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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2003/05/28
by Mike Gruenberg

Colosseum

As my collection of recorded music grew in size, I felt compelled to arrange my albums in such a way as to find each LP in record speed. In devising a categorical system that would make sense to only me, I could find the records quickly by matching artists of similar talents. For example, some of the categories resident in my collection included U.S. Rock, British Rock, Female Singers, Male Singers, Country, Horn Groups, etc. Naturally, groups like the Beatles and Stones were separated from the rest. They did not mix with the others since they were entities unto themselves.
In the early 70’s, I was fortunate to play Alto Sax in a rock group. Since I was partial to rock groups with horn sections, I collected a fair amount of albums by groups with horn sections. Under the system described, my records included in the Horn Group section were arranged chronologically by group. Therefore, Chicago albums 1 through whatever would be preceded by all the Blood, Sweat & Tears albums. On the other side of the Chicago album collection, the next selection would be Colosseum, a very good, but obscure UK group. Although the system to find the album of choice may seem convoluted, I was able to find the desired album in a very short period of time.
Much like my system to reference and index my records, so too is my view to categorize the performers in the rock world. We all have our "super group" favorites. Those are the artists that continue to sell out concerts, sell millions of CD’s and pretty much are entities unto themselves. Those are the people on the very top of the music pyramid. Below this revered group of superstars are the performers who are just a notch below. While still excellent, they may not sell as many CD’s, nor can only play smaller venues since they cannot sell out the large arenas. We love these groups and probably get to see them more often since it is easier and less expensive to get tickets to their concerts. The next tier below of the pyramid are those groups who have had their 15 minutes of stardom. These are the "one-hit" wonders that have ridden that one hit record to every oldies reunion concert in every city in this country and abroad. Finally, the bottom of the pyramid is filled in with those groups that continue to work five sets a night, seven nights a week in bars and auditoriums all over the world. They may or may not have had record deals, but they can sure make you feel good on a Saturday night if you like to listen to or dance to live music. To me, the groups that occupy the lower quadrant of the pyramid are the true heroes of rock ‘n’ roll. They sure don’t get paid a lot, but they can play and entertain you for many hours. They can and will play their original material or emulate your favorite top of the pyramid group with equal grace and finesse. I recently had the occasion to find a vinyl album by a group called Colosseum. Listening to that album called "The Grass Is Greener" brought back fond memories of the time when I was in a horn group. My group played all the usual Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears numbers. At that time, Colossem was categorized as a "Progressive Rock" group and as such, their music did not fit very well into our play list. In essence this group was able to incorporate jazz, blues, classical, etc. into their rock repertoire. The result was a unique sound that was not as comfortable for the listener as the traditional music heard on the AM stations at the time. Groups like Colosseum actually helped FM stations to establish themselves by playing and encouraging this new progressive music.
Founding members John Hiseman (drums) and Dick Heckstall-Smith (saxophones) had previously played with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. Tony Reeves (bass) and Dave Greenslade (keyboards) were veterans of the London club scene. Reeves, Heckstall-Smith and Hiseman were in a group called Bare Wires, which had a hit album on the UK charts that peaked at the # 3 position. Hiseman and Heckstall-Smith also played in the Graham Bond Organisation, another popular UK group in the late 60’s. If you are a fan of Jack Bruce, you can hear Hiseman and Heckstall-Smith on some of his early albums after Cream disbanded. Hiseman had also played with Jack Bruce and Mick Taylor in the Mick Taylor Trio prior to his stint with John Mayall. One could say that the members of Colosseum were of the highest pedigree.
Colosseum released their first album in March 1969 called "Those Who Are About To Die Salute You." Although the title was quite catchy, sales were not good even though favorable reviews at the time referred to this album as high energy. It is still considered as a high point in the synthesis of British rock, jazz, blues and classical music. Their follow-up album in November 1969 was called "Valentyne Suite." "Valentyne Suite" was the first song I ever heard from Colosseum and to this day, I am still astounded by it’s power and brilliance. The song starts as a tradiotnal rock high-energy guitar driven song, which flows, into a jazz-fusion mode reminiscent of such jazz greats as John Coltrane. There are three parts to the suite. The LP that I have in my collection is called "The Grass Is Greener." Released on Dunhill # 50079 it furthers the work done on their debut album. They perform a rock version of the classical composition by Ravel, Bolero that is superb. "Lost Angeles" is another classic Colosseum tune on this record.

I recently purchased a CD of a live performance of Colosseum called "Live." It was recorded at Manchester University in England in 1971. Among the cuts that are my favorites are "Rope Ladder to the Moon," "Stormy Monday Blues," and "Lost Angeles." However, the defining aspect of this album is the apparent energy and superb musicianship of the group. They connect with the audience and seem to having as good a time as their fans. It’s a great live album.
The "Live" album is a perfect example of music performed in a bar or auditorium by an excellent rock band. Clearly, the musicians in this group are well respected by their peers and their works speak for themselves. However, this album shows how a band communicates with its audience in an intimate setting. When the Beatles broke up and McCartney formed Wings, he packed up the group in a bus and played for college audiences throughout England. At the time, it seemed a bit bizarre that this superstar was taking this route. He said he was not only looking to try out new songs but also get back in touch with his musical roots and connect more intimately with an audience. Colosseum was able to do the same and this album proves it.

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