Scott Colley: Music Architect
AAJ: The disk has a lot of different sounds. You're not thinking in terms of mainstream or swing. Do you even think in terms of jazz, or more in terms of sounds? I know you want the improvisation there. Do you say, "I'm making a jazz record?
SC: No, not at all. Obviously my background comes from a lot of experience in that area, but I listen to a lot of different kinds of music. From my standpoint, I listen to a lot of different music and I like to allow different elements to come in as they will. The things that I listen to today, the things I've listened to in the past, the emotions and experiences I'm having today, I want to be reflected somehow in the music. Especially when I'm sitting down to write something, having ideas about structure, I want to abandon those labels. At least in my mind. Other people can put them on. That's fine. But for me, I don't think in those terms.
AAJ: What do you think of the final product?
SC: I'm off to some new projects. But I'm very pleased with it. In terms of the overall structure, I did make some changes, but when I wrote the music I had a pretty clear idea of what the sequence should beespecially how it would begin and endand then some of the things in the middle moved around after we had played it some. I really like the way it's come out.
It's the second record that I've done where I actually had the time to structure it in a way that I think a recording should be done, in terms of conceiving of the music, deciding who was going to be involved, taking the time to write the music, then touring with the music; kind of digesting it, working with it, then recording it, rather than the other way around. Frequently, we end up doing two or three rehearsals, getting to the music, then you record it, then you go on tour. Then you start to discover new things about the music which you would have played on the recording.
With this record, I feelespecially in terms of the compositions that have odd meters, 15 and 9 and metric things going onin terms of the rhythm section with Antonio and Craig Taborn and Iwe were able to figure out a lot of things before we went to record. I think that comes through on the record. Especially with those guys, because they're so incredible with any kind of odd forms. They create so freely on difficult forms.
AAJ: I think that concept comes off very well.
SC: I also wanted to mention that David Binney produced the record with me and he made an incredible contribution to it. That's very evident on the record. Especially in terms of texture and some of the collage things too. Working with him is always great because we've known each other for such a long time. I trust him so much. Musically, he knows what my esthetic sense is too. It was a really great help to have him involved.
AAJ:You guys always seem to be on the same page with everything that's on there.
SC: One of the surprises that came from the record was when I was doing Andrew Hills' "Smoke Stack, because he did it with two bass players and he's a pianist. I decided to go with two piano players and a bassist, and I'm a bsas player. I knew it would work out, but one of my favorite moments on the record is hearing Craig Taborn and Jason Moran play together.
AAJ: Is the bass the first instrument that you liked, or did you play something else first?
SC: Acoustic bass was my first instrument. I started playing when I was eleven and was in the elementary school orchestra. I played for a while, then I got bored; the parts they were giving me weren't too challenging. I kind of picked it up again when I got into junior high school on Los Angeles. Eagle Rock High School was where I went to school. I had a great band director named John Rinaldo who kept an amazing jazz program going there despite the cutbacks in Los Angeles at the time. So I got an early opportunity to play in some small groups and a lot of big band jazz from the time I was thirteen. I studied with Monty Budwig, who was a great teacher out there, a great player and friend. From there, I went to Cal Arts [California Institute for the Arts].
AAJ: The music on the radio in those years wasn't jazz. Did you also absorb a lot of pop and rock music of the '60s and '70s, or were you tuned into jazz?
SC: I kind of discovered the different elements of pop music later, strangely enough. I'm a jazz purist. My older brother is a drummer. He would give me a lot of albums to listen to. People who I was playing with at the time would give me a lot of records to listen to. So my early learning was completely by ear.
When I was thirteen, I started working two nights a week at this club in Pasadena. I had that job for three years. The older musicians would say, "Here's some records. Learn these songs by next week. Each week I had better learn those songs [chuckles]. It was a great experience for me because I learned to play by ear. When I was sixteen and seventeen, I started to understand theoretically what I was doing. I realized harmonically and rhythmically if I was going to take the next step, I needed to begin to understand what was going on. Not only the bass, but every instrument and how they interact, and about arranging and composing stuff. That didn't come until later. But that way of learning early on and relying on your ear from the beginning was an important step.
AAJ: Who are some of the bass players that you liked?
SC: One of my favorites was Paul Chambers at that time. Oscar Pettiford. Charles Mingus. I was kind of a purist until I heard Jaco [Pastorious] live in concert, right after the Heavy Weather (Columbia, 1977) record [Weather Report]. It made me realize that there's a lot of music out there. I was kind of keeping myself from exploring, because I had this idea it was only a certain era of music that I was interested in. I still really love the stuff I listened to when I was thriteen. And I still listen to it today. But from listening to Weather Report and Ornette Coleman's classic quartet, my tastes just kind of expanded out from there. It's still expending, hopefully.
AAJ: California Institute for the Arts is where Charlie Haden was.
SC: Charlie's still up there sometimes. I'd gone up there just because Charlie was there. I didn't know anything else about the school. They had just started the jazz program. I wasn't really planning on going to school. I just wanted to go out and play. But I'd loved Charlie's playing for so long I went up there. From there, I realized all the things that the school has to offer. Music from all over the world. Composition. For the first two years there, I didn't play that much with the jazz department. It was an incredible place for me at that time.
AAJ: You were probably playing in clubs during that time. Was there any gig that really got you involved in the scene, or was more important than others in your career?
SC: I played a fair amount with Jimmy Rowles, which was pretty incredible, because he had such a knowledge of standards. He had this incredible way of voice leading. Even if he knew that I didn't know a song, the way he would play and set up the chords, I could play songs that I'd never heard of before. It sounded like I knew what I was doing. [chuckle] His voice leading and the way he did things was so logical. When he wanted, he could lead me around. It was an incredible experience.
There were a lot of musicians, but somewhere in the middle, my third year at Cal Arts, I auditioned with Carmen McRae and started touring with her. That's when I moved to New York. I was still working with Carmen, touring. Somehow I managed to finish Cal Arts, but I'm not really sure how [chuckles].