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Conversation with Scott Colley

Franz A. Matzner By

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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.
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