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George Colligan: Variety, Presentation and Doing It Because It's Fun

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When it comes to composing, you cant really be wrong. You make it up. Its your thing. It may not be that great; people may not like it. But no one can really say, 'this is wrong.'
Although George Colligan is a wildly in-demand musician whose piano, organ and Fender Rhodes have graced the recordings and performances of clarinetist Don Byron, bassist Buster Williams, vocalist Cassandra Wilson, and many other artists, he's also managed to produce a pretty sizable discography as a band leader. While his chops and imagination—coupled with a consistent clarity of thought and touch—make his playing a consistent pleasure to the jazz listener, he's just as good a composer, having written for Chamber Music America as well as for his own bands. There's no one doing better work today in the piano trio format (as evidenced by his great 2005 CD on the Criss Cross label, Past-Present-Future, on which he atypically concentrates on the compositions of others), yet his organ-guitar trio/combo Mad Science (whose most recent album is Realization on the Sirocco imprint and also from 2005) just as capably explores the possibilities of electric groove.

Somehow Colligan's managed to combine features of acoustic and electric jazz on his new CD, Blood Pressure, the first release on his own Ultimatum Records and, to my ears, his best album yet. I spoke with the always opinionated keyboardist about the new release, the benefits of releasing his work himself, the differences between piano, organ and Fender Rhodes, and his new avocation as a standup comic.

Chapter Index
  1. Blood Pressure, Thoughts on Fusion and the Monotony of "Medium Burn
  2. The Benefits of Releasing a Record Yourself
  3. Blood Pressure: the Songs, the Players and the Recording
  4. About Improvisation and Some Other Songs on Blood Pressure
  5. Playing Out and Finding Time to Write and Record
  6. Organ, Piano and Fender Rhodes—Plus Standup Comedy


Blood Pressure, Thoughts on Fusion and the Monotony of "Medium Burn

All About Jazz: You have a new CD out on your own Ultimatum Records, Blood Pressure. It's a combination of acoustic-jazz trio pieces and electric, more-grooving tunes, and although the record is issued under the name "George Colligan Trio, not all the tunes are trio pieces, and the musicians vary from track to track—the biggest change from song to song being the alternating of Josh Ginsberg and Boris Kozlov on bass and EJ Strickland and Johnathan Blake on drums, although Vanderlei Pereira's on drums on one track as well. Boris plays all the electric bass.

Some people have suggested that Blood Pressure's a sort of combination of the elements of your previous two recordings, Realization, by your organ-guitar-drums trio Mad Science from 2005, and the acoustic trio set Past-Present-Future, also from 2005. I think that's a bit simplistic since the electric tunes on Blood Pressure don't resemble the organ trio stuff on Realization, and the acoustic tunes on Blood Pressure are all your own originals—Past-Present-Future's set of standards. I do think that the different elements, be they style or player, blend amazingly well on this new one. Tell me what kind of record you wanted to make, and why the different musicians—was it a question of scheduling or just wanting different players for different pieces?

George Colligan: First of all, I guess I agree with everything you just said. Because it would be a little oversimplistic to think of this record as some kind of combination of those other ones. The Realization record is kind of a unique thing, especially with the organ—the organ has such a different sound from the piano. It's a whole different animal, and then when you add the guitar, it's a whole different sound. If you were just talking in terms of electronic elements, then I suppose a slight case could be made that there's some similarity. I don't know. I feel like I want to be contemporary, but obviously I've done a lot of more traditional things. There are so many different subcategories of jazz, and for some people, if you start adding electronics, it's immediately considered fusion. But I don't necessarily agree with that. Jazz plus electronic instruments doesn't automatically equal fusion.

When people talk about fusion, they tend to talk about what was happening in the late sixties and the seventies, and really what it was, was serious, straight ahead jazz musicians, traditional jazz musicians who were on a super high level, not only using electronic instruments, but using lock beats, using different forms—there were a whole lot of different things going on, a whole lot of different elements besides electronics. For example, if you hear Cedar Walton playing an electric piano, does that make it fusion? I don't know if it does. There are some records where he's playing Rhodes, but he's still doing what he did when he played regular, straight-ahead trio. It's just a different instrument. I guess I'm getting off on a tangent. I'm thinking about this a little bit because of a clinic I'm doing at IAJE on the subject—which is really just a chance for the organ band to play. I titled it "The Resurgence of Fusion, and I guess I'm going to talk about how it seems like there's some revival of fusion elements among some of the younger jazz players, and I'm going to talk about some of my theories about fusion. But I'm probably not going to talk that much anyway!

But back to your question. What kind of a CD was I trying to make? I wanted to do another piano record, and I guess I really just couldn't decide who I liked the best, so I decided to use a lot of people. I just like variety. So maybe some people might complain in terms of continuity, but I just like variety.

If every track could be a completely different band, that wouldn't bother me at all. It depends on the listener—maybe some people want to hear the exact same band on every song, but I think different sounds just make up a whole palette, and every tune makes for a better listening experience. We have the technology to add whatever—to add different sounds to every track, to overdub, to have someone else come in and add to a track. There are a lot of records that have been done like that. Look at Herbie Hancock's new record where he has a different guest star on every track. It just makes it more interesting. I mean, some people won't like it at all, but I just like to have something different so that you don't get bored. Or so I don't get bored. And in terms of what I've been doing as a sideman, I've been fortunate to be playing a lot of different things, and somehow it's all seeped into my own conception. It's unavoidable, in a way, that I would be presenting one idea and then think, "Oh, wait—here's something else.

AAJ: Well, you say that you like variety. I do too, but I think you must have thought long and hard about the actual sequencing of the album. With stuff like this, the album as a whole could be very incoherent, but the sequencing doles it out in what are, to me, thematic sections—"Rose Colored Glass to "Debonaire to "Blood Pressure, say, or "Enjoy It While It Lasts to "Nightmare to "Interiors. Or the way "Old Oak Tree Up the Hill breaks the sadness and dissonant bile of "Kerry's Theme and "Angry Monk. Did you think about the sequencing?

GC: That's exactly how I thought of it. What did you say? "Dissonant bile ? That specifically [laughing], I didn't think of. But sequencing is something that's really important to me. If you're going to sit and listen to the whole album, then you want it to be like the way a concert has a certain flow to it. One thing that bothers me when I hear a performance is when there are times that it can be really monotonous. The common mistake among young musicians, I think, is that their set is four tunes that are all the same tempo. There was a band I used to play with, which was a great band, but for some reason all the tempos ended up shifting to what we called "medium burn.

So here I'm talking specifically about tempo, and that's one element where you want to have variety. That's one thing that's easy to pinpoint in terms of what's different about each tune: This tune is slow, this tune is fast. Having tunes that are all the same tempo is boring to me, especially when you're improvising—if everything's the same tempo, then you start to play the same thing over and over. And that's what I found with that band that I played with years ago. I mean, the tunes all started in different tempos, but they all shifted to this "medium burn, which was about [snapping his fingers at about 75 beats per minute] there. I just felt like, "Man, it's the same thing for the whole set. It just got kind of boring to me.

But I think a lot of young bands don't think about that. And you can have the opposite extreme, which is, say, the Brad Mehldau Trio, which I think is better than playing everything the same, but they do something super fast, then they do something super slow. Then maybe they'll do a medium one. Then you have something like Kenny Werner's trio, which is actually one of my favorite trios to listen to live. They just have so many different moods—there's solo piano, then there's a burning tune, and then a ballad. I just think, especially when you consider the audience—I mean, most people don't really understand what's going on—that you want to try to make it interesting enough that they're not just zoning out.

AAJ: Well, you don't want to be zoning out yourself.

GC: Right, I don't want to zone out either. To me every tempo has its own life to it, its own character. And I want to explore that character. And that's just tempo. There are also textural things, and instrumentation, and all that kind of thing. Anyway, I just like variety.

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The Benefits of Releasing a Record Yourself

AAJ: Well, Blood Pressure is really successful at mixing up different types of pieces and making it all sound good together.

GC: You know, when I produce my own records, it's really nice to be able to select an order myself and have it actually appear when the record is released. I've recorded for various labels, and there was one label where the producer would say, "What do you think is a good order? And, you know, especially if you're going to listen to the whole CD, that's important. Not everybody is going to sit down for an hour and listen to a whole CD. So I take that into account, too. I think you should probably put the best stuff on the CD first, because most people are just going to listen to a couple tunes. I have that feeling.

But that would be weird if you were playing a set live. And everybody has their own ideas about how to build a set. Some people want to build a set slow and build up to something; some people want to start with a bang and then drop down; some people like to end with a bang; some people want to end mellow. There are different ways to approach it. I like to start with some energy, but definitely not give it all away. And again, there's just such a danger of everything sounding the same—then you put people to sleep.

But anyway, with this producer I would select an order for a CD, and then when the record came out, it would be a completely different order. That stuff happens. Even Realization—I had a very specific order in mind with that CD, and the guy who ran the label felt that his order was the best and that he knew exactly what the order should be because his CDs had gotten good reviews for their sequencing. So he was going to pick the order of the tunes. So I didn't agree with his order, but what was I going to do? I didn't like the order he chose, but many people would probably hear it and like it fine since they can't hear it the way I would have done it.

AAJ: Did things like this contribute to your decision to put out Blood Pressure yourself?

GC: Of course. Yeah. Not that it's a huge deal. It's not like I'm staying up at night saying, "Oh, God! He ruined my order! But it is a little bit of a bone of contention, and that gets into the whole aspect of musicians owning their own product and having complete artistic control. There are exceptions, but most of the people who are on the business side of the jazz business—especially the big labels, jazz or otherwise—they're not musicians. There are exceptions, but by and large, they're not musicians. But they want to have some kind of control. A lot of people who have these smaller European labels are kind of doing it half as a business venture and half as a hobby. They love the music, and they want to be a part of it somehow. And they have the control. They're not musicians, but they have control over the production, so this is how they exercise their control—by selecting the order. And I tend to disagree with the order because it's something I think about. Some musicians don't care. You know, "Put it out, whatever. I don't care what the order is. But I do think that if you're going to treat it like a sixty-minute performance, as a multi-movement work, you really have to consider that.

Obviously, it's something I really think about. For this CD I tried a couple different orders and really thought about it. I have a new solo CD that I just recorded, and I'm thinking about the order now. I'm trying different sequences to see what works.

AAJ: Sequencing is going to be especially critical with solo piano.

GC: Definitely. It could definitely get monotonous.

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Blood Pressure: the Songs, the Players and the Recording

AAJ: Let's talk about some of the individual songs on the record, all of which are your own compositions.

The first song on the CD, "Rose Colored Glass, is very much in the jazz trio piano tradition. EJ Strickland is the drummer and Josh Ginsberg plays bass on this one, and it's really a great song. It's just lovely, but that doesn't mean it doesn't build to some real intensity. It's sort of built around that four-note phrase, the triplet-dah figure, and when Josh launches into his bass solo, it really makes me think of the classic Bill Evans trio with Scott LaFaro. Any thoughts on this one?

AAJ: Well, Josh is a young, up-and-coming bassist from Baltimore. I actually grew up in Columbia, Maryland, but that's right down the street from Baltimore, and I went to school in Baltimore. I just think he's really talented, and someone that needs to be featured and get some more experiences—get his name out there. He's got great technique on the bass, and he's really fun to play with. I think he's a great soloist.

And I think with trio, I always like to have a good soloist as a bassist. You want to have somebody who can keep time, of course, and not to say that being a good soloist on bass necessarily means the most incredible chops. But in my trio, I want a bassist who can take a good solo because otherwise, it's just me. And that's just boring [laughing]. I don't want to be the only one soloing. And I want people who are playing with me to have a good time. Part of that comes with the fact that I've played in so many bands, and the best experiences I had were when it's not the leader just showing off with the rest of the band as an afterthought. I think it should be a group effort, and I want people to have a good time.

I just think when the rest of the band is happy, everyone is happy—it's going to be a good experience. So I always try to allow for freedom with the other musicians, to have them feel like they're contributing something and not just serving me. In one sense, me trying to have my own band out there more is about getting my own name out there, but at the same time, I want the other musicians to have a good time and not feel like they're stifled and have to please me or kiss up to me in some way. I want them to feel like they're featured.

And this song is just an example of that. I didn't feel like I had to have the first solo on the record. And I think it's cool to have this strong melody and then have the energy drop a little bit for the bass solo; I just liked that texturally, having it drop like that. And as for the solo, that's something I learned from playing with people like [saxophonists] Gary Thomas and Gary Bartz—they didn't always take the first solo. That's another common mistake of younger players: doing everything in the same order. Tenor, piano, bass, drums, take it out. That's so boring! There are other ways to do it! But I think it's something that some people just don't put a priority on. Some people are just there to hammer out the changes; they only think about certain aspects. But there's this whole other idea of presentation. It's like if you're making some food. It could be really tasty food, but if the presentation sucks, that's it. It could be the most gourmet stuff, but if you put it in some crappy bowl or on a piece of newspaper or something, that can affect how it's looked at.

AAJ: Well, I love steak, but I don't want to eat eight steaks in a row; I want something else. So maybe I don't want to listen to an all-steak set. "Interiors has Johnathan Blake on traps and Boris Kozlov on electric bass. It's got that big acoustic piano intro and then turns into a soul-groove ballad—put some vocals on this, and it's not unlike Earth, Wind & Fire.

GC: Well, that's definitely where I drew inspiration for that one. If you notice, there's a little bit of Clavinet in there.

AAJ: Right, that's Clavinet used for that textured comping in there.

GC: Yeah. It's kind of like those Barry White tunes where you hear that little harpsichord part in the background. And if you listen to Earth, Wind & Fire, of course you have the strong melodies and the beats. But when you really listen, their production is amazing. Even as a kid, I really liked their song "Fantasy, and if you listen to all the layering on that song, there are like a thousand overdubs, and they all add to the sound. All these little background melody parts, and string parts, and French horn parts, and I don't know—I just think that's cool, to have little stuff in the background that adds to the whole experience.

AAJ: You've got a little synth patch in "Interiors as well, I think.

GC: Yeah. It's kind of weird, I guess, because the title comes from that Woody Allen movie. I don't know if you ever saw that one.

AAJ: I have. It came out around the same time as his film Manhattan, but it's completely serious—very Ingmar Bergman-influenced and no comedy.

GC: Yeah, it's a very depressing movie about a woman, about this idea of interiors. She is this incredible interior decorator, and every home she lives in is totally immaculate in terms of how the table lamp matched the floor, or whatever. So she's this very exacting woman, and it basically drives her insane. Anyway, I can't explain the whole movie right now, but it's just got this very dark mood to it. Not to say that "Interiors sounds dark, but that's the idea I started with—this lonesome melody. Then [laughing] it ended up being an r&b ballad. I can't really explain it, but that's what inspired me, and that's how the tune ended up.

AAJ: Another grooving piece is "Enjoy It While It Lasts with Boris on electric bass and Vanderlei Pereira on drums. You're on Rhodes and do some synth stuff as well, and Jamie Baum's on flute. I love your deliberate phrasing on the Rhodes solo—it really brings out the textures of that instrument—and while this could be considered a groove tune, the bass and Vanderlei's drums in particular are very active—grooving, yes, but nervous, busy and restless, and that adds a lot of character to the piece. It keeps it "uncomplacent. I love how Boris and Vanderlei sort of simultaneously solo to bring the tune out without losing the specific grooving, dense rhythm.

GC: Well, first I'd like to mention that the tune itself is actually harmonically based on the song "Lush Life, but it's kind of obscured in the same way that the bebop cats would take an existing tune and write another melody over it. So that's what I did, and I just transposed it and put it with a samba beat. Like a lot of the Latin grooves, you look at the samba groove on paper and it's one thing, but if you've got a guy who really understands the feel, it's hard to really put that in musical notation. But somebody like Vanderlei, who's from Brazil, really knows that language. That's just something I wanted to have on the CD, and I was fortunate to be able to get Vanderlei to come out for one tune. He's a super-nice guy and he's a great player. He can also do other things, too; he's not just a Brazilian cat. I think people have pigeonholed him because he is Brazilian and he does the Brazilian thing so well, but he can swing and do a lot of other things really well. He's a really great musician. And Boris is a great electric player. And they just had a really natural hookup, and just on this one tune.

By the way, I should mention that this album was recorded in one day.

AAJ: With the different players, I assumed it was several sessions done over a few months, or something like that.

GC: No. I think we started recording at three and we were completely done by ten. And we had a pretty long dinner break. So it was pretty rushed. I can't really go into why we were rushed, but it was pretty tense [laughing]. It was pretty much like, "Oh, so-and-so's here? Okay, get them in! Okay, you're done? Nice to see you! Bye! It was pretty rough. Besides that, Johnathan, Josh and I had been playing all week at Dizzy's—the late night set, until two or three in the morning. I think I was out particularly late the night before, and then I had to get up early because there was a glitch with the piano tuner, and I had to find a piano tuner that morning. And I did, luckily. Anyway, it was very tense and very rushed, and I'm amazed that it actually came out as well as it did. I mean, I was half asleep the whole time.

AAJ: When you'd finished recording that night, could you tell whether it was good or not?

GC: I knew that everybody else had played well, but I wasn't really happy about myself. I was kind of embarrassed. But now that I've forgotten about that, I think it's okay. And the fact that I was able to select the order really makes it nice. I was also able to have a great engineer named Phil Magnotti do the mixing and mastering. Again, with a lot of the other CDs that I'd gotten to do, I don't think they really could put in the same amount of effort as he did.

AAJ: This is a fantastic sounding record.

GC: Yeah. He used to do the Brecker Brothers, Michel Camilo, and a bunch of people. He's great. And for some of the other CDs I've done, they didn't master them, they didn't really mix anything—it was just live to two tracks. And when you consider that you're actually competing with major labels that spend a lot of money on things like that, you should at least put some effort into getting good sound. You want people to be able to put the CD on and say, "Oh, this sounds good. So with my very limited budget, I was hoping to at least accomplish that. And I did. I was there for the mixing and mastering of the Realization CD, and people have said that's a good sounding record as well.

But going back to "Enjoy It While It Lasts, with that little bass-drum outro, I said, "Just vamp out, and I let them go. I figured we would be faded, but it sounded so good that I really wanted that part in there. That's the kind of thing you get spontaneously, and I just liked it. It was nice to give them that little feature, especially since Vanderlei had been waiting around for three hours or so. That was the thing: People started showing up and we'd started late, so people had to sit around and wait.

AAJ: Yeah, and what could you do? Give them beers while they wait? Not too wise.

GC: Well, they got a good meal.

AAJ: "Kerry's Theme is just Meg Okura's violin melody over your somber chordal accompaniment, and seems like a very mournful dirge for what might have been, but wasn't.

GC: Well, believe it or not, that tune was the processional for my wedding.

AAJ: Oh, it's got nothing to do with John Kerry?

GC: No, it's for my wife. She's named Kerry.

AAJ: How embarrassing. It's sad what I read into it, thinking it was a dirge because of the presidential election.

GC: Well, we decided we would write stuff for our wedding. So I started with some chords, and this melody just came out. It's almost operatic.

AAJ: It is. It really reminded me of lieder, except you've got a violin instead of a voice doing that melody.

GC: I originally had thought of it for voice, but I couldn't figure out what sort of singer to use. It would have been vocalese—like Rachmaninoff vocalese, something wordless. I thought that maybe I should have a male singer do it because it would be in the upper register and a really intense sound. If a woman sang it, it wouldn't have the intensity. Maybe it would sound like that stuff of Pat Metheny's where he had Mark Ledford singing.

I think the mournful part of it is just stuff that my wife and I had been through, or stuff that I went through while my wife stuck with me. Different stressful things. That might be some of the emotional content that came through. I thought it would be a nice one to add to the CD; it's a different mood. And I could add some lyrics—maybe something regarding the Swift-Boating of John Kerry [laughing]. And you know, there's a tune called "Estate. I don't know if you're familiar with it. It was recorded by Shirley Horn and a number of other people. It's kind of a Brazilian-sounding tune, kind of a bossa, but it's actually written by an Italian. I think "estate means "summer. And when I recorded it, the guy who reviewed it thought it was "Estate —like the English word. He said, "Oh, this is a marvelous, grand musical estate to walk around in —something like that. So don't feel too bad.

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About Improvisation and Some Other Songs on Blood Pressure

AAJ: There are some short songs on the record: "Angry Monk, "Nightmare 1, "Flashback 1 and "Question. Are these all improvs?

GC: Yes, they're all improvs. Again, I figured I had these different cats in the studio. One of those I just did with synthesizer at home. But, for example, in the studio, Johnathan was getting ready to leave, and I said, "Okay, before you leave, let's just play. Ready? Go. So we just played. With all the rhythm sections, we were already there and we'd finished what we'd done, and they wanted to know what I wanted to do now. So I had us just play. I think it's nice to have those interludes, and I feel that eventually I'm going to do some CD that's totally improvised.

I don't think anyone will ever consider me a free jazz musician because my music is too related to chord changes and melodies, but I've noticed that there have been other projects I've done where we did some free playing and that stuff always seemed like the most fun for me to listen back to. It was just totally unexpected. When you write a tune, you play it over and over, and when you finally record it, you're kind of, "Okay, this is done, whatever. But when you improvise, you've never heard it before! So when you listen back to it, it's exciting. At least that's how I feel, so I want to do more of that type of thing. That's something I'd like to get into more. It's amazing what you can do with absolutely no forethought if you're just open to creativity. It's kind of like theater improv, which I've never done, but that's something I like.

I mean, I love composing, but at the same time, there is this whole other aspect that's completely about letting go and seeing what's going to happen without any song, without any changes. It might not always be great, but it's about being willing to take a risk. It's not so much about seeing what happens as it is about accepting the results.

AAJ: And not fighting with what the other person does. The first thing they teach you in theater improv is that if the other actor says that what he's holding in his hand is a light bulb, you don't say that it isn't—that it's a pear. You go with what he says and take it from there.

GC: Interesting. My approach to playing with other groups is kind of like that. I've been lucky to get called to play with a lot of different groups, in totally different styles. And when you're playing with somebody like Don Byron—Don's always doing something different, and you have to be open to whatever it is. You can't say, "I don't really do that; that's not my thing. You just say, "Ah, I'll try it. That's how I approach playing with other artists. I just go with the flow and try to get into whatever it is that's happening in the moment. That's the best way to play. People are always going to want to play with you if you're willing to just flow with them, as opposed to, "this is how I play and you have to react to me. And maybe that's just how some artists work, but I think the more flexible you are, the more situations you get to work in.

AAJ: And you still get to be yourself.

GC: I think so. Look at Miles Davis. I played with [bassist] Buster Williams and [drummer] Lenny White, and they were talking how Miles basically played the same stuff all the time. But look at what was going on around him. From the classic quintet to the quintet with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock to the Bitches Brew stuff or the Marcus Miller stuff, he remained himself. But just what went on around him was drastically different.

AAJ: "Big Trouble is a scary-hard up-tempo one that makes me think of Bud Powell. I love the precision of your piano phrasing here and overall in your career; it's so "unmuddy, so clear in its execution and intent. This song actually goes through several different rhythmic feels, although it never gets slow, and it's very fun to hear the band—in this case Josh and EJ—shift gears. It's my favorite piece on the record. Any thoughts?

GC: It's a piece I wrote a long time ago. I had this group, a quartet, with [saxophonist] Gary Thomas, [bassist] Drew Gress, and a drummer named Howard Curtis. I added [drummer] Ralph Peterson later on, but when we had Howard Curtis, we played the song a number of times. I guess it's half-inspired by this Herbie Hancock tune called "Actual Proof and half-inspired by—well, I don't even know if I remember the name of the tune, but there's this McCoy Tyner record called Expansions, and the second half of this tune is inspired by a tune on it. If you heard the two side by side, you'd probably hear the resemblance. The intro is this foreboding thing, big trouble, something bad's going to happen—a very dramatic, dark intro leading to a section that's a simple melody, and that's what we play over in one of the solo sections. When we solo, we play over that structure, and it's challenging because it's different meters and kind of this stop-start thing. We have a type of flow, but it's in this very tense structure.

I know that some of the M-Base people like [alto saxophonists] Steve Coleman and Greg Osby talk about how their linear concept was based on, say, how a bee flies around. It doesn't really fly through the air directly; it comes to a point and it goes back and forth and flies around this one point. So if you think of that musically, you're kind of stuck in this one spot, but you're going away from it and coming back. So you build up a kind of tension in this way, and that's a way to think about this song. Then the whole point is the eventual release, where we do go into a very driving, more free 4/4 type of feel. So the point of the structure is to create a tension and then to just suddenly shoot away from it.

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Playing Out and Finding Time to Write and Record

AAJ: Is there a set version of your trio when you play out?

GC: Well, I was doing a lot of stuff with Johnathan Blake and Josh Ginsberg. This is sort of the dilemma—there are so many great players in New York, and you'd love to play with them all, but you can only call one on every instrument [laughing] unless you've got a big band. I was also using Boris for a while, so it was Johnathan and Boris. So basically I was playing with the Mingus band a lot, so I was playing with Boris a lot, and Johnathan was doing that a lot too, so I wanted to use Johnathan. But I took a band to Japan last year, and that was with a bassist who's not on the record, Vicente Archer. He was on the Past-Present-Future record. The promoter didn't want to use Johnathan because he was already doing another tour, so we ended up using EJ. And I really love EJ's playing, and I'd used him for some other stuff as well. So I have some stuff coming up with Vicente and EJ on it, and also [saxophonist] Steve Wilson.

So to answer your question—do I have a set trio? I guess it's sort of hovers around a few choice cats depending on whether they're available. I have been using Vicente and EJ for the last couple of gigs, and we're going to Japan again in June. We had a really nice vibe on the last tour, although we also had two saxophone players.

But I don't feel that I have enough work at this point to say, "Oh, I'm just going to have this band. And people get busy. I think it's good to have different players you can use because not everybody can make it every time. I can't give anyone health benefits or 401K plans, that's for sure. Very few groups can do that now. You can't commit to any one band because no one's working enough to justify saying, "You can only play with me and that's it. There are very few groups like that.

AAJ: I don't think I can think of more than two.

GC: Well, lately I've been running into trouble with the fact that I play with different bands and I try to juggle everything. You end up pissing someone off eventually. Whether you take a gig and then someone else wants you to take a gig and you have to say, "No, I'm doing this one, because they got to me first. Or if you do end up having the gig and someone else has a longer tour, and you try to back out—it's hard. I do feel fortunate to have been called for a certain number of groups as a sideman. Eventually, I'm hoping to focus on my own stuff more. It's really hard in today's environment because nobody wants to book someone without marquee value. You've got to prove you can bring people to the concert. That's why it's basically the same names at the festivals every year. It's the Herbie Hancocks, the Roy Hargroves, the Chick Coreas, the Diana Kralls. And the big companies are running from jazz like it's a house on fire. They're not interested because it's not making the huge profits that I guess they make with other flash-in-the-pan type groups.

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AAJ: So how do you manage? You're a popular sideman, and you obviously have to take a lot of gigs, and you enjoy playing them. But you've managed to put out a pretty large number of CDs as a leader. How do you manage to compose and get groups together with the demands on your time?

GC: Well, in the past I was able to do stuff for other labels, and the fact that they paid for everything was important. With SteepleChase, for example, I did two solo records and two duo records, and it was mostly due to the fact that I happened to be in Copenhagen at the time, and I just called up the guy and said, "Hey, I want to do something. All the projects I've done have been so low-budget—most of the SteepleChase stuff was done in one day. Pretty much all of it, actually. The Criss Cross stuff was a longer day, and I did some stuff for the Fresh Sound label where we were able to get maybe two days.

So I work quickly. Some artists go into the studio, and they really don't know what they're doing, and they have to get comfortable and have a certain kind of food around them or have to get massages between tunes [laughing]. Some people just go in the studio and waste time. I just don't do that. I pretty much have a clear idea of what I want to get accomplished during the day. I usually have too much material, and I just go in and do it.

I've been in the studio a lot in the last ten years—not as much, say, as a Mulgrew Miller or someone, but I've done it a lot and I'm not nervous about it. I'm willing to accept the results. Some people go in and play and they're like, "Oh, I sound terrible! Let me do another take. So they do another take, and it really doesn't sound very different, and they do another. So they do six takes and they all sound the same, and they end up using the first take. That actually happened to me once. I majored in trumpet, so there's a record where I played some trumpet. I hadn't really been playing, but I just wanted to put some trumpet on it. So I was overdubbing my solo, and I did it, and I thought, "Oh, terrible—let me do it again. I did maybe five complete takes of this solo. So I was listening back to each one, thinking, "Oh, that's not good. Finally, I said, "Well, I think this take was the best. And the engineer said, "Yeah, it was the first take.

AAJ: Well, I guarantee you that if you haven't played trumpet in a while and you do six solos, the sixth one isn't going to be that great.

GC: Yeah, that's true. Anyway, I tend to have a ton of ideas and stacks of music at home that'll probably never get recorded. But it's something I like to do. Not every musician writes, but I'm writing regardless of whether I have a recording date coming up. Even before I was really even playing piano, I was writing music. And really, the only reason I started playing piano was to become a better composer. Then I just ended up playing piano. I wrote some really silly piano pieces when I was a kid in high school. I wrote a brass quintet when I was in high school, and then a friend wanted me to write a solo clarinet piece, and I just did it—because it was fun. You know, when it comes to composing, you can't really be wrong. You make it up. It's your thing. It may not be that great; people may not like it. But no one can really say, "This is wrong. So in that sense it's very liberating because it's a whole world where you can just do whatever you want. I think that's the great thing about art—it's your creation. It can't be wrong.

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Organ, Piano and Fender Rhodes—Plus Standup Comedy

AAJ: What's your approach to acoustic piano versus organ or electric piano? You get a lot of work on piano and organ, especially, and you play them all really well. You don't play organ like it's a piano, but you always sound like yourself.

GC: Well, in terms of the touch, piano is a weighted action, and so you're pressing a key which makes a hammer strike a string that rings, vibrates. It's finite; the ringing fades. So one of the biggest differences between the piano and the organ is that the piano does not have an unlimited sustain. Even when you press the sustain pedal, it decays very quickly. Piano probably tends to be more percussive, in this sense, because of the lack of sustain, although you can play lyrically.

The organ has an electronic tone wheel that makes the note continue to ring for an unlimited amount of time .As long as you're holding that note down, the note will sound. Although there are percussive elements, too. I guess one thing I like about organ is that a piano—although you can get different sounds out of it, and I don't think my sound on piano is as great as other players—is finite. You can only get certain tones out of it. Whereas with the organ, you have eight drawbars and can change the sound so drastically by manipulating those drawbars. And you have the percussion, the chorus, the vibrato, the expression pedal, the different manuals---you can just create so many different sounds. It's kind of like a very primitive synthesizer. So to me, there are just so many different possibilities, although I don't consider myself an organist like Jimmy Smith or Joey DeFrancesco are. Those guys are like organists from birth. I came to it as a keyboard player, as a pianist, just experimenting. I feel like I've improved, but I don't play it like they do. I'm definitely a pianist, or just a keyboardist, first. But I like it because, again, it's something different.

The other thing about playing the organ, especially when I play it in my own group, is that as a pianist, I feel like I dictate the time, but I can also float around the time and let the bassist and drummer dictate the time a little more. But when I'm playing organ, I'm essentially the bassist; I'm walking the bass or playing the bass line. That's really different in terms of where you sit in the band, in the groove, in the time field. That's something I have to be very cognizant of, and it takes more concentration.

And I've always loved Rhodes. In fact, my first gigs as a jazz pianist were on a Fender Rhodes. I guess from listening to Herbie and Chick Corea records in the seventies, I always liked the sound. And it has more sustain. But if you play really thick chords on a Rhodes, sometimes it doesn't quite have the same effect. You can get more from less on a Rhodes. If you play just two notes, that might just be enough, as opposed to playing a ten-note chord. I probably sound more like a pianist when I play the Rhodes. But I love playing Rhodes. I love playing different types of keyboards. I haven't done anything on harpsichord yet.



AAJ: Well, life is long. Speaking of doing things that are different, are you doing standup comedy?

GC: How did you hear about that? I took a class from Caroline's on Broadway, just as something to break up the monotony. I've always been a huge fan of comedy, and it's something I always wanted to do. I don't think I'm particularly talented as a standup comedy performer, but I do love comedy. I tend to gravitate more towards comedy movies than other kinds of movies, and I have a great appreciation for comedy.

So I tried it. It's really a lot harder than people imagine. Most comics—when you first see them on TV, you're seeing ten years of working in clubs. Doing five minutes, or whatever, but working, and boiling that material down to stuff that really works. You might think something's really hilarious, but when you try it in front of an audience, it's really disconcerting—like death—when you don't get a reaction. It's like if I put my finger down on a piano and no sound comes out. You question everything; your whole universe is crumbling. And all comics have to experience that. You have to learn how to bomb, so you get comfortable. It's the same thing with music; you have to learn to get up there and play in uncomfortable situations. That's what becoming a pro player is about. You get so you're comfortable in any situation; there's nothing that fazes you.

So I took this class. It was fun. But I had material, and I got up and did it, and it didn't get a reaction. Some of it did, some didn't. And that's what comedians do, the ones who write their own material, anyway. But in the same way that I like composing, I like writing jokes. I don't think they're that great, and whether I have a future in comedy, I don't know. It's something to do. But there are a lot of guys in New York right now who want to be comedians, and it's so hard, so competitive. But I did a six-minute show at Caroline's, and a number of people came out, and I think it was pretty successful considering it was my first time ever doing it. I did another show at Stand-Up NY, and I'll do another show at Caroline's. We'll see how it goes.

AAJ: Anything else happening this year? You did that solo record.

GC: Yeah, that will probably come out sometime in the next year. I'll probably put it out myself. I'm going to do some stuff with Don Byron, the Junior Walker stuff. I'll be playing the Jazz Standard this year, and then I'm going to Europe with Buster Williams. I might go to Russia later this year as a leader—with Russian musicians. I'm bringing a trio with Claudia Acuña to Japan in June. Then in July, more Junior Walker stuff with Don.

Selected Discography

George Colligan, Blood Pressure (Ultimatum, 2007)
Don Byron, Do the Boomerang: the Music of Junior Walker (Blue Note, 2006)
George Colligan's Mad Science, Realization (Sirocco, 2005)
George Colligan, Past-Present-Future (Criss Cross, 2005)
George Colligan, Mad Science (Sunny Sky, 2004)
George Colligan Trio, Live at Blues Alley (JazzConnect, 2003)
George Colligan, Ultimatum (Criss Cross, 2002)
George Colligan, Return to Copenhagen (SteepleChase, 2002)
George Colligan and Jesper Bodilsen, A Wish (SteepleChase, 2002)
Ravi Coltrane, Mad 6 (Eighty-Eights/Columbia, 2002)
Buster Williams, Griot Liberté (HighNote, 2002)
Dave Ballou, Rothko (SteepleChase, 2002)
George Colligan Quartet, Como la Vida Puede Ser (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2001)
George Colligan and Jesper Bodilsen, Twins (SteepleChase, 2001)
George Colligan, Desire (Blue Moon, 2000)
George Colligan, Small Room (SteepleChase, 2000)
David Gilmore, Ritualism (Kashka, 2000)
Andrew Rathbun, True Stories (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2000)
George Colligan, Unresolved (Fresh Sound New Talent, 1999)
George Colligan, Constant Source (SteepleChase, 1999)
George Colligan, Stomping Ground (SteepleChase, 1998)
George Colligan, The Newcomer (SteepleChase, 1997)
George Colligan Trio, Activism (SteepleChase, 1996)

Photo Credits

Top Photo: Juan-Carlos Hernández

Fourth Photo: C. Andrew Hovan

All Others: Courtesy of George Colligan


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