In all the years that I have been involved in the jazz scene in Washington, DC, certain performances stand out. One that I’ll never forget is the first Thelonious Monk Piano Competition held at the Baird Auditorium of the Smithsonian Institution in 1987. It was held over two days and it was a fascinating experience for those of us in the audience because the judges, including Sir Roland Hanna, Hank Jones and Barry Harris, insisted that there be no applause. It was hard not to cheer on the young man who a few years before, as a teenager, performed in the clubs where I hung out. John Colianni made it through the semi-finals to the final round. He came close to winning and was, as they say, in the money. It was a pleasure to be able to congratulate him on stage after the competition was over.
John grew up in Silver Spring Maryland right outside of Washington. His interest in jazz was sparked when his parents took him to hear Duke Ellington at Georgetown University in 1974. After the concert he made his way through the crowd surrounding Duke to have him sign his copy of “Music Is My Mistress.” Ellington remains the musician most admired by John as a composer, orchestral arranger and pianist.
John took piano lessons with Les Karr and developed his admiration for Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Oscar Peterson, George Shearing and Count Basie. As a high school teenager he performed in such Washington DC clubs as Pigfoot, Mr. Y’s, the One Step Down and Blues Alley. One of his mentors was my friend John Malachi and another, Ella Fitzgerald’s bassist, Keter Betts, recruited him for his “Jazz Stars of the Future.” During his senior year his family moved to New Jersey where he came under the tutelage of Carlton Drinkard who had been Billie Holiday’s pianist and musical director.
By the time he participated in the Monk competition John had spent three years touring with Lionel Hampton and had signed a contract to record with Concord records. Hampton always had a knack for discovering young talent. He gave a boost to the careers of Dinah Washington, Clifford Brown and Quincy Jones. John was nineteen when he was recruited into the band. It was quite an experience for a young musician to work with this jazz great who was a consummate entertainer. I was the m.c. for a performance at the Kennedy Center when John was in the band. Hamp didn’t want the show to end!
John’s connection with jazz greats continued when Mel Torme engaged him as his accompanist from 1991 to 1995. And then there was the legendary guitarist Les Paul, with whom he performed from 2003 until his passing in 2009. He currently works frequently with Larry Coryell who has dubbed him “Johnny Chops” because of his incredible technique.
That technique is certainly demonstrated on this, his third recording for Patuxent. It features his quintet, which with a few personnel changes, has been together for almost a decade now. The Quintet consists of John on piano, two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer, a lineup that provides for an effective framework for his interpretations and arrangements. Justin Lees is on lead guitar. Justin shares John’s Washington DC roots. He worked with Ron Holloway, Keter Betts and Dick Morgan and led his own trio at the One Step Down. Now New York based, he just released his own CD, A Moment In Time, featuring DC veterans Dave Wundrow and Bertell Knox. Matt Chertkoff is the second guitarist. Matt studied with Gene Bertoncini and has performed with David Fathead Newman, Grady Tate, Curtis Lundy and Percy Sledge among others. Another DC native, Young Robert Wagner is the bassist. He cites Slam Stewart, Paul Chambers and Ray Brown as influences and he swings!
The drummer is Bernard Linnett. The native of Norfolk, Virginia, has performed with Little Jimmy Scott, Junior Cook, Cedar Walton, Donald Harrison and Abbey Lincoln. He has had a long time association with Freddy Cole and leads his own hard bop sextet.
This album’s title track is the classic Avery Parrish composition After Hours. The funky blues is very much in contrast to the sultry Angel Face or the western swing of Deep In The Heart Of Texas. There is a delightful diversity in the selections from the Great American Songbook that John chose for this recording. The band swings hard. Check out the interplay on Elevation Blues. And the cats can sing as well as swing! The ensemble includes vocal choruses on Texas, I Only Have Eyes For You, Sweet Sue and When Your Lover Has Gone. The band’s vocals give a flavor of the era when the songs were popular but the interpretations are very contemporary.
Larry Coryell calls him Johnny Chops. John Colianni has chops that will dazzle you and the songs on After Hours will delight you.
Rusty Hassan has been broadcasting jazz on the Washington airwaves for over forty-five 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.
The Champ * Variations On Beethoven's 'Fur Elise' *
I Hear A Rhapsody * Sunset In Santa Fe *
I Never Knew * Don't Know Why * Pavanne
Luv Bomb * Smells Like Teen Spirit * Small World
Schwing Meister * Double D Squad
Apple Honey * Ill Wind * Northwest Passage *
Quintet Symphonette * Whacha Know, Joe? *
One For Jimmy Hicks * This Side Up *
52nd St. Theme * Boulevard Of Broken Dreams *
Strictly Instrumental * Gone With "What" Wind? *
Casa Loma Stomp *
A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square *
Jumpin' At The Woodside *