Nick Colionne and A. Ray Fuller

Chicago Guitarists are Burning!
Nick Colionne and A. Ray Fuller
by Mark Ruffin

At this moment in contemporary jazz, suddenly Chicago guitarists are hot. The simultaneous arrival of new albums from Chicago guitarists Nick Colionne and A. Ray Fuller not only underline that point, but their breakthrough also illustrate two of the strategies these Windy City musicians use to reach a national audience.

The Weeper is the titled of Fuller’s excellent star-studded debut disc, with guests including Branford Marsalis, Jeff Lorber, Phil Perry and Fuller’s long-time employer, legendary keyboard wiz, George Duke. Colionne’s new one, Just Come On In, is already on the Billboard sales chart and in rotation at many smooth jazz stations around the country. Many aspects about the ascendancy of the two guitarists are contrary when their careers are juxtaposed against each other.

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Nick Colionne

CD Review.

Because Colionne has remained in Chicago, the jazz audience there are aware of his three previous albums before Just Come On In, but nationally, he’s a new discovery. Fuller is only known in Chicago by the musicians who knew him before he went to L.A., yet audiences internationally have been waiting for his first album, mostly through the incessant touring and on-stage promotion he gets from the stars he performs with, especially Duke, who gave him his nickname, the Weeper.

In the new frontier that is the record business in the 21st century, it really wasn’t a bad idea for Fuller to put his record out on his own label, A-Ray Artists Music. Even without a traditional record distributor, Fuller probably hopes to pay for this expensive record with a couple of long string of dates around the world and of course through Internet sites. A distributor is a bonus, but getting the word out should be even more important to Fuller, which means he also has to have a radio promoter and a publicist.

Colionne’s advantage is he doesn’t have to worry about that stuff. He plays guitar and leaves business up to his record company, Three Keys Music, a very aggressive Washington D.C. company owned and operated by pianist Marcus Johnson

Colionne went that independent do-it-yourself route once and actually had a little success at first. In the very early 90’s, in smooth jazz’ infancy stage, Colionne was had a hit on the Chicago outlet, WNUA. His debut record, It’s My Turn, had a cover of the Toni Braxton tune, Love Shoulda Brought You Home, which also garnered him some airplay regionally and the few stations on the east coast that had smooth jazz in 1993.

Colionne promptly, and let’s add wisely, sold the album master to a fledgling local company called Chicago Lakeside Jazz. The company specialized in acoustic jazz not electric jazz, but thought they couldn’t miss with Colionne’s follow up albums. Arrival and The Seduction failed to seduce or arrive, as the guitarist’s initial success couldn’t be duplicated.

None of that deterred Colionne from building quite an impressive following, first in Chicago, and then regionally to cities in neighboring states. Still it was smart for him to realize he’s a musician not a record man, as Colionne resisted putting out music himself despite what must have been a tremendous urge to do so with a growing fan base and an accumulation of recorded tracks.

It was pretty well known in Chicago that Colionne was shopping for a new deal hard and heavy. It is great that he landed a deal, especially with a national company and one that specializes in smooth jazz, which is strictly what Colionne is all about.

Fortunately, Fuller is about a lot more than the continuing narrowing focus of what smooth jazz musicians aim for in order to get airplay. The Weeper is one of those good electric jazz records that prove the seemingly obvious distinction between smooth jazz and r&b and funk based contemporary jazz, in other words, little airplay. It’s too good for radio.

Critically, Fuller has a much better record. Not only does it helps that he uses his L.A. connections to reel in big names, but his choice of cover material propels the 13-track set too. His arrangements on Stevie Wonder’s If You Really Loves Me, with sax man Eric Marienthal, and the Isley Brothers’ Work To Do, with vocalist Phil Perry are bright and very original. He also does Teena Marie’s Portuguese Love and the tune Brenda Russell wrote for Sting, She Walks This Earth.

Fuller has an arrangement of John Coltrane’s Naima by drummer Teri Lynn Carrington that features Marsalis on tenor sax which jazz/rock fusion fans will appreciate too. By comparison, one of two Colionne covers, My Favorite Things, (the other is the Stylistics’ Hurry Up This Way Again) was also a big hit for Coltrane, but on Just Come On In, one is also reminded that the song is originally from Mary Poppins’

Henry Johnson, another great Chicago jazz guitarist also has a new album out, Organic, may be the best of his career. Organic features vocal stylist, Nancy Wilson as well as organist Chris Forman. Johnson will be featured next month at