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George Colligan

George Colligan

After more than 60 recordings, including 13 as a leader, George Colligan has in a relatively short period of time established a solid rep around New York as a reliably swinging pianist with an advanced understanding of the jazz tradition.

Colligan’s lengthy list of sideman credits since 1995 include tours and recordings with Gary Bartz, Eddie Henderson, Buster Williams, Michael Brecker, Billy Hart, Don Braden, Robin Eubanks, Don Byron, Lonnie Plaxico, Steve Wilson, David Gilmore, the Mingus Big Band, Cassandra Wilson, Vanessa Rubin and Jane Monheit. In addition, he has recorded a string of impressive dates as a leader for the SteepleChase, Fresh Sound New Talent and Criss Cross labels in settings that include solo (1999’s Small Room, 2002’s Return to Copenhagen), duo (2001’s Twins, 2002’s A Wish), trio (1998’s Stomping Ground, 2001’s Agent 99), quartet (2000’s Constant Source, 2002’s Ultimatum) and larger (1997’s quintet date Newcomer and 2000’s Spanish-tinged Como La Vida Puede Ser (How Life Could Be), which includes a quartet with several special guests).

Now Colligan has found another outlet: a slamming, Hammond B3-fueled avant-groove outing called Mad Science (Sunny Sky; available on or Anchored by the powerhouse precision drumming of former Wayne Shorter, Zawinul Syndicate and Santana sideman Rodney Holmes and featuring Staten Island native Tom Guarna, whose spiky Tommy Bolin-meets-Mike Stern guitar work contributes to the album’s edge, Mad Science showcases blazing B3 lines alongside saxophonist and Colligan’s fellow Baltimorian Gary Thomas. Thomas’ angular lines on tenor sax provide some of the ferocious forward momentum for this adventurous, harmonically probing quartet project. At its best, Mad Science sounds like the ultimate thinking man’s jam band.

The precedent for this kind of uncompromising “players’ music” was set more than 30 years ago with such seething fusion landmarks as Tony Williams Lifetime’s Turn It Over and John Abercrombie’s Timeless. But Mad Science can trace its roots more directly back to Gary Thomas’ own underrecognized, organ-fueled gem from 1993, Exile’s Gate.

While Colligan’s modernist tendencies on B3 steer clear of the old-school, Jimmy Smith approach, he has staked out his own territory in the contemporary organ scene. “When most people think of young organ players today they think of Joey DeFrancesco, Larry Goldings and Sam Yahel. I wanted to do something a little different than what those guys are doing because I don’t think I can really do what they do authentically anyway. I’ll never be on Joey’s level of playing the Hammond B3 because he started on it. He’s just more at home with that instrument because he played organ before he played piano. I’m more like Larry Goldings as a pianist coming to the organ and trying to deal with it that way.”

The gifted 33-year-old keyboard player actually started out on trumpet, majoring on the instrument at Baltimore’s prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Music. Upon graduating in 1991 he switched to piano and began playing hotel gigs around Baltimore, which is where he met Thomas. “I had a gig at the Hyatt Regency and Gary used to come by and sit in, sometimes subbing for the regular tenor player. He had already played with Miles Davis and Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition band and I was totally a beginner.”

Colligan’s other current project is equally ambitious but stylistically a world apart from Mad Science. Made possible by a prestigious Chamber Music America New Works Creation and Presentation grant, which is funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Colligan’s Post 9/11 is a heartfelt reaction to that horrible day in American history. “It’s just an impression,” he says of the moving suite, “and I looked at it more like an expression of feeling happy. When something traumatic like that happens, you value the time that you have on earth. And it often just makes me think about what the world would be like if we didn’t have all this violence-not to sound like a beauty-pageant winner. But one of the movements is called “Visions of a Peaceful World,” which kind of explains where I was at when I wrote the piece. I guess I wasn’t really trying to go too much into politics with it. Now, two years later, I’m thinking more about why it happened but back then it was just sort of raw emotion.”

Colligan premiered the piece, which features his Ultimatum band of Thomas, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Ralph Peterson, at the Jazz Gallery in New York last May, then toured the U.K. before recording the entire suite live at Smoke in New York in mid-December.

Colligan continues to play piano with Don Byron’s Music For Six Musicians, the Mingus Big Band and separate groups led by Robin Eubanks, Lonnie Plaxico and Ravi Coltrane. But with Mad Science it’s strictly B3. “I’m not saying I’m never going to do a piano trio on my own again, but right now I’m having too much fun playing the organ.”

Originally Published