by Ian Mann
July 04, 2017
An impressive offering from Colligan. The standard of the musicianship is excellent throughout, sometimes dazzlingly so, these musicians have ‘chops’ in spades.
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4708)
The American pianist, keyboard player and composer George Colligan is a prolific presence on the US jazz scene both as a leader and a sideman. To date he has appeared on over one hundred albums, including twenty eight as a leader.
As a sideman Colligan’s credits include work with drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist Larry Grenadier, clarinettist Don Byron, flautist Jamie Baum and vocalist Cassandra Wilson among many others.
Contributors to his numerous solo albums include musicians of the calibre of saxophonists Mark Turner and Perico Sambeat, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, bassist Drew Gress and drummers Billy Hart and Billy Drummond.
In 2012 I saw Colligan perform live for the only time as part of the Jack DeJohnette Group at the Adrian Boult Hall in Birmingham, in a stellar line up that also included Don Byron on both clarinet and tenor sax. During this performance the ridiculously talented Colligan also revealed himself to be a fine exponent of the pocket trumpet, the instrument popularised by the late, great Don Cherry. My review of that event can be read here;
More recently guest contributor Sean Wilkie witnessed Colligan performing as part of Scottish drummer and composer Andrew Bain’s Embodied Hope Quintet at the now sadly defunct Dempsey’s in Cardiff. Sean’s account of that performance can be read here;
Also a member of the Embodied Hope Quintet was bassist and Whirlwind Recordings label owner Michael Janisch. Colligan’s latest offering as a leader appears on Janisch’s imprint and features a hugely talented quartet that includes such luminaries as bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Rudy Royston. The name of saxophonist Nicole Glover may be less well known but she impresses with her contributions on both tenor and soprano. Originally from Portland, Oregon, but now active on the New York jazz scene Glover is one of Colligan’s former students and on the evidence of this recording hers will be a name to look out for in the years to come.
Recorded in Brooklyn “More Powerful” features nine original compositions by Colligan who says of the pieces “I selected compositions which I thought would be great vehicles for improvisation and interaction. Some of these are older, some are brand new. I chose musicians that I believe capture the essence of my own vision as a composer but also add their own genius to the presentation.”
The album gets off to a blistering start with “Whiffle Ball”, the title a reference to the softball games that the young Colligan enjoyed with his father in the backyard of his home in his native Maryland. There’s a child like energy about Colligan’s tumbling piano gymnastics on a dazzling opening solo. As Colligan’s back catalogue suggests he’s a musician with technique to burn. Glover’s soprano dances lithely above the scalding swing generated by Oh and Royston and there’s also an extended feature from the brilliant drummer, who has worked with guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist JD Allen among others.
“Waterfall Dreams”, one of Colligan’s older tunes, is, almost inevitably, slightly more reflective. Performed in the piano trio format it’s still a tightly focussed piece of work in which tensions are developed and released. An attractive melodic hook forms the basis for solos from Colligan and Oh of whom the composer says “Linda has everything you would want in a bassist and more”. It’s these qualities that have led to her working with such celebrated musicians as trumpeter Dave Douglas and guitarist Pat Metheny.
Oh’s bass introduces “Effortless”, a tune about the concept of making the difficult appear easy. The title is a reference to “Effortless Mastery, Liberating The Master Musician Within”, a book by the jazz pianist Kenny Werner. It’s the second piece to be presented in the piano trio format and Colligan’s solo is a veritable outpouring of ideas. It doesn’t exactly appear ‘easy’ but it does sound as if it all comes quite naturally to Colligan. Oh contributes a dexterously agile bass solo and the irrepressible Royston pushes and prods the music along with a bustling but controlled performance behind the kit.
The title of “Today, Again” refers to the repetitiveness of daily life but there’s nothing boring about Glover’s inventive extemporisations on tenor sax or Colligan’s exuberant Monkish/Tyneresque outpourings at the piano. Oh’s bass solo combines melody with deep resonance and Royston performs with his customary power and precision.
“More Powerful Than You can Possibly Imagine”, effectively the title track, takes its inspiration from the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the ‘Star Wars’ franchise. Introduced by Oh’s vigorous pizzicato improvisations the piece gathers an unstoppable momentum once the bassist is joined by piano, tenor sax and drums. Colligan’s torrential solo again takes inspiration from Tyner with its lightning runs and thunderous block chords. Meanwhile Glover attacks her tenor with a virtuosic abandon in a veritable saxophonic freak out. There’s then a spirited but loosely structured conversation between piano bass and drums prior to a blistering sax led climax. It’s a high octane performance that leaves the listener feeling breathless.
The ‘space’ theme continues with “Retrograde Pluto”, one of three pieces written by Colligan at a retreat in the marvellously named Carefree, Arizona. The title comes from a snippet of overheard conversation. In contrast to the kinetic energy of “More Powerful…” this piece instead reflects the tranquillity of the location in which it was conceived. Another trio piece it’s something of a feature for Oh whose bass solo combines a fluid, rounded tone with an impressive melodic sense. Colligan’s own solo displays an expansive lyricism on one of the album’s quieter pieces.
Similar qualities are displayed on “Southwestern Silence”, another of the pieces written in the Arizona desert. Colligan is again at his most lyrical and there’s another delightful solo from Oh as Royston takes on the role of colourist with his subtle drum and percussion shadings.
“Empty” is a showcase for Glover’s authoratative tenor playing as she improvises around the fluid backdrop provided by Colligan, Oh and Royston on a piece that blurs the boundaries between structure and freedom.
The album concludes with the last piece of the Arizona ‘triptych’, “The Nash”, a tune dedicated to the jazz club of that name in Phoenix. The club was opened in 2012 and is so called after the acclaimed drummer Lewis Nash, a native of the city.
Colligan’s tune is a lively, playful tribute, featuring Glover’s incisive, darting soprano alongside quirkily inventive solos from Oh and Colligan. It’s an enjoyable way of ending a consistently engaging album.
“More Powerful” represents an impressive offering from Colligan. The standard of the musicianship is excellent throughout, sometimes dazzlingly so, these musicians have ‘chops’ in spades. If there’s a cavil it’s that sometimes it all gets a bit too intense, these displays of jaw dropping virtuosity can sometimes get a bit exhausting for the listener.
Not that the writing is one dimensional, Colligan’s compositions are varied and full of ideas but the running order might have been adjusted to facilitate more contrast between the individual pieces. The two quietest items are scheduled together, presumably because of the circumstances of their writing, but this did seem a little bit bizarre to me. However this is a very minor complaint in the context of the album overall.
Although Glover doesn’t appear on every track I very much enjoyed her contribution and I hope to hear more from her in the future. She was a new name to me but I was already familiar with the three exceptional musicians who form the core of the personnel on this album.
One suspects that the Colligan group would be a hugely exciting prospect live and the pianist is bringing a version of the band for a short visit to the UK and Europe in July 2017. Details as below;
Monday, July 10th – Tuesday, 18th
Tour in the UK & Austria with the George Colligan Trio “More Powerful“
George Colligan – piano
Michael Janisch – bass
Klemens Marktl – drums
Monday, July 10th @ Ronnie Scott’s, London (UK)
Tuesday, July 11th @ Dempsey’s Cardiff, Wales (UK)
Sunday, July 16th @ Vortex Jazz Club, London (UK)
Monday,July 17th @ Raj, Klagenfurt (AT)
Tuesday,July 18th @ Porgy & Bess Jazz Club, Vienna (AT)
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