While there may be some doubt about the vitality of today’s scene versus the storied scenes of the past, one point of consideration may actually live up: in this writer's estimation, the tradition of fine pianist-composer leaders in Jazz is alive and well in jazz and is in fact one of the strongest areas currently. Think Jason Moran, David Berkman, Geri Allen, James Carney, Vijay Iyer, Marc Cary and Jason Lindner. This is only a segment of what is quite a healthy crop of pianists who not only lead their own ensembles behind the keys, but are also creative composers each pushing the music forward in their own way.
George Colligan is one of this excellent class of pianist-composers, and this set, with a program replete of original compositions, only serves to support this fact. The crux of the matter with Ultimatum is that it features nine compositions, all Colligan originals, and only perhaps one weak representative in the lot ("Lords of Justice"). Some are more inspired or unique than others, but there is scarcely anything here one might look askance at as a “cut-out” composition, or something that has been done so many times as to be redundant. And the integrity of the compositions, from a structural point of view, indicate that Colligan is doing some of the best writing in mainstream jazz, period. Colligan obviously takes care in his writing not to leave loose ends untied, and moreover never leaves a tune without a memorable hook. Of course, Colligan chose to put this music together with musicians who are fully capable of taking his music to its highest potential, so we can really measure just what Colligan came up with for this record.
For starters Colligan brought in Gary Thomas as the melodic voice. For for those unfamiliar with Gary Thomas, this man has one of the absolute deepest sounds on Tenor. As Jason Moran noted in a recent interview, Gary Thomas' sound is so dark and deep it sounds "otherworldly." With this idea in mind, it's not a surprise that here on Ultimatum, Thomas here injects these melodies with a hard-boiled, steely edge that creates a lingering impression. Take his reading of "Shiva's Dance" or "Across..."; it's tough stuff indeed. Not tough in the sense of egoistic tough, just tough in terms of "let's play this melody with unremitting conviction on every single note." Some horn players blur or fade on notes in a melody as if it's just something to get throughbut not Thomas. He "engrains" melodies.
As mentioned, some of the compositions here are more inspired and unique than others. "Ancestral Wisdom" is one of the highlights of this disc, with Colligan's plaintive chord progression negotiated hauntingly by Thomas on flute. The ensuing soloing is right out of Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge"- a very similar feel. Another highlight is Colligan's "Was it Not Meant to Be?", again voiced by Thomas on flute (one of three such numbers.) This piece of writing actually sounds as if it may have been crafted specifically for flute with its very languid, whole-note based melody. Thomas is effective but bassist Drew Gress' opening solo is what really sets the tone for this tune and brings the harmonic colors out. Gress, incidentally, wouldn't seem to be an ideal complement to Ralph Peterson on drums, but the two actually work together pretty well here. He sounds a little thin at times, but this may be more an issue of recording technique. Peterson is his usual taking-care-of-business self, dropping bombs but not- bombastic.
Another standout selection is "Silkscreen." Meant to convey his impression of some silkscreen paintings Colligan had seen, it takes equal turns impressionistic and gallant, strongly begging the question of a solo piano record.
If there is a real criticism that can be made of this disc, it is that there perhaps isn't enough variation in terms of emotional quality over the course of the nine compositions. The fact is, most of the material has a slightly dark harmonic character and develops over medium tempo time signatures. This is coupled with Gary Thomas' dominating melodic voice which is both a strength and a weakness when considered over the long haul; Thomas seems draining at a point.
So while Ultimatum may be a disc with no weak spots, it does not necessarily play quite as well taken as a whole. This is largely an issue of programming, though, and not Colligan's ability to project different moods through composition. As said, all of the tunes here are well-crafted, and the fine soloing throughout certainly does nothing to undermine them. But the record falls short of four-star caliber because it doesn't traverse quite enough emotional territory to provide a really strong narrative.
All in all, though, another fine record by George Colligan, member of an elite class of pianist-composers who are pushing mainstream jazz into the 21st century. Colligan seems to have trouble cutting a bad record. Those who are already hip to his music aren't likely to be disappointed here. It's slightly atypical Colligan writing, in that there aren't any tunes with a very direct groove; but the suspenseful melodies, unusual time signatures and harmonic ambition one is accustomed to through his writing, are well intact.
For those who have yet to check out George Colligan, do yourself a favor. Anyone who can record a full program of his own compositions without resorting to any gimmicks or filler, when so many musicians are content to record "Recorda Me" for the thousandth timeat the very least deserves our attention. Someone like Colligan who has a proven track record of interesting writing deserves even a bit more.