Patuxent CD-168 John Colianni - Johnny Chops
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Watching John Colianni play makes me think of Earl Hines. It’s not that John seeks to replicate the Hines style; it’s just that he has something of that great man’s casual insouciance as he improvises. It’s partly to do with the way John sits at the piano, sideways on, looking away from the keys, playing with his characteristic ‘look-no-hands’ flash. In making this kind of comparison, I’m not suggesting that John is Hines’s equal as an innovator – there’s time yet for that to emerge – more that his pianism is generally unpredictable, invariably inventive and quite often startlingly original. All this and more is evident on this sparkling new release, just the latest in a series of albums that place John centrally among the best swing pianists active today.
I’ve been fortunate enough to observe John at work in a wide variety of musical situations here in Britain and in the US, too. I’ve seen him play solo, in trios and small groups, in big bands and as the expert foil to the legendary guitarist Les Paul at the Iridium in New York. We’ve talked often about his combative streak and I know him well enough to say that he’s not prone to false modesty. Au contraire. John is clear about what he can do and he’s not bashful about it. More to the point, on the principle that actions speak louder than words, he soon converts any sceptics when he sits down at the piano to perform. After all, why else would such high-profile employers as Lionel Hampton, Mel Torme and Les Paul have chosen to hire him?
It was saxophonist Paul Jeffrey who brought John to Hamp’s attention, helping to kick-start the young pianist’s brilliant career. He became the vibes legend’s protégé, hanging out and recording with him, and appearing with the big band in prestigious concert halls around Europe. It was on one of those European sojourns that I first heard John, then aged 20, and was sure that I was encountering a star in the making. Then came his role as Musical Director for the exacting Mel Torme since which he has been concentrating on his freelance career which continues apace today.
John’s brilliant quintet first came together in 2006. They perform regularly in New York, gigging steadily at The Garage and Swing 46, their neat harmonised lines bringing to mind the influential George Shearing Quintet from the 1950s. Justin Lees, the principal guitar soloist, is from the same Maryland-DC nexus as John and bassist Robert Wagner. Lees came to John’s attention when he sat in on a trio gig that John and bassist Bob Cranshaw held down at Smith’s on 8th Avenue in New York and Wagner was with Joker’s Wild, a DC jump band, where John first heard him.
Rhythm guitarist Joe Friedman, originally out of St Louis, joined the band on Justin’s recommendation and also plays for singer Eartha Kitt whereas drummer Matt Fishwick comes from my side of the pond. Originally from Manchester, England, he has played with many top British and American jazzmen alongside his twin brother Steve, a fine trumpeter, before relocating to New York a year or so ago.
Now to the music. We open with John’s no-holds-barred romp through Dizzy Gillespie’s bop anthem, ‘The Champ’, all breakneck runs and tricky jabs, before a series of emphatic chords herald John’s dynamic reworking of ‘Fur Elise’, his lyrical piano betraying something of his indebtedness to Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. Lees plays a tasty solo, too. ‘I Hear A Rhapsody’ was premiered by Tony Martin in the 1952 movie drama Clash by Night and is given that Shearing-influenced ‘locked hands’ chorded approach. More good guitar here. The fetchingly limpid quality of ‘Sunset in Santa Fe’ prompted its title (provided by Tira Bluestone, John’s partner), this mirrored by the quintet’s relaxed performance.
Bandleader Ted Fio Rito’s ‘I Never Knew’, always a popular favourite, is peppier, with more of those characteristic rococo right-hand piano figures, Fishwick happily swinging. The engaging ‘Don’t Know Why’ launched singer Norah Jones on her path to fame: here John is at his most Tatum-like, the melody neatly harmonised. Gould’s ‘Pavanne’ is quite irresistible, the mood jaunty rather than solemn, Wagner prominent on bass.
John’s ‘Luv Bomb’ takes the funky route, its interesting stop-start narrative presaging his complex multi-faceted solo. The runaway success of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ helped to propel their album to the top of the US charts in 1992. An unusual choice for a jazz album? Not in the hands of gifted improvisers like John and the quintet – witness the way they transform this so-called ‘anthem for apathetic kids’ in to something altogether more spirited and jazz-worthy. I just love John’s canny arrangement and those bluesy guitar passages!
We close with two more Colianni originals. ‘Schwing Meister’ is, as its title implies, a showcase for John’s dazzling piano, the ensemble passages momentarily recalling the Nat King Cole Trio’s clever interplay, with a wordless band vocal in the final chorus, while ‘Double ‘D’ Squad’ is playfully upbeat and fast-moving in its execution, all five instrumentalists at their best, and completes a session mixing standard songs, originals and contemporary material to fascinating effect.
Speaking of John Colianni, Mel Torme once said, “You’ll never hear anything better.” On this evidence, he could just be right.