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Jazz guitarist Nick Colionne certainly isn’t running away from the close resemblance between his family name and the notorious protagonists of The Godfather film trilogy. Like the founding Mafioso father, Colionne favors cream-colored suits and a matching wide-brimmed hat. When he made his natty entrance at Halton Theater on the Central Piedmont Community College campus, it was to the famed Nino Rota theme song synonymous with the saga. Just to make sure we remembered his Godfather credentials, Colionne and his distinguished guests – guitarist Jeff Golub, electric bassist Gerald Veasley, and saxophonist Eric Darius – closed with a tribute to James Brown, the Godfather of Soul.
Colionne also embraces the guitar style of George Benson, but not exclusively. “Did You Know?” was studded with the ferocious picking-and-strumming that Benson often pitches coolly in the treble. When Darius came on for the first of his two stints as leader, Colionne had to turn up the heat in “Just for the Moment” to match the tenor saxophonist’s intensity. Darius wasn’t all fire, but when he was, his screaming surges were very much in the Grover Washington vein. The mellow side of Darius came across when he returned later with Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You,” which started off with a couple of riffs on loan from Ben Webster and veered off in a totally different direction, climaxing in a sighing lapdance delivered to a grinning audience member of the tender gender.
With a working definition of smooth jazz that included the likes of Spyro Gyra, The Yellowjackets, Tuck & Patty, and the execrable Kenny G, I’ve given the genre a wide berth over the years. But this concert, a full 140 minutes without intermission, presented a rougher, more muscular music. What was smoothest about these performances was the lascivious lubrication they provided as a prelude to sex – and some suggestively ecstatic foretastes.
The groove veered from bluesy wailing to hard-bop swinging, thanks to the propulsive Chris Miskel on drums, but the back-up group was flanked by two synthesizer towers, manned by Tim Gant and John Erickson, who also contributed some choice licks on electric piano. With occasional string effects from the electronics punctuating Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew album, we also had pop and fusion flavorings in the mix.
Acoustics at Halton Theater were more reliable than they usually are at CPCC Summer Theatre musicals. When a microphone underperformed during Colionne’s vocal on Benard Ighner’s power ballad, “Everything Must Change” (another obvious Benson cover), a member of the sound crew made sure another mic was in place before the next vocal. Yet the true electronic breakthroughs at this “Jazz Diva” concert promoted by Tammy Greene were the wireless amps on the electric guitars and the wireless pickup on the bell of Darius’s horn. Unplugged but still electrified, Colionne could freely circle around the stage without worrying about getting tangled up, and he could venture to the lip of the stage and commune with a shimmying lady in the front row. Darius was able to express the joy of sax to a woman deeper into the audience sitting on the aisle, and when the full ensemble joined in their tribute to James Brown, “Godfather J,” Colionne and Veasley actually traversed the back row of the orchestra while soloing. When the electronics get this good, new vistas suddenly open to untethered musicians for audience interaction.
Weather Report alumnus Gerald Veasley is aptly – but somehow not completely – described as a fine bassist, for even in this sampling of his capabilities, it seemed obvious that bass guitarist is really what he is about. Most of his solos; including his own “Do I Do” and his luscious tribute to his wife, “Forever” (concluded with a generous chunk of Bill Withers’ “Just the Two of Us”); ascended to a relatively elevated sphere. Certainly the strumming that punctuated Veasley’s bass solos would have been alien sounds to bassist Jimmy Blanton, back in the days of the Ellington band.
Golub was perfectly positioned late into the program, very much worth waiting for and notably different from his string picking colleagues in the dirtier sound he lavished on “Pick Up the Pieces.” His soulful approach to the blues is edgier than Colionne’s, and the vast array of moods he brought to the choruses of “I’ll Play the Blues for You” eclipsed everything that had been played before it. Nothing but Darius’ lewd magnificence on Keys’ hit ballad could have followed that.