Conversation with Scott Colley
“ A lot of the musicians I see out there are really open to allowing all these different ideas, different music from all over the world, music from different points in history, to make their way into the language that they?re using for improvisation. ”
Though he doesn't know it, I owe composer/bassist Scott Colley quite a bit. It was hearing Mr. Colley perform at the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles several years ago that fully opened my ears to the expressive force of the bass. Certainly, I'd always possessed a certain predilection for the bass, but it wasn't until after watching Colley tear up the stage with band mates Ravi Coltrane, Adam Rodgers, and Bill Stewart that I found myself digging through old recordings, exploring instrument dictionaries, and re-reading history books in a focused attempt to absorb as much about the bass as possible.
Since then, this interest has only grown, leading me not only toward other great bassists of past and present, but opening up entire sub-genres of jazz as well. For example, I rediscovered the piano trio format'this time falling deeply in love with it'as I traced the various lineages of bass development from Blanton to Brown, Pettiford, Mitchell, and Carter, stumbling of course upon Scott LaFarro along the way and with him the Bill Evans trio.
I mention this purely personal reflection only to emphasize how infectious Colley's playing can be. His muscular bass lines don't simply drive the music they bore straight through your cranium, delve into your brain, and lodge deep in your bones. You won't find your body swaying to the grooves throughout just next day, but the next week. And if you're anything like me, you just might find yourself drawn through Colley's melodic and improvisational clarity toward a whole new way of perceiving the instrument.
That said, it should come as no surprise that I was greatly looking forward to speaking with Mr. Colley about his current work as player, band leader, and composer. The conversation took place via phone, Mr. Colley speaking from his home as he relaxed following a recent tour with Herbie Hancock. Enjoying a vacation spent catching up on sleep, writing, and most important of all, spending time with his young daughter, Colley will be returning to the road this month as part of the Chris Potter Quartet. For those who have not yet seen Mr. Colley perform live, the upcoming tour promises to be'as always'an exceedingly worthwhile experience.
All About Jazz: You've been doing a lot of touring recently, haven't you?
Scott Colley: Well, right now I'm on vacation. For a month. I'm taking a month off, which I haven't done for'I don't think I've ever done this! You're one of my few appointments for the month. But, yes, we just finished an almost six week tour with Herbie[Hancock], Terri Lynn Carrington, and Bobby Hutcherson as a quartet which is great and the first time we've done that with Bobby. It was really a great time.
AAJ: How did you hook up with Herbie?
SC: Actually, I had done some recording with Terri Lynn and then I think through Terri Lynn and some recordings of mine, he heard me. I've been playing with him for about two and a half years.
AAJ: The recording with Terri Lynn, is that with Jim Hall?
SC: Yes'that was the first time I played with Terri Lynn, it was a Greg Osby record. I think it's called The Invisible Hand. I thought that was a really amazing record.
AAJ: I concur. I love the line-up on that recording.
SC: First of all, I was just amazed that he was actually able to get Jim Hall and Andrew Hill in the same place at the same time. Neither one of them work as sidemen on anybody else's records, as far as I know. So I was amazed that he[Osby] was able to pull that off. [laughing]
I think the result was great. Especially the tune'he did an arrangement of 'Nature Boy' that's really beautiful.
AAJ: I totally agree. 'Nature Boy' happens to be one of my favorite compositions and that rendition is really wonderful'
You've been touring with Chris Potter recently as well, correct?
SC: Yes. Those have been my primary touring projects for the past year or so. As well as other projects'Herbie has a project with the Gary Thomas Quartet and we also do some trio stuff. Herbie has started an orchestra project arranged by Bob Faden. He's been doing that with trio and different orchestras. We did it recently with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra which was quite amazing.
AAJ: So basically, you've been incredibly busy.
SC: Umm'yeah! Herbie is always busy. He's got so many different things on his mind. Between Chris's stuff and these other things, I've been traveling quite a bit.
AAJ: That's something that always stands out to me about jazz musicians. There always seems to be this endurance-test factor to their tours. All the one-nighters. And long, long tours.
SC: Yeah, well, if the music is something that you are really interested in'like the specific projects I've been doing'it's hard for me to say no.
AAJ: For sure, for sure. Now I've got to go back and ask some of the requisite questions. How did you get started on the bass?
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.
AAJ: I was very interested to see that the trio is basically the same for Traveling Mercies and your album The Magic Line , yet two completely different sounds come out of the projects.
SC: With all those players that I mentioned, if someone writes the music the rest of us will dive into that music and not approach it in the same way we would every other project. For us'I should speak for myself'it's really interesting for me to do that, to play with the same individuals but to find new ways of approaching the way we communicate. A lot of that is the types of forms and structures and music that are set up for improvisation. For me'you mentioned the The Magic Line 'that way of playing trio without a chord instrument has always been very interesting to me. It creates a lot of interesting problems for a bassist. [It] creates a lot more responsibility, but a lot more freedom at the same time. I really like playing that way.
AAJ: It's a really interesting album. I wanted to ask about the challenges of composing on bass.
SC: I write in a lot of different ways depending on what I'm hoping to achieve. So I'll write some at the piano, some with the sequences, some just out of my head onto paper. Other times I'll write just playing the bass. The types of melodies and ideas I come up with on the bass are much different than if I'm at the piano. My piano playing skills are pretty limited and I tend to think vertically at the piano, on the bass I come up with I think much more interesting melodic ideas. Sometimes I'll be in my studio kind of running around from the piano to the bass to the table to write, depending on what I'm hearing. In terms of structures of songs, a lot of times I really think of creating environments for specific improvisers. It's always been really difficult for me to write music'to just sit down and write a song. I have to really hear certain individuals playing that song. That makes it much easier for me to write it. I try and create things that utilize changes, changes in time, improvising over a melodic idea or a bass line, or a melody in a bass line, creating different structures so it's not always just improvising over a melody, melody, out. You know, I try to avoid that. A song can have within it several different ways of improvising. To me that's what makes jazz music interesting, creating structures, different ways of communicating, and then of course, having certain ideas what so-and-so is going to improvise over this section. Then, you put it in front of them and they do something different'something better than you could ever have imagined. I don't really say a lot when I put songs in front of people. You imagine what it might be and then you put it in front of someone and see what it actually is.
AAJ: That's almost going back to'I don't know why jazz people always have to think in terms of lineage, but I often do'back to the Duke Ellington method of composing for people instead of a blank slate that anyone can slot into and play.
SC: I think that's probably where I first heard that concept when I was thirteen or fourteen was from reading something that Duke Ellington said on that subject, and I found it to be very interesting. Also, adding to that, I think it's very important in improvisational music not to have preconceptions about what once you've written something with someone in mind then allowing them to do what they do and to me all the greatest improvisers that I've ever played with'that I've been fortunate to play with'understood that and never told me much of anything, just had me discover things and make my own mistakes. I think that is a very important part of the process.
AAJ: I wanted to make sure to talk a minute about Initial Wisdom. That was the first time I saw you perform. I must have gone three or four nights in a row. Those were great shows.
SC: Thank you.
AAJ: How did you get connected with Ravi [Coltrane]?
SC: I'd met Ravi before because he also went to Cal. Arts. I think he came to Cal Arts maybe the second year I was there and we played a little bit then, but not that much. And then I moved to New York, later he moved, so we had a trio with Al Foster and we did some little gigs like that, but I really wanted to play more with Ravi so we set up that group and did some tours.
AAJ: It was a really interesting combination of sounds. Adam Rogers and Ravi's sounds really blend well together.
SC: Yes, I agree.
AAJ: Adam has such clean lines.
SC: He also has such an ability to get great sounds through different instruments.
AAJ: Thinking about Initial Wisdom brings me back to your compositions. To my ear, there seems to be an 'eastern' sound to some of the pieces, especially on Magic Line. Is that just my ear deciding on that interpretation, or do you work with specific scales or culturally specific structures?
SC: What exactly to you mean by Eastern?
AAJ: Middle Eastern'I guess that should be in quotes, 'Eastern' it's a little hard to say what I mean.[both laughing]. There seem to be some Indian and Middle Eastern influences.
SC: Yeah. I listen to music from all over the world and the things that I listen to'like anyone else'those things make it into your music. I don't sit down and say that I'm going to write something right now that will sound like South Indian music. I don't have any specific agendas like that. I'll listen to whatever is interesting to me and take those things and hopefully organically they come out in my music. So, yes, definitely.
Does that answer the question?
AAJ: Yes, it does.
SC: Another interesting point is that whatever my intentions are as a musician and as a communicator what you take from the music is based on your background and what ideas your currently processing and the way your thinking now. Every individual is different and is going to hear things in a different way.
AAJ: There seems to be a very open spectrum of interpretation to music.
SC: Yeah. There was a time'I remember'after I'd finished college and I'd moved to New York and I was really concerned about how people heard my music. Were they getting it? Did they understand it in the way I wanted them to understand it. And over time, I don't really care.
I don't mean that in a negative way. That's just another one of those things I can never control, nor do I need to try. I create the music that I'm interested in creating now. I'm very happy when people are interested in it on any level. And sometimes people come up with an amazing compliment, and they say why they liked it and it's something that never crossed your mind. You say, 'Oh, wow, that's kind of interesting.' Everybody can interpret it'it's out there and they can interpret it anyway they want in terms of how they hear things.
AAJ: Tom Stoppard said about people interpreting his work that he feels like he's at airline customs. The agent searches his bag and finally asks, 'Did you put this box in your bag?' and Stoppard replies, 'No, but I can't deny that it's there.'
AAJ: There seems to be a recent resurgence in jazz music. Do you think that's true?
SC: It's hard for me to have much perspective on it. Again, things are dependent on your point of view and from my point of view a lot of my friends are doing some great stuff, and some of that stuff I'm involved in. But I do think that it's a good time for improvised music in that there are a lot of people open to a lot of the things we've been talking about. A lot of the musicians I see out there are really open to allowing all these different ideas, different music from all over the world, music from different points in history, to make their way into the language that they're using for improvisation. In that way, I think it's a very interesting time. I don't think it was really that way when I moved to New York. I moved to N.Y just before 1990. 1989, and at that time it seemed it was kind of the height of the 'Young Lion' mentality. There was a certain rigidity to the music and what was the environment in New York. I think that has opened up quite a bit people are allowing a lot of different ideas and concepts to make their way into the content of the music.
AAJ: Looking back, you can see there was a gap in the eighties, and then you get a new beginning in the 1990's there's new growth, and now there's a whole new breadth of material happening.
SC: I'm sure in the eighties there were people doing what we're talking about I just don't think it was getting out there. Or at least not where I saw it. I think it's a good time.
AAJ: Do you have any plans coming up?
SC: I'm writing some music now for a new band that I hope to record soon. It's with Ralph Allessi, Jason Moran, and Bill Stewart.
AAJ: Wow. That's going to be a great group.
SC: I'm planning a European tour for spring, and some touring in the states as well.
AAJ: I'm a big fan of Jason's work. I just heard him play a little here in Maryland. He was doing a clinic. That's an amazing line-up.
Is that fairly new, working with piano?
SC: Well, my first record had piano'I kind of like to mix it up. You know? I don't know. Let me think about that. I like to mix it up. The last record was with guitar, the one before that was without a chord instrument at all.
AAJ: Does it change the way you compose?
SC: Yes. Definitely.
AAJ: So right from the beginning it ensures a different approach.
SC: Exactly. A new element like that really changes the way your write.
AAJ: I must say, I can't wait to hear that.
SC: Really? Thank you again.
AAJ: Have you played with Jason before?
SC: I played a few things'
AAJ: Right, of course, you played with him and Osby.
SC: And a couple of quartet gigs, and also some trio gigs with Nasheet Waits.
AAJ: Do you ever have time to get bored?
SC: To get bored? [Laughter] I was hoping to get really bored this month!
AAJ: What do you do when you get bored?
SC: I actually haven't had time to get bored in many years.
AAJ: Rats. That eliminates the hobby question.
SC: I have a 21 month old daughter. When I catch up on my sleep I'll let you know if I can possibly get bored. In the last couple of years it's everything I can do just to keep up.
AAJ: A friend of mine described that to me. He said that having a kid means sleep deprivation for seventeen years.
SC: I used to think that going on the road was bad. But now, if I'm working and in town then I realize that being on the road can be like a vacation.
AAJ: Have you changed your touring plans because of your daughter?
SC: Some what. It makes it so that I have to plan way in advance. Much more than I used, to make sure that there's time for the family and time for work. For me it doesn't really work to mix a lot of things. If I've learned anything, it's how to allocate my time so that when I'm working, I'm working, and when I'm with my family, I'm just with them, not trying to mix the two. It becomes frustrating trying to spread your energy to thin. It doesn't work for anybody.
AAJ: Well, on that note, I'll let you get back your vacation. [Laughter] I really appreciate you taking the time and I look forward to hearing your show here in D.C.
[Scott Colley will be playing at the Kennedy Center Jazz Club on September 11th as part of his current tour with Chris Potter. For those in the area, this is a highly recommended show.]