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Mood Indigo

By Bret McCabe | Posted 6/4/2003

Billy Colucci Trio

First Unitarian Church, May 31


"This is actually my first concert in Baltimore," Baltimore-based pianist Billy Colucci says four days before his trio performance at the First Unitarian Church. Sitting at a back table at Bertha's in Fells Point, the 63-year-old Colucci is a jovial, loquacious fellow, darting nimbly down the bustling lanes of his own memory and re-creating scenes at a brisk pace, from his childhood in South Philadelphia and New York to his days as a working musician playing in the Catskills, Atlantic City, N.J., Washington, Baltimore, and New York during the 1960s, '70s, and '80s.

He smiles and his eyes light up when talking about his love for movies of the 1930s and '40s, which started when his father got a contract to upholster the Warner Brothers movie theaters in New York. He's grateful when talking about Bertha's owners, Tony and Laura Norris, whom he's known for some 35 years and who provide him with a place to live; in fact, the last song on his first album, the recently self-released Billy Colucci Solo, was written for Laura almost that long ago. And he gets a little agitated when talking about musicians who don't want to be individuals with their music, somebody who "just takes jobs to make money and loves that kind of situation where people talk to him, make requests, and he wears cuff links and sits at the bar acting like Dean Martin."

Colucci wants no part of that world, and he knows it's why he's not working as much as he'd like these days playing his own music. "I've worked in this town like crazy over the years, but this is my first actual concert all my own," he says. "I've done and played a lot of places, but it doesn't matter what you've done. What matters is what you're doing right now."

Sitting behind the piano Saturday night, Colucci's rambunctious vibrancy was still there, but his mood was all blue. Joined by bassist Jeff Reed and drummer Mike Kuhl, Colucci played two approximately one-hour sets of his spare, expressive, elegant jazz. For most of the evening, Colucci would start and develop an involved motif and play solo, exploring his theme until Reed and Kuhl eased into the piece, Kuhl's percussive touches more texture than rhythmic direction, Reed's timbre also more a complement to Colucci's lissome lines than a structural necessity.

Colucci studied classical piano for 10 years before getting into improvisation on his own, and his jazz sounds classically influenced. It also has a narrative feel to it, only Colucci sounds purely interested in forlorn tales. Though his playing modulates through different tempos and colors, there is an unavoidable melancholy in Colucci's music. His left hand's stately bass lines set up the right's ballet through the upper register, creating tonal clashes as rueful as those found in Ravel.

And like Ravel or even Chopin, there's nothing depressing about the sadness in Colucci's music; as with many jazz ballads, the heart of the song is simply in a sad place. What's surprising is how inviting Colucci's music is, taking you off guard, like when you see a big man who is a dramatically graceful dancer. Colucci can play fleetly, but he flies through passages with such a gentle touch that his note cascades lightly whisper rather than loudly ring.

"I'm a moody piano player," Colucci says. "And I'm very interested in the moody form of playing, even though I don't stay in that mood. If anybody says [to me], 'Where do you get your ideas?' Well, everything bothers me. I guess I'm just a romantic. I'm very affected by things--by life, by relationships, things like that, and I write about it. I have a hard time writing tunes about nothing. I have to have some kind of human reason."

This human "reason" is what is so immediately grabbing about Colucci's performance. His attention to the sensitivity of the instrument sounds like the way he taps into his own feelings, and his playing conveys an intimacy that can be a little unnerving, like getting a glimpse at that part of a person you know you rarely share with others, much less in public.

But Colucci is OK with that. He just wants to be able to play. "Growing up, I tried to figure out who I was," Colucci says. "And I knew who I was since a little kid, but if you act that way you have problems. You're manic-depressive or moody or you should be taking your medication. But I wasn't manic-depressive or anything. I was just sensitive to things. So I tried to incorporate that into my playing. And it took me a long time. It's hard to get the piano to sound like this. And I think I've reached that point now where I've got it, where I can express the way that I feel. I just need somewhere to do it." (Bret McCabe)

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