Hit right between the eyes by the opening tick-tock drum beat followed by real fat sounds from double-trouble on tenor saxes is a killer way to set the mood on the song “I Never Knew.” The piano solo from leader John Colianni twinkles and sways. This is the John Colianni Sextet, wrapped tight and owning the groove.
Their new CD (also named “I Never Knew”) came out this March and packs a swinging punch reminiscent of the greatest days of jazz. Those days never left, though; that is apparent on this very album.
“Sunset in Santa Fe” is a lazy/sultry track with a cool-blue guitar solo and a beat that pulls it back just a smidge. And man oh man! – how their reimagining of “Fur Elise” swings and jives, dignified again by that fat tenor sound and a brilliant shimmer from piano.
When did you fall in love with piano?
When I was still in grade school, around 1975, I heard Teddy Wilson on Benny Goodman’s recording of “Body And Soul” on the radio. WMAL-AM in Washington D.C., where I grew up, had a jazz host named Felix Grant and he was very popular. This was a commercial station, and commercial radio has always been a much better forum for jazz than public stations.
Felix Grant played a potpourri of eras and styles on his show. Anyway, I heard Teddy Wilson’s solo on that record, and it hooked me!
What did you get out of the Matthay system?
Matthay was the system of technique I was taught in private lessons with Les Karr, a wonderful pianist himself. Matthay emphasizes relaxed, but still firm, muscular application from the arms, wrists, hands and fingers to the keyboard. It promotes evenness of attack, rapid execution, accuracy, good tonal production and allows the player to go for long sessions of play without tiring.
It’s rarely used, but classical and jazz performers have employed Matthay effectively.
Talk about your first public performance and how it felt.
I started on brass instruments before piano. At my first school concert appearance, I vomited beforehand and had to be put to bed after the concert with a virus. But I had just caught something, so I wasn’t nervous about the show! Haha!
My first professional gig was at Blues Alley as part of a troupe called “Jazz Stars Of The Future” and I played in a trio that night with Keter Betts, Ella Fitzgerald’s longtime bassist, who was the manager of the our troupe. It was fun – a lot of friends and supporters were there, and I felt excited about actually getting paid for playing a gig.
Your moniker “Johnny Chops” – talk about the challenges in playing quickly and accurately.
Yeah, it’s a nice little nickname. I hope I’m earning it on some level.
How did you feel when Mel Tormé offered you a steady gig?
Flattered that he liked my work and frightened at his fearsome reputation. But that assessment of him was exaggerated as it made the rounds.
Mel and I got along great. He was a genuine, warm person without pretense. And we had very common tastes musically, as it turned out. Playing for him was always a happy and exciting thing.
Why do you think you can express yourself best through piano?
Piano offers a wide berth of expression in that the player can play melody and harmony, simultaneously or separately, as can an orchestra. Single-note brass and woodwind instruments, beautiful in their own right, cannot be played as self-sustained, complete vehicles of performance the way a piano can – even when played solo, unaccompanied.
Do you like the big band experience better than the small ensemble?
The big band is my favorite playing vehicle. It allows for great power of interpretation, true in any large ensemble. Rhythmically, big bands can generate very powerful, surging grooves as well. Smaller groups have more limited dynamic and orchestral range. But small groups in jazz are akin to “chamber” groups in classical music, since they are light and agile settings for interpretation, improvisation and rhythmic buoyancy. Both offer their own distinct qualities, and I like playing in either setting, but I have a tad more fascination for the big band thing.
What a spirited and swinging song: “I Never Knew.” What inspired that?
The Frank Sinatra recording, arranged by Billy May, on the album “Come Swing With Me.”
What inspires you when composing?
Sometimes a visual source, like a picture or a skyline, can bring out the muse. Pretty women are decidedly inspiring in writing music. Every sense can be involved, too. The smells from the streets – cooking from restaurant kitchens, perfume, bus exhaust, hot chestnuts…can evoke a feeling that can turn musical.
Who are your major influences?
Duke Ellington, Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Count Basie, singers like Sinatra, Nat Cole, Peggy Lee, Lena Horne…Pop music like the Beatles, Mancini, Bacharach, Mantovani….arrangers like Nelson Riddle, Neal Hefti, Ellington, Strayhorn….country musicians, like Jerry Reed, Floyd Kramer….Broadway composers like Gershwin, Porter, Rogers….
Had you always wanted to re-craft “Fűr Elise”?
I fooled around with the theme, jazzing it up as I have, and was inspired to take it further at the prompting of the comments I’d hear even when I played it at a casual, non-paid gathering. It seemed to catch on with people.
How do you and your band members collaborate so seamlessly?
It’s important to have clear sightlines on stage, since jazz groups like mine, which are detailed and full of cues and dynamic direction, depend on the leader to conduct from his or her spot; in my case, at the keyboard. Nonverbal communication of that kind is indeed important.
Please name your personnel in the sextet and the talents they bring.
On the record, there’s John Simon, tenor sax, a purveyor of the Philly sax sound, very soulful, and an agile improviser. The second tenor sax is Grant Stewart, who is a rather famous and renowned player with his own major career. He plays with a beautiful tone and superior execution of ideas, and he swings like one of the old timers, my greatest compliment. Guitar, Matt Chertkoff: Matt plays with advanced technique, and really kicks tail as a jazz performer. Very versatile and fun to play with.
Ralph Hamperian, the bassist, was a band mate going back to my late teens when we were both touring with Lionel Hampton’s big band in Europe and America. He’s got great attack and drive, and plays with a big, big beat!
Bernard Linnette, on drums is an old buddy who really puts out the old “club groove” in his rhythmic support. He swings “like a gate” as Lionel Hampton used to say! Tremendous.
And me, on piano. I also wrote all of the arrangements, except one.
Where will you tour this year?
In the South and Northeast US; overseas, in England, Scotland Austria, and Italy.
Just released, would you say the new CD “I Never Knew” has an overall style?
Acoustic modern jazz, with touches of swing and New Orleans.
Highlights and challenges of the production of this album?
It was just a pleasure all the way through. The setup and studio sound were very good, the recording quality very authentic. Almost all first takes, little or no editing. And we had fun, which is palpable visually in the film that was made of the recording.
How have jazz audiences changed since you started playing professionally?
Not that much, but there is too much meaningless whoo! whooing! and screaming nowadays. The act appearing onstage doesn’t have to earn rapturous ovations anymore, and that ain’t so good. Unnatural. Fun for the audience, maybe.
Favorite small clubs?
Smith’s, 8th Ave at 44th St. I had an ongoing gig there with the great bassist Bob Cranshaw. This place has changed its music policy, but it was a very cool place to play.
Venue or festival you have always wanted to play that you have not yet?
I’d think more in terms of region in answering this one, because I’ve played in a lot of the famous venues already in various capacities. Some places I’d like to work that I haven’t yet would include Australia and South America.
Advice to aspiring jazz musicians?
Jazz education doesn’t really come off, at least as it’s been offered over the years. The jazz world – for me, and many others – was a private club when I first got into it. As a player or a fan, it was a forbidden pleasure, a lustful passion, something the other kids didn’t know much about. It was a bit outside the cultural and educational establishment. But people clambered to confer an art form status to jazz, which I can understand. It’s a complex and powerful form of music, after all.
But state/government sponsoring and educational institutions have stripped jazz of its earthy, visceral beauty, danger and drama. Jazz Ed is a cottage industry, a way for musicians between gigs to draw a salary, but the curriculum is basically phony.
Jazz can’t really be taught in a classroom, by its very nature. I guess aspirants could keep that in mind if they want a music ed degree just to keep them employable if their gigs are spotty. I’d also say that playing live will upgrade your playing when you’re starting out in a variety of situations, jam sessions or more functional settings, in a way that practicing alone (though also necessary) cannot.
Biggest reward of a life devoted to music?
For starters, it beats working! I’m passionate and fascinated about music, and I love the history aspect of it; however I don’t think of myself as devoted to music, per se, as some are. I love it, and it’s my occupation, but I lack the obsessive nature of some who can practice for 12 hours at a time.
Sonny Rollins is like that, an inveterate student of the saxophone. I admire that kind of singular dedication, but my own engagement falls short of that brand of devotion.
Better to say it like this: Perhaps I actually am devoted to music, but in a different way. It’s all very interesting. I really enjoy playing music and it’s great to do it for a living. Even at my modest level of recognition, I’ve been able to make lasting friendships with fellow musicians and fans here in the US, in Europe (especially the UK), and in the Far East from performing in those locations.
Thanks for featuring me here!
For more information, visit www.johncolianni.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of John Colianni.
(c) Debbie Burke 2018