John Colianni may just have the fastest fingers to ever glide across a Baldwin piano - but even the guy nicknamed "Johnny Chops" was surprised when guitar legend Les Paul was asking him to share the stage.
"Les Paul had been a legend to me - it was totally wild," Colianni says. "And it gets wilder, because he said to me, 'Based on what Bucky (Pizzarelli) told me, I'm not going to audition you. I want you to come in, and if you like me and I like you, you'll have a job."
Colianni recalls committing what he later learned was a major faux pas when he met Paul at the famed Iridium Jazz Club in New York City - he dressed up.
"I wore a blue suit and a tie," Colianni says, laughing. "(Paul) laughed. He said, 'We do not dress up for this gig.' And that amazed me. This is back in 2003, when every day wasn't casual Friday yet, and jazz gigs were still spiffy affairs. I had always been in a tuxedo or a suit, and for my own gigs I would always wear a suit. Here I am with the most famous of the famous - big celebrities would come listen to us play - and he's saying wear what you feel like."
Despite being over-dressed, Colianni was hired to join the Les Paul Trio, playing piano alongside Paul until his death in 2009. Today, guest artists such as Steve Miller, Jimmy Buffett, Todd Rundgren and even Ted Nugent appear each week in tribute to Paul with Colianni and the trio.
On Thursday night, Colianni will kick off Cape Bank Jazz @ The Point, the annual four-day Somers Point jazz festival not so humbly billed as "the greatest jazz festival in the universe."
The four-day festival featuring 10 jazz groups kicks off Thursday, April 11, and runs through Sunday, April 14, at various venues throughout Somers Point. A pre-event price of $60 per person is good for the entire festival, and all proceeds benefit the nonprofit Somers Point Jazz Society, the festival's organizers.
Other artists performing include the Tom Guarna Quintet, the Jim Ridl Quartet and the Pat Martino Trio.
"You can't see these kinds of artists all in one place in four days," says Joseph Donofrio, president of the Somers Point Jazz Society. "There's a lot of talent here. I think we have a great schedule. I'm excited about it."
Colianni, who also appears solo and with his own group, the John Colianni Quintet, will bring a trio to the ballroom of Sandi Pointe Coastal Bistro for one set only 9 to 10:30 p.m. Thursday.
"I'm bringing in a very nice trio - piano, bass and drums," says Colianni, who has also played alongside Mel Torme and Lionel Hampton. "I'm using musicians I'm very fond of working with. My bass player, Mike Boone, has been accompanying me on a lot of New York engagements. On drums, Bernard Linnette, he used to work with Freddy Cole, Nat King Cole's brother.
"The music will range from things on my two or three most recent albums, original pieces, standards, and improvised, ad-lib pieces - things that will crawl out at the moment of playing," Colianni says. "A mixture of set and improvised."
Martino, who studied with John Coltrane and has played alongside jazz greats such as Slide Hampton and Red Holloway, plans to bring "some really powerful music" when he performs two sets at the Sandi Pointe ballroom Saturday night.
"I'm coming out with Pat Bianchi (organist) - a great player - and Carmen Intorre, our drummer," says Martino, also an adjunct professor at University of the Arts in Philadelphia. "Both of them have such a rapport together. We just love playing together. It's a very swinging band."
Martino, in particular, brings a unique story to the festival. After suffering a severe brain aneurysm in 1979 and learning he had just hours to live, Martino underwent brain surgery that left him with amnesia. Martino made a remarkable recovery, reversing his memory loss and returning to music once again.
His recent autobiography, "Here and Now," details his life experiences.
"I think 'focus' is a very important term," Martino says. "It remains to this day to be more significant to me than anything else. Focus on the here and now without any focus on the past or the future. That automatically made everything simplistic - and realistic."
Cape Bank Jazz @ The Point Schedule
Mission Point Church: 7 p.m., Words and Music, Rina Terry, poetry, prose and spoken word, Jon Pruitt, piano, Steve Varner, bass
Sandi Pointe Coastal Bistro Ballroom: 9 p.m., John Colianni Trio, John Colianni, piano, Mike Boone, bass, Bernard Linnette, drums
Friday, April 12
Gregory's Restaurant & Bar: 8 and 10 p.m., Tom Guarna Quintet, Tom Guarna, guitar, Orlando le Fleming bass, E.J. Strickland, drums, Danny Grissett, fender rhodes, tenor saxophone
Sandi Pointe Ballroom: 8 and 10 p.m., Jim Ridl Quartet, Jim Ridl, piano, Alex Sipiagin, trumpet, Boris Kozlov, bass, Donald Edwards, drums
Sandi Pointe Dining Room: 9:30 and 11:30 p.m., Kate Davis Trio, Kate Davis, vocal, bass and ukulele, Gabe Schnider, guitar, Jake Goldbas, drums
Saturday, April 13
Gregory's Restaurant & Bar: 8 and 10 p.m., Danny Walsh Quintet, Danny Walsh, tenor saxophone, Bill Mobley, trumpet, Yoshi Waki, bass, Joseph Lunsford, piano, Shawn Baltazor, drums
Sandi Pointe Ballroom: 8 and 10 p.m., The Pat Martino Trio, Pat Martino, guitar, Pat Bianchi, organ, Carmen Intorre Jr., drums
Sandi Pointe Dining Room: 9:30 and 11:30 p.m., Ayako Shirasaki/Noriko Ueda Duo, Ayako Shirasaki, piano, Noriko Ueda, bass
Sunday, April 14
Gregory's Restaurant & Bar: 2 p.m., U-DIG! Fuze-muzik, Demetrios Pappas, keyboards, Vic Stevens, drums, Andy Lalasis, bass, Shawn Christie, guitar
Sandi Pointe Ballroom: 4 and 6 p.m., Rhenda Fearrington Sextet, Rhenda Fearrington, vocal, Mike Boone, bass, Jim Holton, piano, Byron Landham, drums, Larry McKenna, tenor saxophone, Larry Tamanini, guitar