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Conversation with Scott Colley

Franz A. Matzner By

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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.

[Laughing]

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.'

[Laughing]

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.
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