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Scott Colley: Staying In The Moment

Mark Sullivan By

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I’m talking about power of an idea and…what is the best way, for me, as a bass player in this moment to work within the group and make it the most powerful statement possible. —Scott Colley
Bassist Scott Colley was involved in three of the most well attended performances at the 2015 Detroit Jazz Festival: the Pat Metheny Trio with guest Kenny Garrett on opening night; the Pat Metheny/Gary Burton Quartet Reunion on Saturday night; and the grand closing performance featuring the North American premiere of Pat Metheny's "Hommage" to Eberhard Weber on Monday night. Our conversation ranged from lessons learned from early mentors, to the bass role in jazz ensembles, to working on "Hommage."

Metheny's "Hommage"

Scott Colley: Pat did an incredible job because it's a really really challenging concept that he created... using this solo video from the '70s of Eberhard and combining that with a large ensemble with the horns and then in a way, the rhythm section was kind of a link to it. And so there was a fair amount of preparation to really understand the piece for me, because I'm kind of linked to a click track that moves with Eberhard because he's playing solo—as we were talking about with time, when you're playing solo, it's elastic and there are certain liberties that you take—so Pat had to really link the movement so that the rhythm section could kind of be the bridge between Eberhard's video and sound and the orchestra. And so that's—through a lot of that—that's kind of my role. And then the trading part was really intense to do. And live, especially, because Eberhard is sitting onstage [at the World Premiere]. (laughs)

It was amazing when we did it in Germany because he's such an amazing guy and he's been so influential on the bass through the years and to have him just sitting there onstage and then I look up and there's a 50-foot version of him standing behind me playing. And then we're trading ideas...it's one of those things, once it starts it just goes. You just have to...there's no turning back. It's really an intense experience to do it.

All About Jazz: Did you have a clip of that portion of it with a click track and his playing so you could work with it a little bit?

SC: Kind of a mock horn arrangements and with Eberhard's audio and then versions of it, I'd get versions of it with and without the click. And experiment with different things to see what I could use to make it work. And Pat's amazing at organizing that kind of thing to make it—when you hear it, it's kind of seamless to me.

When Pat mentioned it to me, I was like, wow, really? Okay, how're you gonna pull this off? He said I got this idea. I said okay, you know, so we spent some time at Pat's place and went over and he gave me some things... So a lot of it you can read it but that only give you a touch of the, just a bit of the information. Really, what it takes is listening to it a lot, so that you hear the phrases as they move and are able to adjust to them. And so that it connects.

AAJ: So is there a transcription of Eberhard's parts in the score to refer to?

SC: Not so much, no. Obviously the unison lines that I have with Eberhard...he's playing some parts where we're playing unison, some where I'm playing an octave below or I'm accompanying him. Then I'll see those parts. But then a lot of the other things are just kind of moving with the click tracks. So it's a challenge. You use kind of different parts of your brain, the creative part and the mathematical—how to move through the piece and knowing when you can elaborate on something and when something needs to be very very specific. And that's true in any music that I play, in a way. You know, when you have a bass role that has a function and even in my own writing I really don't want to create music that sounds like it's always written by a bassist. I want it to be, because I love the function of the bass. However a lot of times I like to get inside the melodic things. A lot of...those are the things I experiment more with my trio recordings or other stuff, that's less orchestrated...to me approaching a project like this is not much different from any other thing. You find what the role is and what is going to give the music the most power. And not in terms of volume. I'm not talking power in that way. I'm talking about power of an idea and how...what is the best way, for me, as a bassist in this moment to work within the group and make it the most powerful statement possible. And that could be playing something very simple. And at times on this piece of Pat's, something very simple, and at other times it could be very elaborate or you're all into the melody with everybody else or up in the horn range or something like that. So it's just finding those things and then just thinking compositionally. When is it time to jump in and mix it up and when is it time to just have some resolution with some solid bass function. So that's what I think about in any musical situation.

Charlie Haden & CalArts

"[Students] kind of get both ends of the spectrum of conceptual and technical at the same time and then plus an incredible world music program at CalArts [The California Institute of the Arts]... It's grown and grown and grown... They're doing a tribute to Charlie coming up this fall. And his influence on every aspect of my life in music was really profound. Everything. The time that I spent with him and even after I left CalArts, the help that he gave me when I went to New York and connecting with people. Actually I think it was through Charlie that I met Pat and I have been playing with Pat off and on for, since then, twenty years. We've done a lot trio stuff together—mostly trio. In the States and Europe...through Charlie then I met Pat and was introduced to Jim Hall, who was another great mentor of mine and I played off and on with Jim for twenty years also. So it all kind of stems through Charlie in a way."

"You remind me of this story—Charlie was, as you said, the premiere example of that concept [playing the perfect thing]. And also in his world view and in the way he was, personally and musically, but you remind me of a story. I remember when we were at CalArts, and there was a young drummer who, he took one of Charlie's lessons very literally, in that Charlie said during class, 'If you don't hear something to play, and you don't know that what you're playing can add to the music—that's going to make it more powerful or more meaningful—don't play anything.' Right? So the next day the drummer was playing on someone else's senior recital, and didn't play (laughs). Just sat at the drums. I don't know how many songs he sat through—and they had rehearsed all this material and I remember him just sitting there, really thinking about what Charlie had said. I don't think the saxophonist, or whoever's recital it was, was too happy about it."

"But Charlie was amazing, just a great storyteller, and loved jokes. The corniest jokes were his favorites. He really put a premium on the conversation in the music, and what was possible when people really take chances and connect. On a real level, not just on the surface. So that was one of the greatest lessons I got from him, in a lot of ways very similar to Jim Hall and other people that I've been lucky to be around. Andrew Hill was also that way."

Lessons learned about time in jazz

"[Carmen McRae] How important that was and what an amazing experience that was for me. You know, everything that I think about in terms of pacing and patience in a melody or in a lyric, just the influence that I got from working with her was incredible. And also just just how she would...she could phrase all over but her sense of time was impeccable. So the center of if you ever listen to her play piano...that was the greatest lesson to listen to her play piano accompanying herself. Because her piano was always centered, completely centered in the time, and then her voice would just phrase behind and in front of the beat. So that taught me the most about how, from a bass standpoint, to approach that kind of situation. What that context can really mean and what gives that kind of phrasing meaning is the solidness of and the movement, the consistent movement of the underlying rhythm. And that's something that was a great lesson that I've learned."

"[Miles Davis playing ballads] ...one of the first records that I really just listened to hundreds of times was Someday My Prince Will Come. And what gives Miles' phrasing meaning is the way that Jimmy Cobb and Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers would hold this and they'd all take turns with the responsibility in different times—but there was always that consistent movement, that pulse that went through so that there was something that that phrasing could contrast against, or contrast with. It wouldn't make sense if you all just kind of floated around...but when the time is established that's a certain thing that gives the music power, that gives that phrasing real power. So when you listen to Miles play why does this work, it's because the rhythm section is doing that [establishing the time] and then he can float in that way."

Andrew Hill

"Andrew in my mind was one of the truest improvisers I've ever played with, because he was always looking for ways to make sure you were staying in the moment. If he saw some sort of formula being formed over the course of a tour—like this worked really well last night, let's do it again tonight—he would do something to change that up. He'd do something to change the form...and also playing with Andrew from my standpoint was a very elastic kind of time, moving and making sure that you didn't play in a way that kind of locked him in. Once you created an environment that was really in the moment, but moving all the time...it's hard to describe without playing some examples of how to play with him. But it was very different from playing with Gary or Pat in terms of rhythm. Because there's a certain way of creating motion and movement without actually nailing down the time, creating an openness. That was very important with Andrew. That's why Nasheet Waits and I, Nasheet was incredible with Andrew in that way,"

"In the way that you could hear, when you hear Billy Higgins play in a free setting, for example, you can hear a lot of motion and movement, but it wasn't rooted in something that would lock down the form. So Andrew could, because Andrew's mind would just move in all these different ways. And he loved to create surprises. We did a live recording at the Caramoor which was a 2000-seat theater in upstate NY, an ampitheater. We'd never played duo before. And I said as we were walking out, I didn't know what we were going to play. And I said, 'Andrew, what do you want to play?' And he said, 'I thought we'd play the Tough Love Suite.' And I'd never heard of the Tough Love Suite...later on he actually wrote a "Tough Love Suite." But at the time he hadn't written it yet. And so we went out and played for an hour and a half and there'd be bits and pieces of melodic stuff that we'd played from the sextet and from the trio that we'd been doing previously, but we just moved openly. He loved to kind of surprise you with those kinds of things and make sure...I think ultimately he really wanted to make sure that you were staying in the moment and were really present and not relying on some preconceived idea. And that can be very different aesthetic and a very different foundation than a lot of other music."

"In my own writing there's a lot of things that I like to experiment with in using that kind of openness and juxtapose it with something that could be very rooted and with very specific chord changes and movements and stuff so that there's a dissonance and resolution, you know, consonance, dissonance, and to me what really makes awakens the mind more than anything is change as it happens. And if it happens organically or if it's designed as an architect designs or as a painter designs in a certain way. So I think...for me, I like to put that in the same songs a lot of times, the openness and, so that one soloist may play over a certain structure, and another soloist over another, and then also playing with....destroying the preconception of one soloist, one person soloing at a time, having multiple people playing together over a form or no form or all the different possibilities, because we've explored them all now at this point. It's 2015—there's a lot of information, a lot of different ways of communicating. And so with the musicians that are now...so many musicians that I play with really have a great understanding of so much of the history of so-called free playing and then the history of bebop and the history of classical music and the history of this and that, we understand how all these things work. You can then find a common ground through all these different musical threads."

..."I see a lot of that [Hill's working process] in parallels with Cage, for example. I mean in the concept of having a compositional idea but then embracing chance. When two ideas collide or two ideas exist simultaneously, what happens? Or one person goes one way, one person goes the other way and then what do you do? What opens up because of that surprise? And if you embrace that surprise, that unknown, then... sometimes something much greater than the original composition can happen. This is all something that Cage talked about quite a bit and I think it's all through Andrew's music, is that there's a plan, there's a beautiful...his horn arranging and the way he would put certain voices above other voices and the way he would structure things were really incredible, so they're very compositional. But then there was always this unknown could happen and the thing about Andrew is he was never afraid that something wouldn't come out maybe as perfect or clean or whatever word you want to use, that he wasn't concerned about that kind of perfection. He was more concerned with being in the moment and if it sounded a little sloppy, that's okay, as long as you were trying something new."

"One time we were starting a set at Birdland with the sextet. I'd just been playing with him for maybe a couple of months, and we were going at Saturday night at Birdland. The club was packed; first set. And as we were walking out, he turned to the band and he said, 'Just Scott and I are going to play to start.' The rest of the band said okay and I walked out with Andrew. I didn't know what he was going to play. And he starts playing this thing. It was in a very specific key and I'm just waiting and listening. And he played and it was very obviously, and I don't know what it was to this day, he played, it had a very nice melody and it was obviously eight bar phrases and it sounded like A-A and then there was a B section, there was another A section. So I was like okay, it was 32 bars long, I'm kind of putting this thing together in my mind, it's in the key of F and it's moving like this and I'm getting the changes, so obviously the beginning comes up, and he looks up at me—here comes the beginning—and I play right at the very beginning of the next chorus. It's kind of a ballad, I play F and I hold the note. And he smiles this big beautiful smile, and stands up and walks about two tables back and sits with his wife. And you'd have to know Andrew to know what I'm talking about, but he had this way of just like 'you got it,' you know just this look of just really joy and encouragement and love. And there was no bad vibe. It was just, he wanted to see what I would do and then left me up there. About 10 minutes later I'm still playing over this theme that I don't really know and I'm going from here to there and making things up and then eventually I think I ended it by just playing this song that he wrote called "15/8." It had this very distinct bass line. Because really I don't think he would have ever come back! It was the beginning of the night. Finally I just played this—I go through all these different things I'm just kind of following threads of whatever ideas I took from his theme and then finally started this bass line on "15/8" and that brought the rest of the band in. It was my way out. But that was something that—that was his way. He was a brilliant improviser."

Leading & collaborating

AAJ: I wanted to ask you about your current ArtistShare project with the Koppel Colley Blade Collective. How's that going?

SC: Great. It's been amazing ride. We did two or three tours in Europe with the trio and some very intimate setting, you know, we generally just set up very close with no amplification or very little. And it's just something that we started with the idea because what Benjamin Koppel has his own part of the Copenhagen Festival that he sets up ten concerts in ten days in a theater, beautiful theater in Copenhagen. And so he invited Brian and I and we just decided from that point that we would try the trio because it just organically works so well. And then we did some tours and finally went into the studio and recorded. So publicly it's just being introduced as a trio but we've been doing it for about three years off and on.

AAJ: So is there going to be an ongoing thing?

SC:Yeah. Actually we're talking about..we recorded in NY where I live. We've talked about maybe doing the second recording down in Shreveport, where Brian is, and then doing another one in Copenhagen, or in Denmark somewhere. So the idea was kind of like...because also when we recorded, our families are hanging out, having a great time together...We did some things that involved some vocals with...my daughter and Benjamin's daughter and just some different experiments with sound and language. On top of just the trio, the acoustic trio, we've also experimented some with different textures. And so that's kind of an ongoing thing, so we're going to continue in 2016.

AAJ: That's good to hear. Are you planning on doing some more things as leader, or is your plate pretty full right now?

SC: It's pretty full, but I'm going to be doing some touring in 2016. However I'm still deciding on exactly what. I'm definitely playing at the Vanguard in March, and we'll be doing some touring later on, but...to the end of the year, I'm just doing some other projects.

Contributing to the group sound

SC: I'm always asking myself the question—I've said this a lot—what's the most powerful thing I can do in this situation? If it's a ballad, I'm speaking of power in terms of delivering the ballad, like we were talking about Carmen McRae and the way she was able to be very soft. Or it could be power in a different way, volume or texture. My influences are super broad in terms of things that I listen to. My influences are everybody from Paul Chambers to James Jamerson to a lot of Hendrix and James Brown or... and classical influences and all kinds of things so you find those things within your history or your background that you can bring out in different ways. Sometimes they're not overt.

You get into a certain groove and then it's like applying these influences to the acoustic bass can be a whole different thing.. It's not to really think in terms of genre when you're playing. It's just thinking of music. When I'm communicating with this large orchestra that Pat's put together, then my whole attention is spread throughout that. And through Pat's vision of what this would be. And if it's a trio setting, it's very different. So the music that we played in the last few nights—the trio stuff with Pat and Antonio—then it's a very different, using different parts of your musical background and things that you can...then when you add Gary Burton to it or Kenny Garrett, it changes everything.

AAJ: Oh yeah, absolutely, it sounded like two different groups.

SC: Yeah, it's very important to have no preconceptions about how that's going to be. It's just looking at the exact moment sitting there and listening and going, well, what's the best thing I can do. Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. Sometimes the best thing to do is something very frenetic. Sometimes it's very simple. Pat's world. So it's always looking at that. And that's the way I think of music, that's the way I think of a conversation and relationships of all kinds, musical and personal. It's all one thing. And I think that's what can bring depth to the music. And in terms of my world view it's also a very important part of what I think is really needed in this world is the attempt at that level of communication so that people can begin to really understand other ideas, other cultures, other ways of going about things. And that's something that's a constant lesson for music for me.

But I see levels of that in Herbie Hancock and Jim Hall and Pat, you know, but it's interesting with each individual that I've been lucky to play with over time, you begin to see the connections of a person's spirit personally and how it connects to their musical process. In very weird ways. And it can be...it's not always clear in the beginning, but over time it's been one of the amazing things about having this life in music and following the thread of the opportunities that I've been given to play with these great musicians. And then you learn certain fundamental things that one person holds. It's really crucial. And one person's music is not in another's. And for me to have an identity hopefully through my own playing that I can adapt and move. And that was a great lesson from watching Charlie through all the different things that he was doing when I was at Cal Arts was amazing. Playing his stuff that he was doing at the time with Liberation Music Orchestra with Pat's Song X and Ornette and Hampton Hawes or you hear him in all these different settings, and right away you know that's Charlie Haden.

However, the settings are so different, you list Song X and then Hank Jones duo. I mean, it's Charlie in both settings, from the first note you hear. However he's able to adapt that. And that's really communication that I strive for, that kind of depth.

But to me it's all collaboration...If I write the music or somebody else writes the music, I'm not going to change the way I play. Once I write a bunch of music for a band and then I'm playing it, I am the bassist. I'm one of the individuals of that band. And that's the way I always think about it. So if I have five musicians, I've written all the music, I may have certain ideas about how the structures are going to go and I'll communicate that as best I can, but my function in it is not going to change.

AAJ: Yeah, otherwise you might as well be overdubbing all the parts.

SC: Yeah, right. I'm looking for those surprises to happen, for those things...if I write something for Bill Frisell, for example, or Ralph Alessi, on the last record, like write something and then all of a sudden they play it completely different, but I wrote it for them but all of a sudden what they come up with is really different than what I...I'll sit back and listen to it and for a long time before I say, "Wow, maybe that's much better than I conceived" (laughter)... the surprise is even though I wrote it for a certain individual, it can be very...I mean, you know, if you're open to that. And there's also a lot that happens to a composition in the process of playing and recording it. And it's not just done when it's recorded either. It's still moving and changing. That's the way with all my writing. It's still a living composition that can change depending on different individuals that I might play the music with, or over the course of a tour with the same musicians, how we approach it to see how we can surprise each other and. It is possible, I've played with people who can lock that down and make it so those possibilities don't exist. And to me that's not that interesting. Because those surprises can be the best part of music.
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