By Monica Staton
Twenty-year-old Isaiah Collier is a musical virtuoso in the truest sense of the phrase he began playing saxophone at age 11, and his intuitive proficiency earned him attention early on.
One of his first music teachers was Salvation Army Englewood minister and captain, Julian Champion. It was Champion’s mission to put instruments in the hands of children from Southside communities. “Champion created a jazz band specially for me,” says Collier.
One of his earlier performances with the Salvation Army band featured saxophonist Al Smith as a guest artist. “We played “A Night in Tunisia.” I was nervous,” Collier recalls. It was his first time playing outside of Chicago, in St. Louis. “Al played a flawless solo, in the spirit of Bird.” Collier followed. “When it got to me, my mind went blank. I don’t remember what I played, but the response was overwhelming. A lot of things changed after.”
Isaiah Collier comes from a talented family. Both his parents sing and play instruments as well. “Music was always there,” he says. He first sang in the church choir, and was playing piano and flute, when his older brother initially introduced him to the saxophone.
I first heard Collier play the California Clipper with the band Die Stadtmusikanten. There’s a regal, elegant manner to his stage presence: he’s over 6 ft. tall, thin, deep brown, with high cheekbones. When not playing, he is patiently waiting—not contemplating his next move, but listening to the musicians that accompany him, listening to their stories. The patience he has for other musicians is also applied to his own solos—sometimes creating longer, elaborate solos, always with a greater context in mind. “I’m just into composition,” says Collier. He explained he’s never really hearing himself, he’s hearing other people: some people have fire, others have air. “That’s how I hear, there has to be a balance.”
His sound is a dynamic flurry of metaphors, yet he can hold back when necessary. His playing is often described as mature yet youthful. “I think people see youth and hear maturity,” is Collier’s response to that description. He reminds me that Miles Davis was 19 when he was on the road with Charlie Parker.
He plays his influences, which he describes as a “sonic time machine; you can’t really put a time or destination on it.” In terms of where he plans to take his music, Collier says, “I reach backwards and I reach forwards simultaneously when creating art and what is ahead of me is the past.”
Collier’s persona on stage differed from his persona when he sat down with me to discuss his craft and upcoming projects. Collier acknowledges Chicago defines his music. He attended high school at ChiArts, which was located in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood at the time. After, he attended the Brubeck Institute in Stockton, CA for two years.
Collier didn’t realize Chicago’s vast influence on music until he started traveling to New York, the West Coast, and the southern states. He learned those regions have a lot of Chicago influences, and that the South’s music culture is deeply ingrained in Chicago’s. He points to artists like pianist Lennie Tristano and alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, both born and raised in Chicago who later moved to the West Coast, as major influencers of the “non-swinging school of jazz music—that sound has its origins in Chicago,” says Collier.
Other Chicago artists that mentor and influence Collier are pianist Robert Irving III, saxophonist James Perkins, saxophonist Ari Brown, and pianist John Wright, who “recommended I learn the jazz language and develop more of an understanding of the jazz vernacular.” Collier says his mentors offer perspective in opening his views compositionally and harmonically. He doesn’t take critiques from these great artists as criticism. “If you take it personally, you don’t value what they are saying. Not everyone is going to offer advice, they have to feel it,” says Collier.
Collier’s used his latest recording with his band, the Chosen Few, as a platform to feature a few of Chicago’s hidden talents. Return of the Black Emperor was recorded primarily at the Frontier, a live space in Rogers Park. On piano is Evan Swanson (3 tracks) and William Kurk, Caesar Martinez on guitar, James Wenzel on bass and his brother, Jeremiah Collier, on drums. Many of the harmonies on this recording are reminiscent of Coltrane tunes, and Collier takes the freedom to unload his virtuosic saxophone skills.
Collier will release Collier Plays the Blues this summer. It will include all original compositions. A second recording of all original compositions, Welcome to Hyde Park, will also be released this summer. “It’s an interesting way of sonically describing what Hyde Park is,” says Collier. It will pay homage to Hyde Park landmarks. A few of the songs are titled “Hyde Park Records,” “Frontline,” and “DuSable”—which honors Dr. Carol Adams.
Isaiah Collier will be appearing at Dorian’s—1939 W. North Ave., Chicago, on April 13th and Room43—1039-1041 E. 43rd St., Chicago, on April 14th.