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Conversation with Scott Colley

Franz A. Matzner By

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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.
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