Monday, July 4, 2011


Hey everybody,

I didn't eat any Regina pizza today so we'll leave that for a minute.

People that have been following the blog know of my current struggles to work on my piano and harmonica playing. That said, I think it's done wonders for my drumming and musicality as a whole.

With that in mind I've asked some questions to a great musician on several instruments, George Colligan. That's him up at the top, and here's just a few of the things he's done...

George Colligan (born December 29, 1969) is a New York-based jazz pianist, organist, drummer, trumpet player, educator, composer and bandleader. He was born in New Jersey, and raised in a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland. He attended the Peabody Institute, majoring in classical trumpet and music education. In high school he learned to play the drums and later switched to piano.
An in-demand sideman, Colligan has worked with Phil Woods, Gary Bartz, Robin Eubanks, Billy Higgins, Lee Konitz, Nicholas Payton, Steve Wilson, Richard Bona, Cassandra Wilson, Christian McBride, Buster Williams, Al Foster, Don Byron, Benny Golson, Lonnie Plaxico, Vanessa Rubin, and many others. He counts Chick Corea, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, and McCoy Tyner as influences. Colligan is a recipient of the Chamber Music America award for composition and a winner of the award. He has released 18 albums as a leader and is featured on over 100 albums as a sideman. Colligan's style is extremely eclectic; it incorporates everything from show tunes to funk, from free improvisation to modern classical music. Colligan has performed at festivals all over the world, including the North Sea Jazz Festival, the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival, Vancouver International Jazz Festival, and the Cancun Jazz Festival. In 2007, for the first time, he played trumpet with the trio Mr. Trumpet at the Festival of New Trumpet Music, which is held annually in New York City. Colligan taught at the Juilliard School.
In September 2009, Colligan moved to Winnipeg, MB in Canada to teach at the Marcel A. Desautels faculty of music. He teaches jazz history, piano, drums, trumpet, and leads many different master classes. He will be the songwriter-in-residence at Aqua Books from February to March 2011.

He is also currently playing in a band led by another great multi-instrumentalist, Jack DeJohnette. I believe I showed great restraint in not asking him what DeJohnette eats for breakfast!

1. What instrument did you begin with?

I officially started on piano, but here's the thing: I was in 2nd grade, and I only took lessons for about one month , and I hated it, so I quit. Then in 4th grade, I took up trumpet in the school band. I played trumpet all through middles school, high school, and college, so I usually consider trumpet to be my first instrument. I also played drums in high school, and I might have ended up as a drummer, if I hadn't gotten serious about the piano.. I didn't really start with piano again until 11th grade in high school. I took a piano class, which dealt with simple chords and such. And then when I entered Peabody Conservatory, I actually got more serious about Jazz music, and consequently, the piano. Around 1988 or '89, I lucked into a steady gig on piano in a hotel in Baltimore, and I've been a jazz pianist ever since.

2. What led you to take up more than one instrument?

It's interesting because I don't believe multi-instumentalism is encouraged in the U.S.A. I think the vibe is, especially in the classical world, that you must be very serious about one instrument so you can compete. However, one of my big influences was a classmate at Peabody named Alex Norris, and he played trumpet, electric bass, guitar, and some piano as well. And he was great on all of them!I would say that I probably should have been a drummer, because I think rhythm is what attracts me most when I hear music. But I had played trumpet in the school bands, and I was thought of as a trumpeter. The problem was, I developed a certain amount of skill on the trumpet, but my range and endurance was limited; I had developed some bad habits during a summer of practicing and not taking lessons. I was placing the mouthpiece of the trumpet off to one side of my lips, causing my embouchure to be inefficient. I could play very well for about 10 minutes, and after that, I would use a lot of pressure against the lips, which would make my sound fall apart. So my teacher, Lee Stevens, told me that I had to change my embouchure in order to re-develop the proper musculature. I had to start from scratch and it was very frustrating; this was 10th grade. I couldn't play any high notes at all; they moved me from Principal Trumpet in the Wind Ensemble to somewhere in the 3rd trumpets. It was kind of embarrassing, I had to constantly explain to people why I couldn't play: "Yeah, I'm changing my embouchure." I did improve, and in the long run, it was worth it, but I don't think I ever had the same confidence again. So I would play drums a bit in high school, although it wasn't so encouraged, because the idea was, "you play trumpet, what are you doing on the drums?" Honestly, I think it's a miracle that I ended up as a musician, because I have no musicians in my family, and I knew almost no professional musicians when I was growing up. And when I started playing piano in high school, I had even less guidance. I mentioned that I had a piano class, but this was very limited; the instructor didn't know much past the basics, and in terms of technique or proper fingerings, she knew nothing. So I just tried to learn on my own. And when I started to actually work as a pianist, I had to do a similar "re-start" with the piano, because I had some tendonitis, and I needed to figure out the proper technique. I was able to take 30 minute lessons every week for a semester with a grad student named Fred Karpoff, who showed me the Taubman techniques, and that helped tremendously. But I never had "jazz piano lessons" on a weekly basis.

3. I'm assuming piano is the axe you spend the most time playing. How do the other instruments affect your approach to piano?

My initial concept as a pianist was playing trumpet licks in the right hand and snare rhythms in the left hand, with the few limited voicings that I knew. So that's a direct influence of trumpet and drums. I think jazz musicians, whether they feel as though they should venture down the path of "multi-instumentalism" or not(I make it sound like some sort of illicit activity:"Hey man, we're playing different instruments in here. Are you down?"), should be familiar with how all the instruments function within a jazz group. I think it makes one listen better on the bandstand. For example, I try to listen to the ideas that the drummer is playing, as opposed to counting. I find I'm more in sync with what's going on. I hear many young bands play as if they are all only listening to themselves and happen to be playing simultaneously. I try to listen more to others than myself, frankly. Furthermore, it has been argued that much of jazz piano is actually a pianist trying to make the piano sound like another instrument. We try to phrase like a singer, or play lines like a trumpeter, or play rhythms like a drummer. Jazz is not necessarily a "pianistic" sort of music. In this sense, I don't really consider myself a pianist, I'm just a jazz musician who keeps getting called to play piano.

4. On a recent gig we played, you played melodica, piano, trumpet, and drums. Do you find physical and mental challenges to doing this, and how do you adjust?

The biggest physical challenge is still the trumpet, because I'm not naturally talented as a trumpeter; I still struggle with range and endurance. And now that I am teaching college and raising an 18 month old boy, I have little time for the required maintenance that goes into playing the trumpet. I try to play a little every day, so I'm good for one, maybe two songs. After that, my chops give out pretty quickly. Other than that, it's more about the music. On the bandstand, I just try to play the best I can. I don't think about technique on the gig. But when I do get a chance to practice, I do try to think about the basics, and try to refine what I'm doing. I wouldn't say there is an adjustment. Whether you are playing piano, drums, trumpet, bass saxophone, whatever, time is still the same, rhythm is still the same, form is still the same. It's all the same after a while.

5. How do you divide your time practicing between instruments?

Like I said, it's hard to find the time to practice at all. I usually end up practicing more keyboard because I tend to practice for work related things, like a recording session or a tour. But I do try to play trumpet every day, at least for a few minutes. When I was teaching at the University of Manitoba, I would try to get to school early to practice the acoustic bass for 10 or 15 minutes before my classes. And if I had some spare time, I would kind of work my way around the room-one minute at the drums, pick up the trumpet for a while, etc…. But ultimately, the goal is to not worry about the technique and just play in the moment. It's been a real education working with Jack DeJohnette because I think that his uniqueness comes from his musicality. He doesn't play the drums, he plays music. I think if you compared his technique with some of the more "chopsy" clinician type players, he might fall short, however, nobody on the planet can play like DeJohnette. His feel and interpretation is unbelievable. And he also happens to be a multi-instrumentalist!

So there you have it. I've got a lot of practicing to do on several instruments. Thanks for the inspiration George!

1 comment:

  1. Ted, nice to find your pizza blog. Love it. Interesting interview re multi-instrumentalists. In the last 7 years or so I have focused on being a multi instrumetalist and love it. I find it helps my playing on the guitar for sure too. Interesting to think of this approach in jazz however as I find it kind of rare. Then again I have spent a lot of time with Howard Johnson, a great jazz multi instrumentalist...maybe I should just be quiet and go practise. ha.