George Colligan picked up the phone at his home in Oregon, where he is in his second year of teaching at Portland State University. But the jazz composer frankly admitted that he's looking forward to this week's return to Maryland, where he first learned to play jazz, and to New York City, where he first made his reputation as a pianist for Cassandra Wilson and Don Byron. On March 27, he plays with vocalist Debbie Deane at Brooklyn's Shapeshifter Lab, and Friday, March 29, he plays with clarinetist Todd Marcus, percussionist Warren Wolf, and bassist Eric Wheeler at Baltimore's An die Musik.
"I always like to come back to the East Coast and not just because I'm from the area," Colligan said. "I know I'll be playing with some hard-hitting musicians. With some exceptions, most West Coast musicians are attempting to play East Coast music without having quite the same drive. When you play with Warren Wolf and Eric Wheeler, it just feels right. There's no discussion; you just get in a super-fast car and go. You don't even have to talk about it."
It was after his 1995 move to Brooklyn that Colligan met Marcus, but the pianist was intrigued by Marcus' instrument of choice. "The bass clarinet is kind of mysterious," Colligan said. "You listen to Bitches Brew, and you hear Bennie Maupin's bass clarinet as a dark sound lurking in the shadows." Having admired the way Marcus used the instrument on his compositions, Colligan wanted to find out how it might work on his own tunes. The two co-leaders will each supply half of the compositions for the night at An die Musik.
Colligan won a 2002 grant from Chamber Music America's New Works Creation and Presentation program, and he used the money to develop the ambitious writing for albums such as 2006's Blood Pressure. But on his brand-new album, The Facts, he has distilled his compositions to simpler yet evocative themes that open up more space for improvisation. Part of the motivation was knowing he had only one day in the studio with his quartet, so he wanted to provide tunes they could grab onto quickly. Another part was a new appreciation for jazz composers such as Wayne Shorter and Thelonious Monk.
"Those guys know the rules," Colligan said, "but they also know when and how to break them. They could take one or two ideas and work them just enough to leave plenty of room for improvising, but they also added enough of a twist to make you stop and think, I never heard that before. There are always a couple of notes that catch you off-guard. The jazz composer doesn't have to do it all, because the soloist is going to make a new composition out of your composition."
Colligan met his quartet-mates on the album (alto-saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, bassist Boris Koslov, and drummer Donald Edwards) when all four were members of the Mingus Big Band. They all shared Charles Mingus' enthusiasm for combining earthy blues with modern structures, a blend demonstrated by the new album's muscular opener, "Blue State," which finds Shaw trying to remain patient in stating Colligan's catchy theme while the rhythm section impetuously pushes ahead. Out of those uncomplicated elements comes a delicious tension.
"The more you compose and the more skill you acquire," Colligan said, "the easier it is to overwrite and create these monolithic structures. If you start to think of yourself as Beethoven Jr., you run the risk of not allowing the musicians to get comfortable to do what they do. What I noticed from playing in Jack DeJohnette's band recently is that musicians can get comfortable immediately because his compositions are simple. Miles was the same way. He wasn't a control freak who got good musicians and told them what to do on incredibly hard tunes. He got great musicians and let them loose on his little gems."
Colligan's melodic gifts are most evident on "Missing," a romantic ballad with the most seductive of themes. On "Miriam Edwards' New York Accent," it's the sax that wants to go sailing forward while the rhythm section slows things down with stop-and-go phrasing. Colligan named the latter tune after meeting a woman in Birmingham, England, who liked to try foreign accents. A few days later, at a London hotel, he came up with the tune on his melodica and found a way to combine African-American syncopation and Irish jigs.
Colligan, now 43, attended Centennial High School in Howard County and studied classical trumpet at Peabody. While he was in college, though, he found himself gravitating toward jazz and the piano. He apprenticed himself to older Maryland horn players such as Ron Holloway, Alex Norris, and Phil Burlin to learn not only the jazz repertoire but also the spirit of jazz improvisation. He resisted the temptation to move to New York until he had learned everything he could learn from the Baltimore-Washington scene.
"Some people make the mistake of going to New York to learn how to play," Colligan said, "and if someone hears them when they're not ready, it's hard to make up for that first impression. It was to my benefit that I waited a few years, because I knew how to play when I did move. So when Vanessa Rubin heard me playing with Gary Bartz, she started calling me for jobs, and it snowballed from there.
"But the scene has changed now. New York is so oversaturated with players; there are fewer playing opportunities, and Manhattan and much of Brooklyn have gotten so expensive. There's nothing like New York, but if you're not wealthy, it's challenging to live there. But jazz is more than an art form; it's a lifestyle, and if you're not prepared for that, you'll get lost."