First Take: Songs of Resilience


Collier, at work in the midst of COVID, at Van Gelder Studios last September.

(Photo: Tiffany Smith)

Pandemic stories — we hear them wherever we go. Pretty much every story in this issue is a pandemic story in some way. How could this not be true since we’ve been living with COVID-19 for more than a year now?

But here’s the twist. Before reading a word, you might think these would be tales of woe and misery. Admittedly, there is a certain sentiment of loss and longing, but the overarching theme is one of can-do creativity and resilience.

One of my favorite stories from our June issue was a behind-the-scenes look at the five-star recording from saxophonist Isaiah Collier.

Collier, 23, and his band The Chosen Few have created Cosmic Transitions, a fire-breathing work that demonstrates musical spark and depth well beyond Collier’s years.

In September of last year, in the midst of COVID, Collier and the band sojourned to Van Gelder Studios in New Jersey, one of the great jazz shrines, created by the late Rudy Van Gelder.

“I was one of the last group of cats to work with Rudy in 2016 when I was part of the Thelonious Monk Institute’s peer-to-peer international all-star group,” Collier said. “Going back, it was nostalgic, but not only that, the energy was more intense because it was like, ‘OK, all this musical DNA has been etched into this one room.’ Now it’s your turn to add onto this DNA.”

Collier said he and the band felt that presence, and that pressure, as soon as they entered.

“One hundred percent,” he said. “I was completely surprised by everything. When my friend Sonny Daze [at District 81 Records] reached out to me about [recording], I said, ‘Man, if you want me to record this album, the only place I can think of is Van Gelder’s.’ And he was like, ‘That’s funny because that’s the place I got.’”

Recording it on Sept. 23 made the date even more of an event for Collier. It was the first day after the autumnal equinox … and John Coltrane’s birthday. Coltrane, of course, recorded more than 40 albums at Van Gelder’s, including A Love Supreme in 1964.

“The energy in that place was beyond the word … active,” Collier said. “We did this record in the very same format that they did back then. Everybody was in one room. But the distance was great enough to keep us separated [for COVID purposes].”

All of this brings up the question of how young artists try to make a name for themselves in the midst of this pandemic.

“I’ve been blessed, I’m not going to even front,” Collier said. “Not only that, but being blessed enough to take a step back and assess the situation and still figure out how I can make this work. I was laughing at this because I was like, ‘It’s such a funny time to be alive.’ And someone asked, ‘What do you mean by that?’ We have a rare occasion. It’s kind of like we’re living through multiple different time periods all at once. I feel like we’re living through the ’20s, ’30s, ’60s and even the ’90s, but all simultaneously.

“And you’ve got to think, in those times, what were Bird and all of them doing? They had to overcome some of the same things.”

For Collier, that sense of the ancestors and their difficult times serve as inspiration.

“If you’re going to be about it, there’s nothing that’s going to stop you from getting what you’ve got to get done,” he said. “This time has provided me with a moment to be creative. This is about being creative. It’s there. Do what you have to do. Create your own opportunities.” DB

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