TSJR Featured Artist

A profile of our selected smooth jazz artist of the month

After three months of profiling some of the legends & pioneers of jazz (we do hope you enjoyed the tribute), we now return to our contemporary jazz profiles. As before, each month, we will profile an artist we feel has made a great contribution to the music universe we have come to know and love as smooth or contemporary jazz. This month, we throw our spotlight on…

Nick Colionne – Smooth Jazz’s Big Windy Cat in the Hat

Nick Colionne’s considerable expertise on the guitar is certainly enough to make him a major player in the world of music, but when also considering his remarkable versatility, his lush, sultry, vocals and an impeccable sense of style; it’s not hard to see why he is one of the most exciting performers on the jazz scene today.  The Wave Jazz Awards recognized him with its prestigious International Instrumental Artist of the Year in 2007 and he was nominated for that same award again in 2009.  He is also the very deserving winner of the Wayman Tisdale Humanitarian Award in 2010.

Colionne was born and raised in Chicago where he spent a childhood filled with music.  He grew up with jazz-loving parents; so, he became familiar with its sounds at a very early age.  The music he listened to with his friends taught him the ins and outs of R&B. In addition, living in Chicago, he was, of course, surrounded by the blues.  At the age of 9, he began learning the guitar from his stepfather.  It was a life- changing experience for the young boy.  He said he knew he wanted to play the guitar the minute he held it in his hands, and, in fact, he never even considered making a living any other way.  His family could not afford to provide him with much formal training, but his stepfather had taught his young pupil more than how to play the guitar, he had also taught him to read music. This ability made it possible for the young Nick to educate himself.  Besides studying music theory, he learned to play the violin and taught himself to play the mandolin, banjo, drums, and the piano.

Colionne was only 15 years old when the opportunity to sit in as a substitute for the R&B group, The Impressions, came along.  Although initially wary of a guitarist so young, they were soon impressed by the adolescent Colionne and invited him to join them on the road.  From that first professional job, he went on to play with other big names such as The Staple Singers, The Chi-Lites, Curtis Mayfield, and Natalie Cole.  He had gained a reputation as an accomplished and respected sideman, but he wanted more.  Tired of looking at the backs of other performers, he made the decision to step forward and into the spotlight.

The decision to become a solo artist was not one he made lightly. Although it was apparent that he had the ability and stage presence of a headliner, embarking on a solo career was not without risk.  For Colionne, it meant leaving the safety of a good and fairly steady income while starting over, almost from scratch, to build a name and reputation. Clubs where he had played frequently in groups were not overly anxious to book him by himself, even though they were well aware of his abilities.  Fortunately, such exceptional talent was not destined to remain in the background forever.  Success was not instantaneous, but it did come.

His first CD, It’s My Turn, was released in 1994 and has been successfully followed by six more, each with a different theme and energy while still displaying Colionne’s rich, distinctive sound.  Each CD also includes a song dedicated to the legendary Wes Montgomery whose mellow tone and unique style of playing has been a powerful source of Colionne’s inspiration.

The guitarist listens to a wide variety of music. He enjoys listening to other guitarists such as George Benson, Steve Vai, and Gary Moore.  He is also very fond of Motown, particularly Smokey Robinson.  However, Wes Montgomery is the one artist to whom he listens, without fail, every day.   Without a little Wes, he feels that his day just isn’t complete.

His most recent CD, Feel the Heat, was released in July of this year and is an excellent showcase of his diverse musical tastes and capabilities.  His goal for this latest venture was to capture more of the energy present in his live shows.  His stage performances come from his heart.  He doesn’t think about what to play next; he feels what to play next.   Consequently, he frequently and spontaneously crosses genres, delighting audiences and sometimes surprising his band.

Any profile of Nick Colionne would be incomplete if it didn’t include his commitment to mentoring youth.  It is almost as big a part of his life as his music.  It began as a request to perform for a fundraiser to benefit St. Laurence School.  Realizing that his performance would be primarily for an adult audience, he decided he wanted to meet the kids the day before the show.  It wasn’t long before he was at the school again, and, soon, he was coming on a regular basis. He is now an established presence, visiting as often as his schedule will allow.  He was able to persuade Epiphone to donate several guitars and other equipment to the school and has worked with his other endorsee, Stacy Adams, to establish a scholarship.  He teaches guitar, helps with school productions, and does his best to let kids know they have someone in their corner.  He has been offered a permanent position at the school, but he chooses to continue volunteering.  He says it’s important for the kids to know he is there because he loves them and not because he is being paid. So very honorable and noble! The rewards for his efforts have been worth more to him than any possible salary, for he is the recipient of many smiles, some life-long friendships, and students who still stay in touch, even after becoming adults.  He has been mentoring for about 15 years.

Colionne believes the ears serve as vessels to the heart, and, in a recent interview, he said, “It’s more important for people to feel what I’m playing more than hear it.  Because if I can touch you inside, then I’ve completed something.  You’ll remember the feeling.  It may go in one ear and out the other one, but you’ll remember that feeling.”  He says he makes the music his creator places inside of him and he hopes it leaves people feeling better than it found them.

Whether he is singing or playing the guitar, his passion and generous spirit can be felt in every note.  We sincerely hope for his continued success and look forward to having him on the jazz scene for a long time to come.  – Annette Olsen