Vancouver Jazz Profiles by Gary Barclay
Campbell Ryga

One of Canada’s preeminent musicians, saxophonist Campbell Ryga has stuck to basics while bringing a fresh voice to the evolving musical landscape. He has performed on nearly 60 recordings, garnered three Juno Awards, a Grammy nomination, and has twice received the Western Canadian Music Award in the Jazz category. Jazz Report Magazine named him Canada’s Alto Saxophonist of the Year 2000.

“My approach to the music is basically a sort of a concentration of the area of the music that interests me,” he explains. “It’s something that I’m constantly re-examining in that I’m doing a lot of teaching these days, so I’m thinking about other people’s approaches to music and what stimulates them. Obviously, the biggest thing for me is improvised music – and jazz is certainly not the only music I would say that really has affected me, but it is the music that’s closest to my heart and so I spend a lot of time in that world and generally listen to quite a bit of jazz.

“But I also listen to a lot to Chopin, and Ravel and Bach and, quite honestly, a lot of the teaching that I do comes from the classical repertoire and studies – and etudes and that sort of thing – because I believe that in order to be the best improviser that you can be, you have to have a very good technical facility on your instrument and all of that’s available. ”

Cannonball Adderley has been one of Ryga’s biggest influences, especially the recordings of the late ’40s and into the early ’50s. Is bebop a baby? “I don’t think that bebop has lost any of its shelf life any more so than any areas of pop music or anything else like that. I think it’s just an evolution of the music that continues to go on.
“I think that because I’ve been going down to South America over the past number of years a fair bit with Hugh Fraser and the quintet. I thought I knew some things about Latin music but I had no idea that each country had its own style of Latin music, which was very unique, and their folk musics are very, very dear and important to them and a big part of their culture.

“The thing that astounded me was how much respect they all had for one another. So in Columbia, for instance, if a group was coming in from Cuba, the club would be full and I think vice versa. It just shows how the bebop language has manifested itself into the other types of foreign folk musics and it’s come across as being something really, really quite spectacular.”

As the son of famed Canadian playwright George Ryga, who achieved international acclaim with The Ecstasy of Rita Joe when it premiered in Vancouver in 1967, Campbell recalls, “As my dad used to say, ‘Write about what you know, and stay close to what really is important to you.’”

And the values he passed on? “To be honest to yourself and to the art form and to respect the integrity of it. I think what used to really bother my dad was when he would see people not living up to their respective potentials, so it used to bother him when perhaps if he felt that we weren’t doing our best – and I say our best because when I was in high school in Summerland, my brother and I had a few musical groups together. There were times when Dad would come in, right into the middle of a rehearsal when we’d be running through some stuff, and obviously agitated. There’d be a few sharp words come from him, that we shouldn’t be screwing around, we should be getting serious about this, and then he’d leave. The rest of the guys would kind of look at each other and I knew what he was talking about. He was absolutely right.”

Campbell Ryga will team up with his great friend and fellow bopper P.J. Perry November 22–23 at the Cellar Jazz Club. Last year they recorded Joined at the Hip. “That album is predominately a bebop-influenced album because that’s where we come from, but you never know what kind of direction we might go with respect to what might come out next. Definitely we’ll have all of that but it might have other things in there, too. If ever anything was to be able to evolve, I think that that would be a really good group to try to do things with.”


Article originally appeared in VLM: Vancouver's Lifestyle Magazine, November 2008.

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.