There are few things in life that Nick Colionne enjoys more than the sounds of jazz emanating from his stereo, and he’s spent much of his life immersed in the genre. But the Chicago-based guitarist—a professional musician since the age of 15—says that it was being able to handle an array of other sounds and styles that once kept him on the road.

Nick Colionne“Jazz was my upbringing, but initially pursuing a career as a sideman meant I had to become well versed in R&B, blues, and heavy metal,” Colionne explains. “When I play live, I incorporate all kinds of music and have a lot of fun. All of these styles have contributed to defining my own sound as an artist.”

Colionne, who employs an Epiphone Broadway onstage and in the studio, released Keepin’ It Cool (Narada Jazz), his fifth solo album, in 2006. It’s a groove-laden effort with guitar lines that recall two of his biggest heroes—Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell. But creative inspiration, the guitarist notes, is often something he finds beyond the realm of jazz guitar.“I try to listen to a lot of horn players, because sometimes I don’t want to phrase like a guitar player,” he says. “Horn players have to breathe. Sometimes when people play guitar, they have a tendency just to keep playing and keep playing, note after note—one continuous set of scales, with no pauses. It’s like talking loud and saying nothing. You’re just saying a whole bunch of words. A solo should be a story, and in a story you’ve got periods and commas and whatever else. That’s what I get from horn players. They have a tendency to tell a story, almost like a vocal.”

The 42-year-old Colionne started to learn the guitar at age nine and wasn’t even out of high school when he turned pro, making a deal with his mother that he could play out—as long as he agreed to stay in school and graduate. (He eventually moved on to college.) Through his educational pursuits, Colionne still found time to back artists like the Staples Singers, eventually hitting the road with R&B legends like the Impressions and the Chi-Lites.

His sideman days officially ended in the mid-1990s with the appropriately-titled It’s My Turn, and his career reached a new plateau with the release of 2003’s Just Come on In. That album yielded a funky hit single called “High Flyin’,” which endures as a centerpiece in Colionne’s high-energy live show. Indeed, when Colionne takes the stage these days, he’s the man out front, which is where he’s always wanted to be.

“The most exciting part of all of this for me is that I am actually living my dream, getting a chance to play guitar for people in so many places,” Colionne says. “The greatest moments come when I look at their faces in the audience when I play, and I realize that I’m making them feel what I’m feeling. That’s a fascinating level of communication.”