Ahead of the Crowd
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John Colianni - Piano
Ahead of the Crowd
If you have John Colianni’s previous albums on Patuxent, you know from my liner notes that we go way back. In the notes to After Hours I relate how I first heard John perform in the final round of the first Thelonious Monk Piano Competition in 1987. What I didn’t mention was the earlier connection where my “day gig” intersected with my jazz life. Until I retired in 2013, I was a union representative with the American Federation of Government Employees working with locals at various federal agencies, one of which was the State Department. I don’t remember if it was during an administrative hearing or negotiations but during a break I got into a conversation with Carl Sosebee, the attorney representing the agency. I somehow steered the topic to my favorite subject, jazz. I told him that I did a radio show and taught jazz history at Georgetown and American universities, probably implying that I would rather devote my time to those activities than the somewhat contentious labor-management issue we were confronting. Carl sure brightened up and told me his brother-in-law was a jazz pianist and would be in a competition at the Smithsonian that was coming up. Carl is still with the government, currently senior counsel at the Peace Corp. He gets his musical satisfaction through his guitar.
The Thelonious Monk Piano Competition held at the Baird Auditorium of the Smithsonian Institution was a fascinating experience for those of us in the audience. The judges, including Sir Roland Hanna, Barry Harris and Hank Jones, insisted that there be no applause. It was weird sitting in silence when you wanted to applaud the marvelous performances you were listening to. John didn’t win first place, but he sure came close. When I introduced myself to him, I did so by saying I knew his brother-in-law Carl and, oh, by the way, I do a jazz radio show. It turns out he was familiar with me because he grew up in the Washington area before his family moved to New Jersey, and as a young teenager performed in such clubs as Pigfoot, One Step Down and Blues Alley. He was mentored by my friends John Malachi and Keter Betts in the 1970s.
By the time he participated in the Monk Competition, John had spent three years touring with Lionel Hampton. Our paths crossed in 1982 when Hamp performed at the Kennedy Center for George Wein’s Kool Jazz Festival and I was the MC. After the competition, he worked with Mel Torme for four years. In the early 2000s, his swinging piano accompanied the legendary guitarists Les Paul and Larry Coryell. In the liner notes for the Patuxent album On Target, Coryell said, ”John is not only ‘cool’ but he’s got energy to burn and chops that flair up into explosive note-clusters that boggle the mind.” He tagged him with the nickname “Johnny Chops.”
Those chops are certainly demonstrated on this album in the classic trio setting of his heroes Oscar Peterson and Hank Jones. John told me he would buy their albums as a kid and as a young twenty something pianist. in a highly competitive competition, Hank Jones was a judge. Not too much pressure, huh? A few years later John would become friends with Hank and drive him to the airport whenever he had a gig overseas. I wish I were in the back seat to overhear those conversations.
Accompanying John on bass is Boots Maleson who has worked with such jazz greats as Milt Jackson, Elvin Jones, Jaki Byard, Archie Shepp, Kenny Barron, Dexter Gordon and Benny Carter. The drummer is Bernard Linette. The native of Norfolk, Virginia, has performed with Little Jimmy Scott, Junior Cook, Cedar Walton, Abbey Lincoln and Freddy Cole.
Ahead of the Crowd is programmed as if it were a set in a club. It features a mix from the American popular song book, jazz classics, blues, some Colianni originals and a couple of R & B hits. Marvin Hamlisch’s One flows into One Mint Julip which leads into Count Basie’s One O’Clock Jump. It’s fascinating to contrast John’s Long Count with Billy Strayhorn’s Blood Count. There are two songs from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, I Got Plenty of Nothing and Bess, You Is My Woman. Boots has some tasty bass interaction with John on Spring Is Here. Check out what the trio does with Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together.
With the COVID pandemic shutting down all the clubs and concert halls, it’s been a while since we got to see John perform in person. I, for one, I’m grateful to Tom Mindte and Patuxent Music for keeping John’s music available. And when you do get see him perform live, you’ll be able to take his music home with you on this CD. Hank Jones would have loved this album.
Rusty Hassan has been broadcasting jazz on the Washington airwaves for over fifty years. He can be currently heard on WPFW-FM. He has lectured at the Smithsonian Institution and National Geographic Society and has taught jazz history courses at Georgetown University and American University.
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