"The world's most exciting young jazz pianist!" reads the headline on John Colianni's press brochure. Another pianist is quoted as finding him "Fantastic!" and he is credited by Downbeat magazine with "the grace of Art Tatum and the speed of Oscar Peterson."
It's too bad, because his sort of excessive hype can be counterproductive, leading to a skeptical attitude on the part of critics. The truth, however, is good enough: Colianni is a very promising artist, and one of that rare breed of youngsters whose roots go directly back to the piano pioneers: Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller.
At 23, he has to his credit three productive years traveling internationally with Lionel Hampton, whose band he joined when he was 19. Since leaving Hampton last December, he has recorded a splendid eponymously titled debut album for Concord Jazz (CJ 309), and has worked solo, trio and octet jobs, earning warm praise from New York critics and musicians.
Last week, visiting Los Angeles to play a private party (he's also set to appear at Donte's Tuesday and Wednesday), Colianni explained his unconventional values: "My father played so many great records when I was very young--Tatum, Lunceford, Ellington--so I was brought up in that environment. By trade he's a lawyer and a writer of religious material, but he plays piano and was my first teacher.
"I was born Jan. 7, 1963, in Patterson, N.J. and raised in Washington, D.C. I never went to music school, but after my father's lessons I studied with Les Karr, who had been a student of Teddy Wilson and was a cousin of Dick Hyman. I met Dick on a jazz cruise in 1978, and he has given me a lot of encouragement; soon after we met, he gave me a bunch of albums he said I ought to listen to--James P. Johnson and Fats Waller among others. So that's why I was so steeped in the earlier styles.
"I admired Duke Ellington as a pianist, and actually got to meet him shortly before he died--I was about 10 years old.
"I didn't go to college; by the time I got out of high school, I'd worked local jobs in Washington. When I was in my senior year my family moved to Atlantic City, where I live now. On New Year's Eve of 1981, Hampton's orchestra was playing at the Golden Nugget. I knew a couple of guys in the band and dropped by to see them.
"It just happened that Hamp needed somebody, and I had been highly recommended. Soon after we met, he auditioned me at his apartment in New York and hired me on the spot. He was taking a chance, because I didn't read music too well at that point--but as I soon found out, he strays away from the arrangements so much that it didn't matter."
Colianni found Hampton as friendly as he is talented. "It's amazing how young and fresh his musical ideas are. He was helpful in many ways, advising me about stage presence, deportment and even letting me stay as a guest in his apartment for a month when I didn't have anywhere to live in New York."
Another advantage of the Hampton job was a chance to see and hear the world. "We went on tour right after I joined him and we'd go to Europe three times a year, to Japan, and all over the States. I got to meet all my heroes; during our first time at the Nice Jazz Festival, I met Oscar Peterson, Cedar Walton and the Modern Jazz Quartet.
"Some of Hamp's older alumni joined us on occasional dates: Arnett Cobb, the great tenor player, and the trumpeter Joe Newman. Arnett was very kind and encouraging."
That Colianni broke through as a white musician in a band led by a black artist a half century his senior may seem unconventional to some observers, yet it is by no means extraordinary.
First, the age aspect: Jazz is an art in which performers separated by decades, even by generations, may work together in total compatibility, particularly if the younger artist has a well-grounded knowledge of earlier styles. Of course, the eclecticism of a Hampton, who has recorded with everyone from Tatum to Chick Corea, is also a valuable factor.
Though Colianni is separated from Hampton by 54 years, this is a narrower gap than the division between the trumpet veteran Doc Cheatham and some of the Berklee student musicians who played alongside him on a jazz cruise last year, when Cheatham, at 80, was old enough to be their great-grandfather. Nor is it surprising that father-and-son teams have proliferated in recent years: Von Freeman, the Chicago saxophonist, has recorded with his son Chico, a brilliant contemporary reedman. Ellis Marsalis has played on records with sons Wynton and Branford. A father-and-daughter pair, Jimmy and Stacy Rowles, has been heard on records and in concerts.