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Conversation with Scott Colley

By Published: October 5, 2003
SC: It was actually my older brother, Jim. He's a drummer. When I was in elementary school he talked me into playing the bass because he thought it would be cool to have another rhythm section instrument in the family. So I stated playing the bass and Jim gave me a bunch of records. I play[ed] these records mostly by ear for several years [before] I actually learned to read. I was just learning jazz tunes. Early on I was only interested in bebop and a few bass players. Paul Chambers, Oscar Pettiford, Ron Carter. Scott LaFarro. I was only interested in musicians from that era and hadn't really discovered very many other things. That wasn't until later in high school'I was kind of a purist early on. It was great though. I had a lot of sources'friends and my brother'who loaned me a lot of records. He would give me records and say, 'Learn these tunes.'

AAJ: Did you play with your brother?

SC: Yeah, some. But he was about six years older. I don't think he was too interested in playing with me at my level [laughing].

AAJ: Does he still play?

SC: Yeah. He's an electronics engineer by trade now, but he still plays.

AAJ: So it's all his fault.

SC: That's right. It's all his fault. [Laughing]

AAJ: I've become fairly focused on bass lately, so I have a couple of somewhat specific questions. There's a very strong bite to your sound, a real clarity. I was wondering if you could talk a little about your approach?

SC: I went to California Institute of the Arts''cause I knew Charlie Haynes was there and I wanted to get with Charlie and learn from him. Specifically I was interested in the music of the classic quartet with Ornette Coleman. The way they communicated. So I went to Cal. Arts and I was very fortunate 'cause when I got there they also had an incredible bass instructor'Fred Tinsley'whose bassist for the L.A. Philharmonic. I was able to study with Fred for four years while I was there'[H]e was a great teacher at helping you find your own sound. He wasn't really trying to prepare me to play in an orchestra'he really listened. He was able to see what a student was trying to do and help them do that and take into account individual body type and type of instrument, and what sound they were trying to get out of that instrument and really help them achieve that. That was a great thing. He completely reworked my technique. A lot of his ideas'are based on teaching students to use their body type to play the instrument.

AAJ: That's very interesting. It does seem like you use your entire body as you play. It looked like your whole body was involved in the process.

SC: I think that's a big part of it. Knowing how to use your body in a way that's natural and will transfer the most power to the instrument with the least amount of effort. So hopefully in that way you can avoid injury and still get a big sound. Bass players end up with tendonitis. When I teach, I see a lot of people'a lot of younger people'doing that. A lot of it stems from trying to do things that are unnatural for your body, moving your fingers or wrists in an odd way. Or too much tension is a big part of that. In order to play powerfully and yet smoothly I think it is very, very important to remain relaxed. The power that comes through in the playing really comes from a relaxed place.

AAJ: Do you do your teaching at the School of Improvisational Arts?

SC: No, I haven't done anything there in awhile because of my schedule, but he's been doing great stuff. I think that school is really going to expand.

AAJ: It seems like such an incredible faculty, not to mention the caliber of students coming through.

SC: I think people are really reacting to the fact that it's a great idea'to have a school based on the art of improvisation and have it be free from genre, a school just for people who want to communicate and improvise'it brings in people from all over. Rappers, spoken word, musicians of all kinds. Put[ing] them all together and having them talk about the improvisation process, I think that is a great idea. Hopefully, I'll do some more with them again soon. Most of the teaching I've been doing recently has been on the road. Clinics and colleges while I'm touring. Occasionally, private students, but I haven't had too much time for that.

AAJ: You play quite a lot with Bill Stewart and Chris Potter, how did you all get together?

SC: It's interesting. A lot of the people I still play with quite a bit, on many different projects, are people I met within the first month after I moved to New York. You mentioned Bill Stewart and Chris Potter, also Kevin Hayes, Adam Rogers. A lot of these players I met probably in the first month or two. Over the course of now fifteen years since I moved to New York there's been kind of this core group of people that I constantly go back to playing different projects with'It's really interesting for me to watch everyone's development, to see how they change.

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