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OMN photo by Diane Russell
OMN photo by Diane Russell

George Colligan's Jazz Truth: Play-along videos and other means to deal with the situation / Q&A

By MICHAEL "SHOEHORN" CONLEY //  George Colligan has recently moved his jazztruth series from the blog format to a video platform featuring locally-sourced, artisanal play-along videos of Jazz standards, gear reviews, lessons on technique, and analysis of solos by noted players such as Chet Baker.

George Colligan moved his jazztruth series from the blog format to a video platform featuring locally-sourced, artisanal play-along videos of Jazz standards, gear reviews, lessons on technique, and analysis of solos by noted players such as Chet Baker. I asked George some questions about the play-alongs as well as his pandemic experience as a performing artist and educator. I submitted questions via google docs and he answered in writing, reminding me of the enjoyment and edification I used to get reading his blog.

Aside from seeing his many credits seen in magazines such as Downbeat, I first became aware of George Colligan's work when he came into the now defunct Blue Monk Jazz club to sit in one night. During the course of our first conversation I found him to be an engaging personality, sharing jokes and anecdotes from his years as a sideman for major acts like Jack DeJohnette, and generally a good person to hang with.

Although opportunities to perform with him have been infrequent, I have attended numerous masterclasses and concerts which he organized as a professor at PSU, and enjoyed listening to and sitting in with his group at Living Room Theaters on SW 10th Avenue. Now I want to bring to our readers’ attention a new project he has launched, namely the Jazz play-alongs.

Playing along with records has long been part of any Jazz player’s development, and for decades Jamey Aebersold has dominated this field. The recordings feature professional musicians on piano, bass, and drums, sometimes guitar, playing accompaniments for Jazz standards. My personal experience involves a dozen or more of the over 150 Aebersold recordings, which include a book with sheet music in concert key and bass clef, and transposed for Bb and Eb instruments.

The volumes are often organized in homage to a particular player or composer such as John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Tadd Dameron, or Antonio Carlos Jobim. There are also collections of well-known standards from various eras, and technical exercises such as the common harmonic progression ii-V-I, in all 12 keys.
More recently I've been using an app called iReal Pro, based on the iconic Real Book series of “fake books” used by pros and students to study and perform jazz tunes. The app allows greater interaction for the player, giving us the ability to change the key, tempo, and accompaniment style. The basic song form is provided, with highlighted chord symbols but no written melody. In this era of pandemic isolation, these tools have been functioning as a kind of (inadequate) surrogate for the jam session experience which is so vital to the Jazz community.

When I noticed through social media that George was making a play-along series of his own, I had to give it a go on my alto sax. The videos feature Colligan performing all the parts himself (piano, bass, drums) on a multi-screen video. This in itself is quite a feat, as few players possess the requisite skills to play all 3 parts with such a level of competence and artistry. A fourth screen shows the chord symbols of each particular measure as he plays it.

One notable difference from the iReal Pro app is his inclusion of intros and endings, which make this experience more satisfying to the player, especially the iconic Bird & Dizzy bookending of “All the Things You Are”. He also engages creatively with the material, varying his voicings and rhythms while maintaining the groove and structure of the particular piece he is playing. The visual element yields useful instructional content and may help some players relate to the tunes, though I personally found myself looking away from the screen.

One charming feature of this video series is Colligan’s young son announcing tunes, or even counting off the tempo on some of the videos.

 George, what made you decide to make play-along videos? 

I used to have a blog called jazztruth. I wrote many articles for about 6 years. It was a chance to express myself as a writer on many topics within the jazz world.

Part of the idea was a reaction to the current state of Jazz writing, which in my opinion can be well written but somewhat incomplete in terms of the true understanding of the music. I’m not against Jazz writers, but I think the internet makes it so that we can get information straight from the musicians’ themselves. I also believe that there are some artists who get a lot of press and there some others who are equally if not more amazing yet they get almost zero press.

I wanted to talk about the musicians in whom I really believed rather than the most popular. I stopped doing the blog in 2016 mostly because the addition of a second child in 2015 plus everything going on at Portland State where I teach was becoming more hectic. I have posted a few videos here and there, but Jazztruth the YouTube channel is a more concerted effort to have some kind of cohesion. Although, it will be similar to the blog in that I want to have the freedom to do many different things rather than just one specific thing. That can sometimes be problematic if you are trying to build your brand. However, I think if I made it too narrow then I wouldn’t be true to myself.

Because of Covid, I am not going on the road at all and probably not for some time, so I do have some time to produce videos. 

What about the snare and cymbal reviews?

Most people know me as a pianist, but I actually was into drumming really before I showed any major interest in piano. I’ve always been sort of drawn to rhythm and drummers and drums and cymbals. Because I rarely played drums on gigs during my 15 years in New York. I never bought much gear because I didn’t have the need or the space. In 2019, after playing basically the same cymbals for over 20 years, I was curious about whether trying some new sounds might be interesting. Since Covid, I decided to try some new snare drums as well. Drums, and especially cymbals, are tough because you can look at a catalog but if you don’t actually play the item, you have little idea of what it sounds like and what it feels like.

Having “product reviews” for drummers who can’t get to a music store, or who go to Guitar Center and find the selection to be limited, is a way for them to get an idea about certain types of cymbals and drums, and in this case from more of a jazz standpoint. Oftentimes you look up something and it’s somebody playing a generic rock beat. That can make it difficult to imagine whether a drum could be used for music with more complexity and subtlety.

What in this online virtual environment has worked for you over the last 10 months and what has not worked?

Much of my teaching focuses on what I call “doing it for real,” by which I mean we can’t expect that the classroom can always duplicate “the bandstand.” I want my students to play this music the way it’s supposed to be played, not just as a theoretical construct. This is very hard to do when we are not allowed to congregate. However, we are making the most of this unprecedented time by working on skills that can be useful when we can get back together again. Doing everything via zoom is not necessarily ideal, and yet, I’ve had more private students outside of PSU than I have ever had before, and many of them are not in Portland. I had a student in Japan, one in Germany, two in Texas, one in California, one in New York, and one in St. Louis. That wouldn’t be possible under normal circumstances. It’s also been cool because we have had zoom masterclasses at PSU with names which, under normal circumstances, we wouldn’t be able to get.

Personally I am fine with teaching via zoom. I hope that things will return to normal someday, but I hope that we will keep zoom and the internet as an option.

What do you miss most about classroom instruction?

Ensembles are not so fun in this format. Music is meant to be shared in real time with people, musicians and an audience, in person. Hopefully, when things are back to normal, we will all have a better appreciation of that aspect of music.

I know you've been working to figure out new skills, such as using Final Cut Pro to produce these multi-screen videos, and working out the attending issues of balance and sound quality. Do you see these skills becoming part of the curriculum or your music students going forward?

We were using a program called Soundtrap to have the students collaborate. It’s an online Digital Audio Workstation. I think we need to incorporate these types of things into the curriculum because I think some of these methods of digital communication will stick around to a degree after the pandemic is over.

Has your Patreon account made a meaningful contribution to your income portfolio?

No, I haven’t promoted it enough. I know some musicians do really well with Patreon. I did a Kickstarter campaign a few years ago to help fund a European tour. It was basically the difference between breaking even or losing thousands of dollars. The financing was incredibly helpful. This whole idea of self promotion via the internet is still sort of new to me. I always feel funny trying to toot my own horn, so to speak. I’d rather talk through the music than try to convince people that they should pay any attention to me.

What do you miss most about gigs in clubs, and touring?

I miss playing with live musicians a lot! Plus I lost so many gigs when the pandemic went into effect. ! I was right about to go to do some gigs on the east coast. I had more gigs with my trio with Buster Williams and Lenny White, plus a few more gigs with John Scofield. Playing with high level musicians in environments where the folks appreciate the music is like nothing else.

I don’t miss the travel at all, though. I hate flying; it’s the worst. I’m certainly not looking forward to sitting next to potential domestic terrorists when flying resumes for me. This is sort of why I’m wondering if there is a way, long term, to maintain my musical development and satisfaction without traveling. I would never go back to how I travelled in the 90’s and 2000’s. Once in a while for a really exciting gig might be ok.

Has your family, especially the kids, developed a deeper appreciation of your musical output?

My wife Kerry Politzer is a pianist, in fact, she’s way more talented than I am. She says she likes my music, but she is equal or beyond me in her own right. She has become a specialist in Brazilian Jazz. My kids have a sense that I am a musician but so far they are more interested in cartoon books and Netfix and video games.

Have you been coordinating ensemble performances from PSU students using internet platforms?

This year, I have had ensembles head to Randy Porter’s studio; Randy takes major precautions to keep the environment safe. We live streamed 4 performances from his studio. We are going to do more of that this year. I had to re-appropriate some funds at PSU to do it, but we are making it happen.

Is your on-line audience far-flung geographically, or is it mostly local players and students ?

I think it’s probably mostly Portland and New York with a smattering of other places. I have a very small but enthusiastic fan base. They could probably all fit together in a Hyundai Elantra.

Have you had any satisfying experiences making music in real time with other players over the internet?

There’s a Portland based drummer named Adam Carlson who figured out how to use Jacktrip, and we actually did jam a few weeks ago via this platform. It takes a while to get it all working, but once we did, it was just like playing in the same room. We are going to try again this weekend.

I urge OMN readers to check out George Colligan! Aside from the play-alongs and tutorials, there are many videos of him on YouTube performing with some of the marquee acts of the Jazz business. If you can, online tip jars, venmo, paypal, and Patreon are all ways to support Colligan and other artists (this writer included) in a period when our opportunities to perform and earn an income have been severely curtailed. 

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