recording of one of our concerts became Live at the Planetarium, a record that was first bought by RCA and then Concord Records. This led to tours in Canada, Europe and Russia, and appearances at jazz festivals like Montreaux, Concord, Montreal, Northsea, Toronto and others. In Russia we were playing every night to an audience of about 2,000 people. We would play 30 concerts on a tour and the people just loved it!”
In 1983, a trio date at CBC became a duo when Ruther failed to show up. Released as I Didn’t Know about You, the recording went on to win the saxophonist MacPherson and Gannon a Juno Award for Best Jazz Album. In the early ’90s, Oliver put together his current quartet: Miles Black, Miles Hill and Blaine Wikjord. “When I started playing with this quartet, my playing moved from a chordal to a more horn-like approach. I love playing with these great musicians – they swing so hard! Every now and then you have these magical moments where everything comes together, like the perfect golf shot where no effort is involved.”
Most recently, Gannon has hooked up with guitarist Bill Coon, bassist Darren Radtke, and drummer Dave Robbins. “Playing with Bill is ‘falling-off-a-log’ time,” he enthuses. “We hit if off the first time we played.” This more-or-less leaderless group of boppers, a band that swings beautifully in a seemingly effortless groove, is a welcome musical treat and can be heard this month in both a club and concert setting: Two Much Guitar at the Cellar and Guitar Summit at the Performing Arts Theatre at Capilano College, respectively.
Article originally appeared in VLM: Vancouver's Lifestyle Magazine, March 2008.
Photo of Oliver Gannon by Pat Hervey
Gary Barclay is a Vancouver-based jazz writer and broadcaster. His On The Town column appears monthly in VLM: Vancouver's Lifestyle Magazine. For a free print subscription to VLM log on to vlmag.ca.