Colin Stranahan (due with Stranahan/Zaleski/Rosato at Dazzle for the Westword Music Showcase tomorrow and on Sunday, June 24) isn't comfortable with labels. Since launching his professional career as a jazz musician at the age of seventeen, Stranahan has earned critical acclaim and professional kudos for his explosive and nuanced skill with a pair of sticks.
But the Denver native says he spends just as much time and care honing his abilities as a composer, a sensibility that's earned approval from giants like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. He calls himself a musician first, and is quick to credit his local mentors, a list that includes his father, saxophonist Jim Stranahan, as well as trumpeter Ron Miles. We caught up with Stranahan in advance of his homecoming to talk about his roots, his aspirations and his latest album, Anticipation, a record that represents a collaboration with pianist Glenn Zaleski and bassist Rick Rosato.
Westword: For those unfamiliar with your biography, can you offer a quick snapshot of how you moved from growing up in Denver's jazz scene to your current home in New York?
Colin Stranahan: My father is a jazz musician, so I was surrounded by music from a very early age, and in Denver, there are a lot of great jazz musicians. As soon as I expressed my interest in music to my dad, he was very helpful in getting some great teachers, one of which was Paul Romaine, who was a very influential teacher and pretty much is part of the reason I'm a musician -- and Joe Anderies, who was another great educator.
They gave me a lot of opportunities at a young age to become interested in performing. From that point on, music was the biggest interest I had in my life. I started playing more and more in high school and started getting involved in these all-star programs all over the United States and in Europe ... Pretty soon I found myself at the Dave Brubeck Institute in California. I went there for a year. I went to music school in New York for a couple of years and started really developing a career here; then I got a phone call to go audition at the Thelonious Monk Institute.
I went auditioning not thinking I had any chance of being in the program, because it's a pretty established program; it's a master's program, and at that point I hadn't received any degrees. I went and Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter selected me to be in the program, which was quite an honor. I went there for a couple years. I was studying in New Orleans and I came back to New York and I've been here for three years. It's just an honor to be able to say that I do my art for a living.
In addition to legends like Hancock and Shorter, you had plenty of input from local jazz giants like Ron Miles and Fred Hirsch.
Ron was always a big influence to me because I met him at a very early age. I got to play with him in very unique settings. He was always very encouraging to me and [was] one of my biggest heroes, musically, because he was always doing something unique. The thing about Ron that's so incredible is that he's always tapped in to what's happening in the musical world around him at any given time.
Every year it's changing, and he's always listening to new music and incorporating that into jazz music. That was always really intriguing to me at a young age. I'm still very influenced by Ron and always will be because of that -- discovering new ways to create the way jazz music is played. He played a very, very important role in my life.
Do you still get the chance to play with Ron Miles in New York?
I do, once in a while. When I travel back to Denver, we try to get together. It's been a while, but we're always to plan things and make stuff happen. We do get to perform from time to time, but we're always in touch and we're always checking in on each other.
In the context of your education and your different home bases in the past decade, how did you hook up with the Capri record label?
Yeah, that was actually when I was really young, that was when I was about seventeen years old. I had written some music early on, and I had wanted to record it so my father encouraged me to do that. So I went into a studio with some local musicians and recorded an album's length of songs, just to have. I didn't want to do anything serious with it. I played it for my teacher, Paul Romaine, who said, 'You should seriously consider sending this to Tom Burns at Capri Records. He might be interested.'
At that point, being seventeen, I had no idea of what that meant. I sent it in, and he called me the next day and said, 'Hey, I want to release this album on my label.' I was kind of shocked. Since then, through my travels and everything, Tom has been a big supporter, especially now with this band that's coming to Denver. Today, there are only a few jazz record labels that still exist, but Tom has been a big supporter of my music and my artistry. It's really been a big part of my musical career.
For the upcoming gig at Dazzle, is the stress going to be on the new album Anticipation?
Definitely. We'll be playing selections from that mostly. We are getting ready to record our second record for Capri, so maybe we'll debut a few new things, but mostly songs from the record.
The album has an interesting balance between original tunes and a wide range of standards, from takes on Miles Davis's "Boplicity" to the swing-era "I Should Care" and Jerome Kern's "All The Things You Are." How did you three go about selecting the cover tunes for this album?
The thing about this band is that it's a completely a democracy. There's not one particular leader. We all agree on our repertoire together. You know, what's funny about some of those standards is that we would just randomly pick a few songs and start playing them. We'd try to approach them in a different way than they were originally played.
The ones that you hear on the record, especially "I Should Care," are kind of an accident. We were playing one day and realized that there's an original Nintendo game called "Baseball Simulator 2000," and the ending credits of the game, when you win or lose, we realized are in the same key as "I Should Care."
Glenn [Zaleski] figured it out on piano, and he said it worked out with the same chord changes as "I Should Care." So we never performed it, we were just joking around about it, and one night we just started playing that song and started playing the theme from the video game. It just kind of stuck. The others were just selected randomly. We said, 'We like that tune, let's record that and see how it goes.' It just ended up working really well. We also had to arrange standards to make them our own.
Speaking of arrangements, was it challenging to do something like "Boplicity," where all of the brass lines have been replaced by Zaleski's piano?
That's kind of the fun. Glenn is just a flawless musician, and he's been able to do all of these parts in one. When we started playing it, he had already sort of covered all the parts. Like I said, we just try to find a way to make them really sound like our own. Sometimes it's a really natural thing, and sometimes we have to work at it. For the most part, we just really know each other musically and it just takes off.
Can you talk a bit about the tune that you penned for this release?
I only wrote one. I've written quite a bit more for the next one. I wrote one called "First Rain" for Anticipation. It's one of those compositions that was influenced by a moment that I was having in a hotel room in Paris. It was raining and raining and raining -- I was disappointed because it was my first time in Paris and I only had two days to sight-see. "First Paris Rain" was kind of cheesy, so "First Rain" was this idea that came to me. That was my contribution to the album.
On that note, I'm curious about your dual role as a songwriter and a drummer. You've got a solid sense of melody, harmony and the logistics of writing a song, qualities you don't always find in a serious drummer. How do you juggle the duties of your role as a percussionist and your role as a composer?
I think, in itself, it's just being conscious of the two worlds. My main influences in music aren't always drummers: There are guitar players and piano players. I think that's where the melody comes from, just sort of carrying that instrument and even trying to play those other instruments and see how they work. I try to incorporate that into the drums and it's something I think about. I'm always trying to think of playing in a melodic way. I guess the balance is just being aware of that. I'm always thinking about melody and rhythm at the same time. I practice both equally.
Do you consider yourself a drummer first?
I'd like to say musician, but I'm proud to be a drummer.
Are you looking forward to coming back to Denver?
It's always great to come home and play. I do it quite often these days ... It definitely is home. New York is also home, but it's always a pleasure to come back and see everybody, to be able to contribute something to the local scene.
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