Most people who know George Colligan think first of him as a pianist and that is as it should be, to think of him as a pianist first. What falls far short of the mark, however, it to think of Colligan only as a pianist. His first love was drums. Even then, he was trained as a classical trumpet player. He found his “niche,” on the other hand, as a Jazz pianist.
While he admits to only a limited number of drum lessons, he has gotten to perform with the very best drummers and has learned from Jack DeJohnette and Lenny White and others. “Free drum lessons,” he calls the experiences.
He has indeed recorded on drums before—for Kerry Politzer, for example—but never as a leader. Now, after 25 previous recordings, Colligan has released his first album as a drummer-band leader. To that end, he has assembled four gifted young musicians—some his students from Portland State University-and all from the Pacific Northwest, especially Portland.
As a side note, I got to see Colligan perform at a Portland Jazz club a few short years ago. He was leading from the piano but, late in the last set, brought up a young pianist and Colligan took to the drums. He had already played the melodica and I had seen him on trumpet before. His turn on the drums was a surprise and a delight. Colligan is that good—at everything. The DaVinci of Jazz.
So this album is particularly exciting for me. To hear Colligan perform his own compositions from the drum set is a unique treat.
“Gorgoasaurus” kicks off the album starting with the drums and Jon Lakey on bass. Nicole Glover and Joe Mannis on saxes join in quickly. Although students, these musicians adapt well and aggressively. The unison playing of Glover and Manis is hot. Colligan himself takes a solo and proves that he has the right to lead from the drummer’s throne.
The recording and mixing by Sacha Miller—himself a drummer—helps to bring out the great textures created by Colligan. The very first track reveals much of what is to follow.
Glover and Manis continue their engaging partnership. There are a few moments that remind of Miles Davis’ “So What.” Not in any derivative sense, rather there is a similarity in flow and trade. The two saxophonists trade between soprano, alto and tenor horns.
“Hermawhatics?” shifts to a Latin rhythm with harmonies to match. Tony Glausi joins in on trumpet to puff up the Latin flavor. Colligan and Lacey add the punch and propulsion to the track with the humorous title. If the title is a play on “hermeneutics,” one wonders if Colligan is being self-deprecating about his interpretation of Latin rhythms. A thoroughly enjoyable piece.
Glausi stays on for “Con Woman.” The horn trio plays on top of Colligan and Lakey’s steady andante that calls to mind every bad woman of music history from “Long Cool Woman” to “Black Magic Woman” and the ways they walk. The pace is perfect, in a prurient sense, full of long strides and hip swings.
“Impromptu Ballad” is Glausi’s final appearance on the album. He gets the intro and trades a bit with Colligan’s brushes. His tone is excellent and is a great partner with Lakey’s bass as they weave to and fro against Colligan’s rumbles and crashes. It is the shortest track of the album.
A fascinating foray into syncopated rhythms and cool discord, “Risky Notion” is the title track and is a brilliant piece of compositional skill. Solos and duos are twisted together brilliantly. Lakey works a lively bass against Colligan’s staggered rhythms. It turns out to be one of the most interesting and enjoyable grooves on the album.
“Space Gives You Time” again features the duo of saxes and recalls the heady days of the Coltrane-Adderley duos. Colligan is fabulous on this hard bop and Lakey gets his first real solo here. He does not disappoint. Colligan follows with his own brief solo and the return of the horns carries the track to conclusion. A fun romp, to be sure.
One of the coolest melodies on the whole album is found in “Transparent.” Colligan takes to the brushes to create a soft space from which to launch Lakey’s second solo—even sweeter than the first. The whole approach is warmer and cleaner than one might expect. That melodic line holds sway throughout the piece and is entirely captivating. At the end, the melodic line is broken into fragments. A great composition.
One of the gentlest tracks is “Phantom Friend.” This deserves a tip of the hat to track placement as it is a fine follow to “Transparent.” The haunting soprano saxophone of Nicole Glover is wispy and evocative. The melody is sweet and the rhythm section lays low for most of the song.
The album closes out with “Losing Our Way.” It begins as an exercise in corps progression, almost in lock step. Colligan and Lakey begin to break the rhythm down as Manis solos on tenor sax and the melody staggers. It is a marvelous rhythmic and melodic fracturing. The cool opening groove is crushed and replaced by an ever-cooler splinter effect. It is a brilliant way to end an album.
George Colligan has adapted and adopted seamlessly from instrument to instrument and structure to non-structure and exactitude to improvisation and back again. It is impossible to get tired of Colligan because he never stagnates. Colligan’s imagination and creativity are spring-fed lakes that overflow in every direction.
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