Friday, November 29, 2013


A few years ago, I had sent my materials to a college in the hopes of winning a teaching job in their jazz program. The school was quite a distance from New York, so the search committee decided that it would be best to administer a preliminary interview by telephone. This is becoming more common and understandable. Indeed, a SKYPE interview would save a lot of time and money. ( I also had a phone interview for the position I have now.) This was my first phone interview, and it was actually quite unsettling, mostly because every time I answered a question, I couldn't get any sort of visual feedback. I got this strange impression that the committee members were sort of dark and unfriendly; however, I was able to convince myself that it was only the technological medium which gave me that impression. " Oh, it's only because I cannot see their faces. I'm sure they are nice people." (When I did make the trip and actually met the panel, I realized my first impression was correct.)

Many of the questions were strange to me("If a student comes to you with a complaint regarding another faculty member, what do you do?"), but one in particular stood out to me. " Yes, Mr.
Colligan. We received your CD, "Blood Pressure," along with your resume. I haven't listened to it yet, but I'm just wondering.....this CD is all original compositions. Do you know any jazz standards? Do you teach jazz standards?"

I'm betting if any of my students read this, they might be quietly chuckling. I almost didn't know how to answer; first of all, if they had bothered to look at my resume, they might have seen all of the vocalists I worked with, and all of the older jazz legends I was fortunate to work with, and maybe they would have deduced that perhaps I know at least a few standards. Indeed, I don't know anywhere near as many as Harold Mabern, who apparently knows around 5000 tunes( he's forgotten more tunes than many of us have ever learned.) Nevertheless, I
Harold Mabern: has forgotten more tunes than you have ever learned!
spent many hours and years learning standards and playing standards on gigs and playing standards in all keys. I'm really trying to insist that my Portland State University students learn jazz standards. Our jazz camp, "The Shed," is based around a list of 20 tunes that we all work on during the week. Furthermore, I LIKE the standards, and I like playing them, and I think learning and knowing certain standards is an unavoidable part of becoming a jazz musician.

However, I also love to compose music. My original reason for trying to improve as a pianist was because I wanted to be a composer. I think developing as a composer is what turns musicians into artists. Improvisation and composition are so similar, and one can inform the other. I love to write new tunes or pieces or songs because it's really my own world and I have total power over everything in that world. I love to bring new songs to a band and see what they do with the material; maybe they'll play it like I hear it, or maybe they will bring a whole new perspective.

I don't think an artist has to be always breaking new ground to be relevant, but I do think there has to be some lean towards newness to be relevant. Be it new music, or a new take on a standard, or an arrangement, or a group of musicians who have never played together, or something, I think this is the beauty of jazz and the beauty of art; there are infinite combinations of notes, chords, rhythms, and musicians that can make us pay attention.

I guess the contradiction lies in this insistence on standard repertoire but also an insistence on
innovation. I think the view of jazz at the moment is plagued by this contradiction in terms. Indeed, the wide spectrum of variety that you will hear by groups or artists classified under jazz will make your head spin. ( Years ago, I was at Newport playing with Cassandra Wilson. On the same bill was Maceo Parker, Celia Cruz, Dave Douglas and John Zorn, and Boney James and Rick Braun!) So you will hear guys playing standards, or all originals, or a mixture, or perhaps they will play NO tunes and play completely improvised music. All of these things will be called jazz.

Now, just to gain a perspective, in the more contemporary world of rock, pop, hip hip, and country music, I would argue that in terms of material, there is a constant need for new material. There is no prerequisite for playing "standards." Dave Matthews Band isn't validated by their performance of "Johnny Be Good," or "Rock Around The Clock" or some Beatles tunes. Kayne West isn't expected to perform "Fight The Power" by Public Enemy. Toby Keith isn't validated by performing Conway Twitty songs. I'm not saying that those artists didn't learn or don't know any classic songs. I'm just saying that we don't ask or expect them to perform "classic" material, or "covers" as they say. We, or should I say, their fans, expect them to play their own music, and if they didn't, they would be considered "unoriginal." I'm not saying those artists are great; however, I think we could agree that, for better or for worse, those are relevant artists in the recent music marketplace.

All of this being said, where does jazz stand in this? Do we need to think the same way? I believe it's worth considering, only because jazz, since 1959, has been declared dead time after time. The prevailing wisdom is that jazz is dead because other forms became more popular and jazz fell by the wayside. I believe that one of the concepts Nicholas Payton was driving at during the whole "BAM" mishagos was that jazz might be dead because it's been put in a box. "What IS jazz? THIS is jazz! THAT isn't jazz!" So is jazz evolving, or is it not? If a young musician plays a standard, is this part of the evolution? If a musician of any age plays original music for an audience that wants to hear "standards that we know," then what does that mean for jazz?

Sometimes, we as musicians have little choice; when a record label tells you to record standards, or a
club owner or promoter tells you to play more standards, and then the critic writes, "this group isn't breaking any new ground," then what? Sometimes it seems to me that jazz is caught in this horrible Catch-22, where it's either too new or too old. What is the solution? Any solution has risk. My personal philosophy has been versatility. Learn standards AND write originals. Be able to play tradition AND be able to play free. You might eventually gravitate towards something more specific, but that's normal. Cecil Taylor isn't going to get called to play standards with a singer. But what does he care? He's FREAKING CECIL TAYLOR!

I suppose some folks who hear my latest CD, "The Endless Mysteries," might hear(or see) all originals and wonder "Yeah, but does this dude know any standards?" Well, you only have to go back a few CDs; I released "Living For The City" in 2011 and it's all tunes you might know. I haven't decided what my next project will be; I have it narrowed down to either a completely improvised recording or a Christmas Album. Or, perhaps a tribute to Conway Twitty......

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Jurassic Classics

When I first started this blog, I posted an article regarding the misconceptions about where jazz really came from(The REALLY REAL Origins of Jazz). Many readers wrote in with skepticism regarding my assertion that the blues scale was indeed not derived from the work songs of African American slaves , but discovered by a little known doctor and pasta chef from Italy named Antonio Jazzopiccolinodigiornopiazza. Some of the comments were hostile:

" You have no idea what you are talking about! All of this is just completely false!"
" You need to get your facts, straight, Colligan. I can't BELIEVE you teach Jazz History…"
" Your account is past due. Please pay your bill immediately to avoid interruption of service."

Well, the last one was from AT&T. I guess everyone reads my blog! Anyway, I have to admit that after reading a handful of the 1,256 angry emails I received, I decided to go back and review my research. I discovered some major flaws, the biggest being that I was coming off of a 4 day NyQuil high when I wrote that article. It turns out that the most accurate aspect of that article was the date(Friday, August 27, 2010). Well, you can't win them all! I was a bit embarrassed, and I was busy planning my resignation from my prestigious and lucrative post here at jazztruth.  I need to draft my resignation speech. I basically just borrowed most of Nixon's resignation speech. Actually, I sort of blended several of his speeches together. Here's an excerpt:

 "People have got to know whether or not their blogger is a crook. Well, I'm not a crook. I've earned everything I've got. Nevertheless, I shall resign the effective at noon tomorrow. Oh, and……regardless of what people say, I'm keeping Checkers."

Luckily, I didn't have to deliver that speech, because new information has come to light. It turns out that jazz is not 100 years old. It's actually millions of years old. Yes, dear reader, paleontologists have discovered that, yes, Dinosaurs were the first creatures to play jazz music. There is startling evidence collected through carbon dating of brand newly unearthed fossils that jazz music was performed by Dinosaurs of all types throughout most of the 165 million year Mezozoic Era, which includes the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous Periods.

We have evidence that the epic battles between Tyrannosaurus Rex, the ferocious king of the carnivores, and Triceratops, the three horned herbivores, were not actually battles of physique but were actually jazz "cutting contests". Yes, these dinosaurs would play primitive percussion instruments, sing, clap their two fingered claws, and strike the rib cage of dinosaur carcasses with smaller bone mallets as if it was a keyboard. During the Triassic period, these jam sessions would usually end up with the weaker players getting eaten. However, scientific research shows that throughout the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, the jam sessions ended with the dinosaurs who couldn't play the chord changes getting eaten. Jurassic period dinosaur musicians placed emphasis on fast tempos, intricate unison melodies, jarring accents, and complex chord changes, while the jazz of the Cretaceous period saw a return to the roots and more of an emphasis on fewer chord changes and more scale based melodies and improvisations.

All of this information comes from the research of a paleontologist named Fritz Calrisian. Dr. Calrisian has concrete data obtained from fossils, carbon dating, lab analysis, and multiple phone calls to the Psychic Friends Network. Calrisian insists that in the early Mesozoic Era, when all of our continents were connected within one land mass called Pangaea, herds, or "big bands" of dinosaurs travelled around performing "swing" music for other dinosaurs. For millions of years, these "bands" consisted of the same sub species; they were all Stegasaurus, or Dimetridon, or Brachiosaurus. But in later years, "mixed" bands of carnivore and herbivore would travel and perform together. Dr. Calrisian concurs with the notion that there was some kind of "extinction level event" which wiped out the "big bands" of dinosaurs, possibly some kind of comet striking the earth, or some kind of virus, which Calrisian refers to as "Elvispresleyococcus."

Dr. Calrisian is being sued for mail fraud, several parole violations, and for failure to remove leaves from his drainpipe. Nevertheless, his theories, if you believe them, really make us look at the history of jazz quite differently. If you are skeptical, well, that's understandable. Dr. Calrisian got his Doctorate from Vinnie's College of Dinosaurs in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. I called Vinnie' College to inquire about their accreditation, and whomever I talked to told me to "keep my mouth shut if I knew what was good for me." Also, some scientist are now claiming that Calrisian plagiarized most of his work from a paper written by Timmy McGillicuddy, a 12th grader at Rickshaw High School, who wrote the paper while watching "Dancing With the Stars" and eating 4 day old Indian food.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Home Stretch

Our tour is over and the Jack DeJohnette Quartet featuring Don Byron is taking a hiatus(with the exception of one gig in Albany on December 28th.). I've been playing with DeJohnette off and on since 2009, and I've been playing off and on with Don Byron since 2001! Even so, it's still fresh and I learn something from playing with them every night. I've also learned a lot hanging with our bassist and vocalist Jerome Harris. He's a walking encyclopedia! You could ask him about anything from visual art to amino acids and he'll have the answer, not to mention all of the music he knows.

Life on the road is very different from life at home; living out of a suitcase, constantly in unfamiliar surroundings, a lot of "hurry up and wait" time, eating out of boredom, or eating because you aren't sure when the next meal will be, are some of the pitfalls of the road. It's been amazing to play for the great, enthusiastic audiences of Europe. It's amazing to feel that energy of the musicians on the bandstand and the communication with the crowd. However, it's hard when I can't be near my closest friends and loved ones, and I can't hug my son goodnight. So as great of an experience as this tour was, I'm ready for home.

I'm also read to see how my students have progressed in my absence. My colleagues at PSU have been graciously covering for me, so I'm hoping that everything will be on track. I'm particularly interested to see the progress in my Advanced Improvisation class. I was seeing some gains before I left; if all is going according to plan, they should have made some major improvements by now. Well, if not, I'll be bringing my trusty numchucks to class: let the beatings BEGIN! Oh, I'm just messing around. There will be no beatings.....this term......

In case you are wondering what the music sounded like on this tour, you are welcome to check out some of these youtube links. Portland, see you tomorrow!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

ABC: Always Be Checking out new music...

One of the great things about hanging out with other musicians is that you get to see what music they are checking out; you might have much of the same music in common, however, they might be into some stuff you have never heard, which means that you are going to learn something. One of the things I enjoy about touring with musicians from different backgrounds, and also different age brackets, is that you get exposed to a wide range of things. Hanging out with Don Byron, Jerome Harris, and Jack DeJohnette is truly an education; they are constantly referring to different tunes, albums, or artists who I'm not as familiar with, if not totally unfamiliar with. It's also wonderful that I can go to my trusty computer and research these things very easily. For example, the other day we were in waiting for our performance in Luslaviche, Poland in the wonderful European Art Center of Krzysztof Penderecki. Jerome Harris asked me if I had ever checked out any of Polish born composer Penderecki's music. I didn't believe so; Harris mentioned a piece called "Threnody For The Victims Of Hiroshima." I checked it out on youtube: it's an extremely powerful piece right from the start. Written for strings and using extreme special effects, the evocative nature of the piece really struck me. After that, I moved on to Penderecki's "Symphony No. 1" and also his "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra." Penderecki's music has a lot of overt passion; he is fairly prolific and there is much more of his music to hear.

Harris also referred me to a tune by Joni Mitchell from an album I was unfamiliar with; "The Jungle Line" from "The Hissing Of Summer Lawns." This song is known for the rhythm track, which happens to be Moog Synthesizer and a drum ensemble from Burundi. The background is a very strident contrast to Mitchell's gentle mezzo voice and clever lyrics. I have yet to check out the rest of the album, but Harris and Don Byron counted it among their favorite Joni Mitchell albums.(Also, from the youtube comments, it appears that 80's pop synth master Thomas Dolby covered this song. I'll have to find that version..)

 Another track I was unfamiliar with is an Eddie Harris performance: "Theme from 'Exodus'" is somewhat reminiscent of Harris' take on "The Shadow Of Your Smile." It's a beautiful minor key theme, and features Harris' spot-on phrasing and an almost Stan Getz like softness. The movie is from 1960 and stars Paul Newman and Eve Marie Saint; it looks like it's a pretty epic telling of the founding of the state of Israel and how many Jews end up in Cyprus because they were exiled from Europe. I guess I'll have to set aside 3 hours to check it out.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Mike Clark Clinic at PSU! Success!

I'm posting some videos from the Mike Clark clinic we had here at Portland State University which took place back on October 8th. The event, as well as the performance at Jimmy Mak's in the evening, was a raging success. Clark happened to be on the West Coast, so we were able to work this into his schedule. It was great to hear a legend play the drums, but it was also informative to hear philosophizing on music, grooves, techniques, the business, and everything in between. I think the most surprising thing to many was Clark's prowess as a jazz drummer; most folks are more familiar with his substantial contribution in the funk/fusion realm on the Herbie Hancock recordings such as "Thrust" and "Flood." But don't be fooled; Clark can swing his butt off, and is probably more of a jazz drummer at heart.

I felt that this was a great opportunity for two of our top students to perform with a legend; tenor saxophonist Nicole Glover and bassist Jon Lakey did an outstanding job. We played some standard material and some McCoy Tyner tunes. I had given Lakey and Glover a chart on Hancock's "Actual Proof," although Clark had insisted that he would prefer to steer clear of those tunes. However, towards the end of the clinic, Clark asked if we could try the tune. We hadn't rehearsed it, and I don't even know if my students had practiced it on their own, but nevertheless, they did a more than respectable job. We gave it another shot during the gig at Jimmy Mak's, which was met with much acclaim.

Enjoy the videos! We hope to do more clinics throughout the year.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Sarajevo Here I Come

Sarejevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Actually, I'm already in Sarajevo. I'm writing this from the Hotel Europe which is smack in the center of the Old Town district of the legendary capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I'm in the middle of a tour with iconic drummer Jack DeJohnette. Don Byron is on clarinet and tenor saxophone. Jerome Harris is on electric bass and vocals. I'm playing piano, keyboards, and pocket trumpet. It's been a fairly smooth tour. The time difference between The West Coast and Europe is 9 hours, which has taking be some getting used to. At first, it seemed as though I was in a pattern of sleeping every other night. When I first arrived, I slept maybe 4 hours in the afternoon, and then 9 that night. The following night, I couldn't sleep a wink! I'm hopefully coming out of that soon. Unfortunately, we are at the midpoint of the tour, so I'll be adjusted properly probably by the time I'm ready to fly back to
The Band
the States.

It's not a new thing for me to travel to exotic lands and play music. However, since I've been teaching at PSU, it's much less common, which makes me appreciate it much more. Playing big concerts at jazz festivals is a very different experience from being a full time professor, for better or for worse.  It's really amazing to play with musicians on the highest level for extremely enthusiastic fans. It's very different to be treated like a special guest in a different country or city. It is almost never like that for any musician who plays on a local scene. People just get used to you. If I lived in Sarajevo and played every week, people would be bored of me after several months! ( or maybe after a few hours....ha ha) But tonight, we play in a big concert hall and get treated like Kings. I'll take it when I can get it.

Going on tour with a jazz group, especially a group filled with wise and creative minds, is different from bands of other genres in that the music develops over the course of a tour. In fact, it might take several tours for the music to develop. It's amazing to be part of this process. Sometimes I lament the fact that, although we can try, jazz education has a hard time duplicating this process. Showing up for an assigned ensemble once a week is nothing like hitting in front of an audience every night with heavy cats. I want to at least bring the spirit of that to the classroom, but it's difficult.

I was thinking about this developmental process during and after our concert in Bologna the other night. I had a very stimulating conversation with Jerome Harris about the importance of idiomatic singing and how it relates to the blues and American music. Harris compared it to visual art, drawing an analogy between the abstract painters and more realistic painters. ( The name Chuck Close came up, who I had heard of but was not that familiar with.  I have been researching him a bit thanks to Harris' mention)  It made me think about how jazz is so beautiful because whatever skills and impressive technique you have under your fingers, it's really about the communication and what you are trying to express. I tried to really focus on listening and emotion during the concert; I think it might have been the best gig I've played with this band so far. Sometimes, it's more about philosophy and concepts than any single note or chord. That's what makes music an art form.

Hopefully tonight's gig will be even better. I think it's interesting to play in places that are off the beaten path. Bosnia is a place that has gone through unimaginable hardship. I'm willing to bet that many in the audience have lost loved ones in the recent wars. I'm willing to bet that they will appreciate the music on a different level. These kinds of places have a different level of soulfulness that only comes from the perspective of suffering. I suppose that's what the blues is about at it's core. Below are a few pictures from the tour. I'll keep you posted.

Keyboard View 1

Keyboard View 2

Gothenburg meal 1

Gothenburg Meal 2

DOn Byron backstage

Antonio Farao backstage in Milan

Steve Swallow, Me, Adam Nussbaum

I ate Turkish food in Bologna

Finally found a laundry in Bologna

Bologna streets

Jameio Brown and Kelvin Sholar in Berlin

Nikki Parrott in Berlin

Sheryl Bailey in Berlin

The Grand Hotel in Bologna, very classy

another street in Bologna

You gotta getcha self some ....MARBLE COLUMNS

My own dressing room, complete with door!

The hall in Bologna

Jerome waiting for dinner

Bill Strode, our road manager and sound engineer

A selection of appetizers from Sicily


Duck grilled with tabacco? Yes.

Ya gotta getcha self a ....CHANDELIER!

friendly lady who picked us up in Sarajevo

Sarajevo Sky

my lunch in Sarajevo