Scott Colley: Music Architect

R.J. DeLuke By

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Scott Colley can be found adding his big-toned, always appropriate contra bass to a number of settings. He's been a staple on the New York music scene for some time now, with older established musicians like Pat Metheny, Andrew Hill, John Scofield, Joe Lovano, Michael Brecker, Clifford Jordan, Herbie Hancock and many, many more. But also with colleagues like Ravi Coltrane, Chris Potter, David Binney or Craig Taborn.

He's also recorded steadily, something many bassists can't say. From 1996 to 2002, he had a new recording of his own nearly every year. He's at it again with Architect of the Silent Moment released earlier this year on Cam Jazz, which displays his considerable writing talents, as well as a strong collaboration with a group of his peers. Colley seems to be growing as a writer and a bassist. The new music is strong in its concept. It doesn't really carry a theme in one bag, but probes different feelings in different ways. It's heady music, but not overly so.

Not Just Jazz

Besides, it's all just music to Colley, when it comes to the wide variety of projects he's been involved in as a leader and sideman. It's not always "jazz per se, and that's OK too, even thought he was an admitted jazz snob growing up playing the bass in his native Los Angeles.

"I listen to a lot of different kinds of music. From my standpoint, I listen to a lot of different music and I like to allow different elements to come in as they will, says Colley. "The things that I listen to today, the things I've listened to in the past, the emotions and experiences I'm having today, I want to be reflected somehow in the music.

The new music demonstrates that. All compositions are by the bassist, except for Andrew Hill's "Smoke Stack, but even that is arranged with a unique twist. In compositions like "Usual Illusion, "Strip Mall Ballet, and "Window of Time, the rhythm of Colley, pianist Taborn and drummer Antonio Sanchez can get intense—and not with a thousand notes from the session leader—and still, the melodies seem to ride on top, musical and imaginative, often carried out by Ralph Alessi's inventive melodism and Taborn's deft touch and artistic sense. Even Binney's searching sax and Gregoire Maret's outstanding harmonica get a chance to add to the colors sought by Colley. The bassist is superb throughout the session.

"During the process of recording and working on stuff I ask a lot of questions of the individuals I'm playing with, different ways to approach it, just to get different ideas, says Colley. "Because the people that I play with, everybody involved in the project, are good friends and good musicians. I very much value their thoughts and input.


Colley, 43, has played on more than eighty albums. It all started with his love for music as a youngster, picking up the bass, digging jazz and listening to people like Oscar Pettiford and Paul Chambers. Later folks like Charlie Haden came into the picture. So did other forms of music, from Ornette Coleman to pop, and eventually music from other cultures. He studied at California Institute for the Arts with Haden, but says he focused on composition and opened his eyes to other things outside the jazz department. Gigging with venerable pianist Jimmy Rowles was key in his development, and after Cal Arts he worked with Carmen McRae, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Jordan and Art Farmer and many others while making his home in the Big Apple. A run with Hancock was also key.

Not long after he went to New York and got busy, he started recording under his own name, creating Portable Universe (Freelance, 1996), This Place (SteepleChase, 1997), Subliminal (Criss Cross, 1998), The Magic Line (Arabesque, 2000) and Initial Wisdom (Palmetto, 2002).

Architect of the Silent Moment

All About Jazz: Is there a significance to the title of your new CD, Architect of the Silent Moment? It's kind of unusual.

Scott Colley: We were having a party here and there was like thirty people in the house. A friend of mine said something ... he was trying to talk about two subjects at once, and somehow he created a sentence that he said loudly at the party. I can't remember what it was. It wasn't profane. It was profound in some way that it made everyone at the party stop talking. I said at that moment that he was the architect of the silent moment. That's how that came about. Maybe not as profound as someone would think, at the time [laughs].

AAJ: The music is mostly yours. How much do you write? How big a thing is that in your life, to make sure you have time to write? Does it come to you easily?

SC: I think about composition a lot. In terms of any level of spontaneous composition, basically everything I do there is some level of composition involved. I deal with so much music that has structures, but a lot of the projects I do are primarily improvised. I tend to write in spurts, and not every day. When things come to me and, generally, deadlines spur on these times when I write a lot. It's not as consistent as I'd like it to be. It revolves around my schedule of different collaborative projects that I'm involved in and all the other stuff that I'm doing.

With this project, I did spend a lot of time thinking about the overall shape of the record, who I wanted to be involved in the record. I generally will always think of individuals first—who I want to be involved and what kind of sounds I want to create. Then try and write for them specifically. I did start thinking about it almost a year before we recorded it. Then we went on the road for almost a month, with the quartet—Ralph Alessi, Craig Taborn and Antonio Sanchez—before the record was done.

AAJ: You did a bunch of records in a row. There aren't too many bass players that have that kind of opportunity. Is that something you want to do more of, or want to keep doing? Has that been a goal of yours, to not just play with other folks?

SC: I like the process both ways. I like interpreting other people's writing and collaborating with people. But I also like to write. I like to mix the two. I would like to do more writing. But it doesn't necessarily change the way I approach the music once I go to play it. I'm still thinking of it as a collaboration, either way. It's doesn't necessarily change the way I approach playing, whether it's my record or somebody else's record. I'm still thinking in terms of texture, what's needed at a certain moment, whether I feel the need to lay something down as a groove or play something melodic, or what. I still think of it the same way.

AAJ: Is it harder as a bassist to get to lead projects like that?

SC: It's just different. If there's something that I really want—say cue a different section with a musical cue—I'll think about it from how I might structure it as a bassist. But it does take definitely a lot of faith in those that you're playing with, if they're playing the melody and I'm playing the bass role. It's important to structure it how you see the individuals respond to it. Generally, I'll write the music and have a specific idea of how I want it to go. But then when I go to play it, I abandon some of that and allow individuals to explore things in a way that they hear them. Generally, I'll be pleasantly surprised. It's kind of a release. You have a certain idea how it's supposed to go, but once you go and do it you hope that they'll surprise you somewhere.

During the process of recording and working on stuff I ask a lot of questions of the individuals I'm playing with, different ways to approach it, just to get different ideas. Because the people that I play with, everybody involved in the project, are good friends and good musicians. I very much value their thoughts and input.

Music Versus Sound

AAJ: The disk has a lot of different sounds. You're not thinking in terms of mainstream or swing. Do you even think in terms of jazz, or more in terms of sounds? I know you want the improvisation there. Do you say, "I'm making a jazz record?

\SC: No, not at all. Obviously my background comes from a lot of experience in that area, but I listen to a lot of different kinds of music. From my standpoint, I listen to a lot of different music and I like to allow different elements to come in as they will. The things that I listen to today, the things I've listened to in the past, the emotions and experiences I'm having today, I want to be reflected somehow in the music. Especially when I'm sitting down to write something, having ideas about structure, I want to abandon those labels. At least in my mind. Other people can put them on. That's fine. But for me, I don't think in those terms.

AAJ: What do you think of the final product?

SC: I'm off to some new projects. But I'm very pleased with it. In terms of the overall structure, I did make some changes, but when I wrote the music I had a pretty clear idea of what the sequence should be—especially how it would begin and end—and then some of the things in the middle moved around after we had played it some. I really like the way it's come out.

It's the second record that I've done where I actually had the time to structure it in a way that I think a recording should be done, in terms of conceiving of the music, deciding who was going to be involved, taking the time to write the music, then touring with the music; kind of digesting it, working with it, then recording it, rather than the other way around. Frequently, we end up doing two or three rehearsals, getting to the music, then you record it, then you go on tour. Then you start to discover new things about the music which you would have played on the recording.

With this record, I feel—especially in terms of the compositions that have odd meters, 15 and 9 and metric things going on—in terms of the rhythm section with Antonio and Craig Taborn and I—we were able to figure out a lot of things before we went to record. I think that comes through on the record. Especially with those guys, because they're so incredible with any kind of odd forms. They create so freely on difficult forms.

AAJ: I think that concept comes off very well.

SC: I also wanted to mention that David Binney produced the record with me and he made an incredible contribution to it. That's very evident on the record. Especially in terms of texture and some of the collage things too. Working with him is always great because we've known each other for such a long time. I trust him so much. Musically, he knows what my aesthetic sense is too. It was a really great help to have him involved.

AAJ:You guys always seem to be on the same page with everything that's on there.

SC: One of the surprises that came from the record was when I was doing Andrew Hills' "Smoke Stack, because he did it with two bass players and he's a pianist. I decided to go with two piano players and a bassist, and I'm a bsas player. I knew it would work out, but one of my favorite moments on the record is hearing Craig Taborn and Jason Moran play together.

Beginnings Part II

AAJ: Is the bass the first instrument that you liked, or did you play something else first?

\ SC: Acoustic bass was my first instrument. I started playing when I was eleven and was in the elementary school orchestra. I played for a while, then I got bored; the parts they were giving me weren't too challenging. I kind of picked it up again when I got into junior high school on Los Angeles. Eagle Rock High School was where I went to school. I had a great band director named John Rinaldo who kept an amazing jazz program going there despite the cutbacks in Los Angeles at the time. So I got an early opportunity to play in some small groups and a lot of big band jazz from the time I was thirteen. I studied with Monty Budwig, who was a great teacher out there, a great player and friend. From there, I went to Cal Arts [California Institute for the Arts].

AAJ: The music on the radio in those years wasn't jazz. Did you also absorb a lot of pop and rock music of the '60s and '70s, or were you tuned into jazz?

SC: I kind of discovered the different elements of pop music later, strangely enough. I'm a jazz purist. My older brother is a drummer. He would give me a lot of albums to listen to. People who I was playing with at the time would give me a lot of records to listen to. So my early learning was completely by ear.

When I was thirteen, I started working two nights a week at this club in Pasadena. I had that job for three years. The older musicians would say, "Here's some records. Learn these songs by next week. Each week I had better learn those songs [chuckles]. It was a great experience for me because I learned to play by ear. When I was sixteen and seventeen, I started to understand theoretically what I was doing. I realized harmonically and rhythmically if I was going to take the next step, I needed to begin to understand what was going on. Not only the bass, but every instrument and how they interact, and about arranging and composing stuff. That didn't come until later. But that way of learning early on and relying on your ear from the beginning was an important step.

AAJ: Who are some of the bass players that you liked?

SC: One of my favorites was Paul Chambers at that time. Oscar Pettiford. Charles Mingus. I was kind of a purist until I heard Jaco [Pastorious] live in concert, right after the Heavy Weather (Columbia, 1977) record [Weather Report]. It made me realize that there's a lot of music out there. I was kind of keeping myself from exploring, because I had this idea it was only a certain era of music that I was interested in. I still really love the stuff I listened to when I was thriteen. And I still listen to it today. But from listening to Weather Report and Ornette Coleman's classic quartet, my tastes just kind of expanded out from there. It's still expending, hopefully.

AAJ: California Institute for the Arts is where Charlie Haden was.

SC: Charlie's still up there sometimes. I'd gone up there just because Charlie was there. I didn't know anything else about the school. They had just started the jazz program. I wasn't really planning on going to school. I just wanted to go out and play. But I'd loved Charlie's playing for so long I went up there. From there, I realized all the things that the school has to offer. Music from all over the world. Composition. For the first two years there, I didn't play that much with the jazz department. It was an incredible place for me at that time.

AAJ: You were probably playing in clubs during that time. Was there any gig that really got you involved in the scene, or was more important than others in your career?

SC: I played a fair amount with Jimmy Rowles, which was pretty incredible, because he had such a knowledge of standards. He had this incredible way of voice leading. Even if he knew that I didn't know a song, the way he would play and set up the chords, I could play songs that I'd never heard of before. It sounded like I knew what I was doing. [chuckle] His voice leading and the way he did things was so logical. When he wanted, he could lead me around. It was an incredible experience.

There were a lot of musicians, but somewhere in the middle, my third year at Cal Arts, I auditioned with Carmen McRae and started touring with her. That's when I moved to New York. I was still working with Carmen, touring. Somehow I managed to finish Cal Arts, but I'm not really sure how [chuckles].

New York and Carmen McRae

AAJ: What was the experience with Carmen ['86-'90] like?

SC: It was amazing. Especially in terms of ballad playing and her patience with a lyric or melody was really amazing. It opened up a lot of things for me. From her I met Clifford Jordan and started playing with him. Art Farmer. A short tour with Dizzy Gillespie that we did. Some other people. When I moved to New York I had a little bit of work with different people.

AAJ: How was New York when you first got there?

SC: Initially, it was kind of disappointing. [chuckles] In terms of the energy and everything it was incredible. I was running around listening to all the music I could hear. In terms of new music, it was kind of the height of the "young lion phase and what was going on at that time. It had the feeling of being fairly conservative in scope. I think that has changed dramatically. I think the musicians involved in that have changed dramatically for the most part. Now I feel much more encouraged by what's going on in New York. Maybe it's just my perspective, but it seems to me that there are a lot of people writing interesting music from all over the world. To me, that's really exciting. It's the reason why I came to New York.

A lot of the people that I met at that time that I were drawn to were Dave Binney, Adam Rogers, Bill Stewart, Chris Potter and Brian Blade. So many other musicians that I still play with today were people that I was drawn to the first month that I moved to New York. They are still people that I will occasionally do projects with, back and forth.

I think it's a really interesting time to be in New York.

AAJ: It was really getting structured for a while, a matter of, "how much can you play for a while.

SC: There were distinct cliques of musicians. There was the old Knitting Factory and that thing. Then there was the more conservative element that was getting a lot of press at that time. That was my perception at that time. Now there seems to be a lot more interaction between different genres, the way people interact and the way people think about music. I think now perhaps younger listeners, people growing up in the '90s and '80s, have listened to lots of different kinds of music, so when they go to a performance that has a lot of different elements, they're kind of used to it. I'm not sure that was the case then.

From my standpoint, I see a real sense of community among musicians. There's openness for a lot of ideas. I think that's the key to creating interesting music and music that's relative to what's happening in the time you're living; to be open to what's going on and to be open to ideas and search for new possibilities.

Herbie Hancock

AAJ: That's kind of what you express on your record. Different things, not all of it from wood-shedding, but from other things. What was it like being with someone like Herbie Hancock, who is an icon?

SC: He's obviously one of a kind. He embodies a lot of the stuff we're talking about in terms of openness. Working with Herbie, I don't think he ever said anything specifically like how to play a certain thing. A lot of the structures that we would work on were very opened-ended, and we would all contribute to different parts of the material of the music and work on it together. It was very much a collaboration working with him. From the very beginning, I jumped into a trio with a relationship between him and Terri Lynne Carrington that was musically really strong, with an approach to rhythm that was very elastic and breathed. To determine what my place was in the music, you're kind of going, "Should I lay it down, or should I play in an open way?

It ended up being a lot of both. He would not say anything, but "Sound great. Or he'd go, "Did you like it when I did this, or did you like it when I did this. He comes from Miles [Davis] and Wayne [Shorter] and that approach, which is that it's up to you to find yourself in this music. It's up to each individual to determine that. He's very patient that way. He'd rather hear you explore new things and mess up than to try and play the same thing each night really cleanly. That might sound great as a show, but it's not really exploring the music. He was great in that way.

Current Projects

AAJ: What kind of projects are you involved in now, besides just getting this new music out?

SC: I'm getting ready to tour with a new trio, a European tour in March. That's Mark Turner, Antonio Sanchez and I. After that I'm hoping to do some work with this band that recorded [his new CD]. I'm not sure if we'll tour with the whole group. Probably not with two pianos. And starting to think about what the next record is going to be.

AAJ: Probably not something you're rushing into. Something you're ruminating on?

SC: Trying to ruminate, yeah. [laughs]. Attempts to ruminate. We'll see what that's going to be. I'm not really sure yet.

AAJ: Does the state of the business ever bother you?

SC: It's challenging. It's perspective. I'm not really sure if it's better or worse than it used to be. Aside from the music and really expanding on the music, the aspect of business and logistics for me can be very challenging. Especially being a bassist and trying to travel. But I've been very fortunate. I've hooked up with a lot of great musicians who care about ... I'm drawn to people who musically are interesting, but I also travel with people who've become my friends over the years. With that, people want to take care of each other.

When you're in a situation in a band or a collaborative project where everybody cares about everybody else—not just their own needs but what everybody needs—a lot of good things can happen. It's a very difficult thing to try and get this music out there. If you can get in situations where everyone involved is really trying to make it happen, then it helps a great deal. A sense of community.

I have the great fortune to have a wonderful wife who also has a music management company, so I get little bits and pieces of advise. A lot of that is more from a therapeutic standpoint. It's a difficult business to negotiate for sure, because it's not really that clear cut on so many levels.

Final Thoughts

AAJ: We talked about bass players earlier. But compositionally, or other players who aren't bass players, who are ones that you've leaned from, enjoyed or were influenced by?

SC: For a long time I haven't really listened to bass players much, especially in terms of solo ideas or melodic ideas. I tend to listen to a lot of horn players, or piano players who don't have same types of physical limitations that there are in the bass, and try and take those and figure out how I can play them on the bass, or at least imply that I'm playing those ideas. The instrumentalists that are able to play broader harmonies. That's something I've thought about for along time is to try to create solos or melodic ideas that don't sound too much like a bassist played them.

On the other hand there are bassists that, from a compositional standpoint, I really enjoy. Dave Holland's work. Ben Allison, I think is an excellent composer. You look at composition as being a bassist, but studying harmony and rhythm and trying to use the background of being a bassist—the strength—but I also try and create compositions that don't sound, hopefully, like they were written by a bassist. The function or freedom or texture I'm trying to create in a particular moment ... again, I want to be something that comes from what I feel needs to come at this moment, rather than it should be this way.

Selected Discography
Scott Colley, Architect of the Silent Moment (Cam Jazz, 2007)
Donny McCaslin, Soar (Sunnyside, 2006)
Alex Sipiagin, Returning (Criss Cross, 2005)
Adam Rogers, Apparitions (Criss Cross, 2005)
Jim Hall, Magic Meeting (ArtistShare, 2004)
David Binney, South (ACT, 2003)
Andrew Hill, Day the World Stood Still (Stunt, 2003)
Scott Colley, Initial Wisdom (Palmetto, 2003)
Chris Potter, Traveling Mercies (Verve, 2002)
Greg Osby, Symbols of Light (A Solution) (Blue Note, 2001)
Scott Colley, The Magic Line (Arabesque, 2000)
Scott Colley, This Place (Steeplechase, 2000)
Scott Colley, Portable Universe (Freelance, 2000)
David Kikoski, The Maze (Criss Cross, 1999)
Andrew Hill, Dusk (Palmetto, 1999)
Scott Colley, Subliminal (Criss Cross, 1998)
Tim Ries, Imaginary Time (Moo, 1997)
Pat Martino, All Sides Now (Blue Note, 1996)
T.S. Monk, The Charm (Blue Note, 1995)
Roy Hargrove, Approaching Standards (Jive/Novus, 1994)
Chris Potter, Concentric Circles (Concord, 1993)
Jon Gordon, Jon Gordon Quartet (Chiaroscuro, 1992)
Fred Hersch, Forward Motion (Chesky, 1991)
Carmen McRae, Any Old Time (Denon, 1986)
About Scott Colley
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