George Colligan Quartet – one of the best kept secrets in jazz at Chris Jazz Cafe


Pianist and multi-instrumentalist George Colligan is “one of the best kept secrets in jazz.” It’s not clear why he is such a secret, since. as saxophonist Don Braden once said, “As a creative artist, he’s really up there… In terms of technique, knowledge of music and improvisational creativity, there aren’t a whole lot of cats from his generation that are any better than him. As a matter of fact, I can’t think of any.” Colligan has a solid record catalogue. He has graced the stages of many of the jazz festivals.

He has worked often and repeatedly with greats like Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield, Buster Williams, Cassandra Wilson, Don Byron, Ravi Coltrane, Chris Botti, and so many others. If there is any truth to him being a “secret,” it may stem from his genuine modesty. In his life, career, and on stage, he comes across more as a straightforward working musician than a central persona and hero.

But when you hear him play and lead a group, as he did at Chris’ Jazz Café on this evening, it is hard to imagine anything much better.

George Colligan | jazz pianist and composer

Moreover, his “pickup” band consisting of the great Steve Wilson on alto saxophone, Alexander Claffy on bass, and Kush Abadey on drums, each had a spark like Colligan. And remarkably, although they have only each worked with each other periodically, and each has his own musical signature, they offered a sense of ensemble playing one usually hears only in legendary groups like the John Coltrane quartet of the 1960s, groups that have had time to develop a collective playing instinct.

For example, in the first of four Colligan originals, “M. Gustave H” (the name of the protagonist in the Wes Anderson film The Grand Budapest Hotel (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2014)), each of the group members had a unique contribution to make. Colligan’s swing was, as usual, irresistible. Wilson is a post-Coltrane (and modernist) saxophonist. Claffy had a tight “studio sound” that pulled everything together. And Abadey worked assiduously on milking everything he could from the drum set. Yet it all came together with finesse, with the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Bebop is rarely mentioned in connection with Colligan, but there is a solid underpinning of bebop in his playing, just as there is in Wilson’s, and it may be that that is what brought everything together.

Blindfold Test: George Colligan

The next tune was Colligan’s “Humility,” that started as a ballad and picked up tempo evolving into a bossa rhythm in a very imaginative way. There were great solos all around, the most striking of which was Abadey’s, milking the bossa nova rhythm for all it was worth and mixing it with everything else, and with Colligan comping very tightly in a way that stimulated and flattered Abadey.

Colligan gave another of his compositions “Keep it Simple, Stupid” a casual conversational feel with diminished scales, avoiding more “prideful” American Songbook changes. Colligan’s solo was a little gem, and although rarely mentioned in association with Colligan, embodied an influence of Barry Harris and the bebop that evolved among the Detroit musicians years before Colligan was born. Again, Colligan comped Avadey’s drum solo beautifully, with the latter’s work on the cymbals rivalling that of DeJohnette and Billy Hart.

The next song, “Early Morning Gratitude,” was a sweet ballad, with Wilson stating the melody at the outset. An artful solo by Claffy had an unusual moment: a brief two-fingered trill, which is rarely heard on the bass. Wilson took a very expressive solo that was, not unexpectedly, reminiscent of the way Coltrane played ballads in his early-to-middle period.

ubuntu music-George Colligan

To complete the set, Colligan chose the jazz standard, “Voyage” by Kenny Barron. (Any reference to Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” was surely intended by Barron.) Colligan gave it an “Opening Night” feel of a Broadway musical overture. Wilson and Claffy engaged in a terrific duet rich in ideas, and there were wonderful solos by Colligan and Abadey as well.

In sum, Colligan and his group were a sheer pleasure to hear. If you want a gustatory comparison, think of a glass of the best wine or a cordon bleu multi-course dinner. This was connoisseur jazz at its best.

George Colligan Quartet at Chris’ Jazz Café

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