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George Colligan Quartet At Magy's Farm

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George Colligan Quartet
Magy's Farm
Dromara, N. Ireland
May 8, 2024

Ordinarily the words George Colligan and Dromara would not belong in the same sentence. Colligan is one of the world's great modern jazz pianists. Dromara is a small village and sparsely populated townland in the County Down hills that bleed into the Mourne Mountains.

Since the early '90s, Colligan has worked with heavyweights of the genre such as Lee Konitz, Benny Golson, Buster Williams, Michael Brecker, John Scofield, Linda May Han Oh and Jack DeJohnette, amongst many others. As a pianist, he has few peers.

Not content with being a master of the keys, however, Colligan is also a fine trumpeter (see YouTube video below) and drummer (check out pianist Kerry Politzer's Labyrinth (Polisonic, 2005). Surely too much talent for one human being?

Dromara—a perfectly good village—and surroundings are more used to line-dancing, vintage tractor runs, pub quizzes and camogie than world-class jazz.

What brings Colligan and Dromara into the same orbit—and the same sentence—is Magy's Farm, an independent rural venue founded by Linley Hamilton and Maggie Doyle that is punching seriously above its weight.

Since 2019, Magy's Farm has welcomed scores of contemporary jazz greats, including trumpeter Eddie Henderson—former Herbie Hancock Mwandishi band member —and Steely Dan stalwarts Jim Beard and Jon Herrington. Regular Magy's Farm attendees are getting used to a fortnightly program that would be the envy of most big-city jazz clubs.

Making his first appearance at Magy's Farm, Colligan's quartet featured Belgian alto saxophonist Stéphane Mercier, Dublin bassist Dave Redmond and Antrim's own globe-trotting drummer Darren Beckett.

These musicians know each other well. Colligan and Beckett first played in New York in the '90s. In 2018, Colligan, Redmond and Beckett played in Arklow Methodist Church, part of Bray Jazz Festival's outreach program. The performance rendered the album Live in Arklow (Ubuntu Music, 2020). The two Irish musicians have also cemented a trio with Mercier, releasing their debut, Centro (Step By) in early 2024.

The explosive post-bop burner "Tina Kotek or the Abyss" got the set off to a flyer, with Mercier and Colligan soloing passionately. It was fascinating to watch the pianist's hands in motion, blurring the line between lead and rhythm, or working both hands in scurrying unison. The applause had barely abated before Beckett in turn whipped up a storm of fearsome polyrhythms—the prelude to the quartet's return to the head.

Colligan's willingness to share the stories behind his compositions shone a little light into what makes him tick. His openness and humor (dodgy guts, pot tales, jazz and money) endeared him to the audience, making each tune feel gifted as opposed to processional and premeditated.

The quartet moved up and down the gears on "Humility," with Redmond opening the bidding with a trademark sing-song improvisation. Upping the ante, Colligan's fingers worked the keys' middle ground and poles with rhythmic flaire, throwing percussive Latin figures into the mix. Following suit, Mercier took off on a soaring flight of highly personal stamp.

Colligan paid tribute to James Williams in a composition named for the Memphis pianist—a former Art Blakey alumnus who died from liver cancer in 2004, aged just 53. In the early '90s, Colligan related, he took a couple of lessons with Williams; three decades later he was still clearly touched by Williams' generosity of spirit.

It must have rubbed off on Colligan, as he afforded his bandmates generous space; On "Deep in Thought" Mercier's lyricism was to the fore, while on "Song for Femke Bol" the saxophonist demonstrated his agility in a free-spirited romp over the changes. With credits including Mark Turner, Ingrid Jensen, Randy Brecker and Jeff Ballard, the Belgian saxophonist is no novice, and, not unlike Colligan, is deserving of wider recognition.

The tender ballad "Early Morning Gratitude" invited sweetly tumbling solos from Mercier and Colligan, but just as arresting was Beckett's artistry on brushes and mallet—empathetic and cajoling in equal measure. There were more boppish fireworks on "Doom Sandwich," with saxophonist and pianist trading back and forth over a lively rhythmic platform. Redmond nipped in with another lithe solo, but for sheer theatre it was Beckett's unaccompanied blitzkrieg that stole the show.

By way of an encore, Colligan acknowledged the trumpet players union by inviting Linley Hamilton to blow on "Body and Soul." Either side of a swinging piano solo from the leader, Hamilton soloed with the verve and emotional warmth for which his playing is known from Belfast to New Orleans, carrying the tune to its conclusion in style. In doing so, Hamilton proved that he is one of the very best trumpet-playing, part-time car park attendants in Dromara.

Colligan is not the only one with multiple strings to his bow. Stéphane Mercier, it transpires, is not just a great saxophonist, he is also a jazz historian and author, having penned Une Autre Histoire du Jazz (Jourdan Edition, 2022). In the book's blurb he writes: "If jazz persists, attracting millions of enthusiasts to its numerous festivals around the world it is because it has not finished speaking to the hearts and guts of humans." Maybe George Colligan and Dromara are a very natural fit after all.

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