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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.


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