By Jeff Maisey
The release of smooth jazz guitar artist Nick Colionne’s album “Finger Painting” went on as plan in April 2020. The tour in support of the 10-song studio recording was delayed and then canceled due to the pandemic.
Jazz venues across the world were negatively impacted and several closed for good. This was particularly devastating for working musicians of the genre.
“We couldn’t get out of town or travel,” said Colionne. “Most of the clubs were closed and the festivals were shut down. It was a hard time. I released a record and then the whole country shuts down.”
Nick Colionne is currently working on a new album in the studio, but he’s delaying its release until early next year. He wants fans to hear material from “Finger Painting” in a live, intimate setting. The tour includes a three-night residency at Brothers Norfolk, with up to three performance each day scheduled in a seated setting for 50 people at a time.
Many of the tracks on “Finger Painting” are reminiscent of the great George Benson. Colionne’s works are purely instrumental and most are uptempo with a late 1980s vibe.
“Let’s Get Serious,” which blends jazz and R&B, is a grooving lead-off song. Equally fun is “Circles,” which Colionne described this way: “This was an idea I had because everything goes in circles. Styles, music, just everything goes in circles. Today shoes are in style, tomorrow they’re not.”
Also included on the “Finger Painting” album is an instrumental arrangement of Roberta Flack’s “The Closer I Get to You.”
“I like the way it feels,” Colionne said of the mellow yet melodic arrangement. “We pulled it way back. My producer (Chris “Big Dog” Davis) came up with the idea of me doing that song. I was like, ‘Get out of here,’ but when I heard his arrangement it took me to another place playing-wise. It was very sparse playing, and it felt good. But I’ll admit I was on the fence about it at first.”
Nick Colionne’s claim to fame is being the “only artist in the history of the smooth jazz format to score five consecutive #1 hit singles on Billboard from a single album.” That was his 2016 album, “The Journey.”
Based in Chicago, Colionne began his recording career as an independent artist in the 1994 with the studio album “It’s My Turn.” His breakthrough records came fast and furious in the next decade with “Just Come On In (2003), “Keepin’ It Cool” (2006), “No Limits” (2008), and “Feel The Heat” (2011). His 2014 album “Influences” leaned heavily on his jazz and R&B inspirations and included a critically-acclaimed version of “Rainy Night in Georgia.”
When Nick Colionne performs as part of the Brothers Jazz Series in Norfolk, he’ll call upon the house band of Brothers to back him up. This is a somewhat common arrangement with a sort of hit-and-run approach to performing one-off series of shows rather than a continuous non-stop tour involving a full-time band and support crew.
For Colionne, who is often peppered with song requests mid-set, he is slightly constrained in that the “band” only knows the material from a predetermined selection of songs.
“I have to stick with the program,” Colionne said, “which is kind of hard for me because I’m a spontaneous kind of person. With my band I’ll go from playing Wes Montgomery to Jimi Hendrix in a heartbeat. So it can make it rough when I’m playing with some other guys.”
Luckily for Nick Colionne, who is known for playing a classic Epiphone ES175 guitar and a Gibson jazz six-string, the house band from Brothers is exceptionally professional and led by standout trumpeter and arranger Duane Smith. Smith is best known in the 757 region as member of the award-winning The Fuzz Band. He also moonlights with a variety of side projects that includes the electronica vibe of D*Nik, the pop sensibilities of Rocky 7, and straight-up jazz combos.
At Brothers, Smith’s jazz combo has backed Jonathan Butler, Kurt Whalum, and Rick Braun. Both Braun and Butler were so impressed by the band they flew them to other shows across the country for live performances.
Duane Smith is well aware of the anxiety an established recording artist like Nick Colionne has before a performance of unknown parts.
“There is no greater fear as an artist than when you’re on the road playing with different house bands and they kinda know your music or don’t know it all,” explained Smith. “Your brand and reputation is at the mercy of local musicians.”
Aware of these situations, Duane Smith hand-selected a team of the 757’s finest jazz players who also are professional and caring. Smith places high importance on giving the artist the best possible show experience.
“It’s a formula where the more the artist feels comfortable or excited about the band, the better the show will be for the patrons and Brothers all together,” Smith said.
So what are the mechanics from the supporting musicians’ perspective?
“I receive the music from the artist,” said Smith. “It can be a live version, album version, or sometimes stems and charts. Once we get the setlist, I reach out to the artist and ask what is the preferred instrumentation. Once I receive that I call on my awesome team. Depending on availability I schedule two or three rehearsals with the musicians and sound techs learning the music. One rehearsal is with the artist and usually it is the day of show. There we work out tempos, extra hits, songs, solos, choreography, you name it.”
Nick Colionne said he’s looking forward to meeting the members of Duane Smith’s jazz ensemble and said they must be good to be Tony Brothers’ house band, and added “it’s going to be Baptism by fire” as he laughed over the phone. And that is the nature of jazz, isn’t it?
Nick Colionne will have copies of “Finger Painting” for purchase at the show. These days that’s where jazz artists sell albums.
“If it weren’t for live performances we would’t hardly sell anything,” said Colionne. “Sometimes people will tell you they’re going to get it online. Well, you know they’re not going to get it online. My CD sales at performances are always pretty good.”
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