Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

September/October 2009: George Colligan

George Colligan: On Fire

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As the fall terms starts, we’re welcoming yet another heavy-hitter to the Jazz Studies faculty at the U of M. George Colligan is a first-call New York pianist who’s playing on the some of the highest-profile gigs out there. He’s been recording and touring with Buster Williams, the Mingus Dynasty, Cassandra Wilson, Lonnie Plaxico, and Vanessa Rubin. He’s the arranger and co-leader of The Herbie Hancock Project, with Buster Williams, Lenny White, Steve Wilson, and others. He has performed with his own trio since 1989, his own quartet since 2001, and with George Colligan and Mad Science since 2000.

His list of recordings is longer than my arm. He has 18 now as a leader, starting with Activism in 1996 and The Newcomer in 1997, and piling up until we hit Blood Pressure in 2006 and Runaway in 2008. Many of those showcase really great originals. He’s a very busy sideman as well, averaging something like half a dozen recordings a year over the past decade. That list reads like a who’s who on the jazz scene, and shows his tremendous musical range and versatility.

George Colligan brings his experience and passion to classrooms and coaching situations too. He’s been in demand as a teacher and clinician all over the US and in many countries around the world since the mid-90s. He comes to Winnipeg from New York’s prestigious Juilliard Jazz Faculty where he’s been teaching for the past couple of years.

There are many things to like about George’s playing. He’s got a lot of modern language, a lot of rhythmic variety. He can go from modern to classic playing, within context, in moments. He’s got a huge amount of wit too, very sharp. If musicians were elements, he’d most certainly be fire, and of the highest degree.

When I had a chance to play with him when he was here in June, what struck me most was the sensitivity of his interactions. Very few pianists, even high-level players, really know how to support a bass player during a solo. Colligan has it down to a science. He can basically hold together the structure without looking like he’s taking over the bass, and you have room to breathe without the form getting ugly. He creates a cushion of sound when he’s comping, and his attention doesn’t waver. That kind of sensitivity speaks of a big spirit.

He’s multi-talented—he’s a strong trumpet player and a good drummer too. After a long interview day, he joined us at The Hang, and at the end of the evening, when a bunch of young musicians who were finally getting their chance to play, George sat in on drums. The bass player was struggling to figure out his notes, and George was so attentive and patient that he turned those efforts into real music. He nurtured that thing until it was something quite wonderful, and all those musicians walked off the stage feeling accomplished. That kind of spirit in a musician, whether it’s a piano player, a bass player, a singer, or a sax player, is rare.

George Colligan comes to the Jazz Studies program with an incredible performance pedigree, a lot of talent and acclaim as a composer/arranger, a strong academic background in performance and music education, and so much fire. If he’s not a genius I don’t know who is. Take a minute to search him out, hear the way he tears up the keyboard—and welcome him to the Jazz Capital of Canada.

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