For Scott Colley, the lines separating bass playing, composition, and improvisation are blurred. “Once a composition hits the page, that’s just the beginning,” he says. “Those are the seeds of what’s possible. Everything else after that is spontaneous composition. A song is living as long as we continue to play the tune, work with it, change it, and manipulate our musical options.”
Colley cruises the upper echelon of the jazz scene. The ultimate bass sideman, he has worked with everyone from Jim Hall, Chris Potter, and John Scofield, to Herbie Hancock, Roy Hargrove, and Michael Brecker. Also a noteworthy bandleader, Colley has delivered several critically acclaimed albums in the past two decades.
In 2017, Colley juggles a foursome of collaborative projects. At a recent workshop at the Conservatorium Maastricht in Holland, I talked with Colley about how he learned to play the bass, his work with the masters of jazz, and his current bands.
What is your goal when you compose and play music?
Music is never either only cerebral or visceral; it’s always a combination. Even when I listen to The Rite of Spring, where I hear a lot of intellectual structures, it still creates something within me that’s a feeling—a groove. When I’m writing and playing music, I want it to appeal on both levels—cerebral and visceral.
You’re involved in several cooperative projects. Are you the bandleader in any of these groups?
“Current” is the name of my band; I formed it in April 2016 when we played at the Village Vanguard. I waited until after we played a week together to start writing, so I could hear the bandmembers’ individual strengths.
Tell us about your other co-led groups: KCB, Steel House, and your group with saxophonist Joshua Redman.
I started a band with Joshua, Ron Miles, and Brian Blade called “Still Dreaming.” The concept is based on a group called Old And New Dreams, originally with Charlie Haden, Dewey Redman, Ed Blackwell, and Don Cherry. We play some of the music of the band Old And New Dreams, plus some new music that we’re all writing. Joshua’s father was in the original band. When Joshua and I played at the Charlie Haden memorial service, we came up with this idea.
KCB is a group with saxophonist Benjamin Koppel and drummer Brian Blade. We just finished our second album, and it’s an ongoing project. In the fall, we will premiere a concerto for full orchestra based around improvisations of the trio. The music for orchestra is composed by Anders Koppel, a fantastic composer, who happens to be Benjamin’s father.
Steel House Music is the new band with Edward Simon and Brian Blade. We’ve recorded an album and we’re starting to make plans for some future gigs.
You grew up in Los Angeles in the ’60s and ’70s. How did you find the bass and get your start playing jazz?
I had the benefit of my older brother’s record collection—everything from Earth, Wind & Fire to classic jazz, like later Miles Davis from the ’60s and ’70s. We were lucky to be in an area called Eagle Rock where they had a music program with an incredible band director named John Rinaldo.
Monty Budwig was a West Coast bass legend. Tell us about your lessons with him in the ’70s.
Monty’s stepson was in the high school band, and from the time I was 13, I got to study with Monty. He was a generous teacher, and my lessons would go three or four hours, and include dinner. The lesson would start with, “Have you heard this record … how about this record?” When I left, I would have a big stack of records, and he would tell me to learn certain tunes.
How did you meet Charlie Haden and eventually come to study with him?
After high school, I was preparing to go to New York, when I heard that Charlie Haden was teaching at the California Institute of the Arts. I didn’t know anything about the school, except I knew I’d get to meet Charlie if I auditioned.
I didn’t think much would happen when I auditioned at Cal Arts. But at the end of the audition, they asked, “Do you want to go to school here?” They gave me a scholarship. I was fortunate, and I was interested in everything Charlie was doing.
You also had classical lessons from Fred Tinsley, who played with the L.A. Philharmonic. How did those lessons compare to the instruction you got from Monty and Charlie?
What I didn’t realize at the time was that Fred was reworking my technique on the fundamental level. A lot of my technique was self-taught, although I had studied with Monty. Monty’s approach was more conceptual—learning standards, and learning how to listen. Same thing with Charlie—very intuitive and conceptual aspects. Fred taught me to use the weight of my body to play and get a center on the instrument. It was about how to create as much strength and relaxation as possible. He listened to what I was trying to do, and helped me figure out the best way to do that—he steered me in the right direction.
You started working with the legendary singer Carmen McRae in the ’80s while you were still in college. How did that gig come about?
My second year at Cal Arts, Carmen held auditions—which was odd, because auditions usually don’t happen in the jazz world. One thing I got right when I auditioned was that I had studied how she accompanied herself on piano when she sang. At one point in the audition, she had the rest of the band lay out for a bass-and-voice duet. She had an incredible sense of time, and she could phrase way ahead or way behind the beat with her voice. I knew I should keep the center of the beat very strong, because she would stretch the time. After I moved to New York around 1990, I was still able to tour some with Carmen.
You played many years with Jim Hall, a guitar player of enormous depth and musical maturity. What were your experiences with this jazz master?
I can’t express how important Jim’s influence has been on my music. I’m fortunate to have been able to play with him off and on for almost 22 years. What I enjoyed most about playing with Jim was his empathy and generosity of spirit. He taught me to stay silent when silence is the most powerful thing to do, and not be afraid of silence. Then, when you put something inside the space, it has much deeper meaning.
How did your work with Jim Hall differ from some of the other bands you’ve worked with?
Playing with Jim was always a surprise. No matter how many times I would explore a particular song with him, he could always come up with some direction that would be different. He could play very softly at times, and I was conscious that the range of dynamics was not reduced, it was lowered. This taught me that creating drama in music does not come from volume, but from contrast between soft and loud, sparse and dense, long and short.
Andrew Hill was a pianist, composer, and bandleader who made an indelible imprint on the Blue Note modern mainstream sound from the ’60s onward. What was it like playing in Hill’s Point Of Departure band in the ’90s?
As a composer and arranger, Andrew was a unique voice in music—the most inventive musician I’ve ever played with. He would always try to break whatever formula he thought you were setting up. He would make sure you’re in the moment and responding to what’s happening right now, rather than having something polished or sounding rehearsed. One time, we did a duo recording live at Caramore—we had never played in duo before. As they were announcing us, I asked him what we were going to play, and he said the “Tough Love Suite.” I had never heard of the “Tough Love Suite,” but we went out and he just started playing … and it became an album.
Another time we started a set, and he told the rest of the band that just the piano and bass would start. He started playing solo and played a long opening tune—just solo piano, and I was trying to figure out the form and the changes. When I played my first note, he smiled this beautiful smile, got up and walked off the bandstand over to a table and sat down with his wife. This was the first tune of the night, packed house, and we’re a sextet—but I’m the only one onstage playing a piece I had never heard before. I learned to jump into the unknown, not only in the obvious ways, but with curiosity and a sense that something is going to happen that’s very different, unique to this moment.
You also worked with Herbie Hancock, another jazz legend from the South Side of Chicago, like Hill. What is it like to play with Herbie?
With Herbie’s groups, we would have certain songs in mind, but very often we would not have any fixed sense of what was going to happen. The trio playing was very open. There was a version of “Dolphin Dance” where he opened up each section of the song for other events to happen. The key was that one of us would eventually give a cue to move on, and each section was a deconstruction of the piece. Sometimes “Dolphin Dance” would be ten minutes long; sometimes it would be the entire concert—it would take us two hours and 45 minutes just to play the one tune!
What did you learn about music from the piano masters Hancock and Hill?
Andrew and Herbie are two people who don’t think about music like most mortals do. It’s all about learning to listen and respond. How I respond on one day is different from how I would respond on another day. The key thing is to stay in the moment and be present, so that I hear everything that’s going on.
Example 1 shows Scott Colley’s composition “Don’t Rise,” from his new album 7. Colley begins the gospel-tinged ¾ piece with a strong yet subdued rendering of the melody. His tone on his vintage Andreas Morelli bass is majestic, reminiscent of his former mentor Charlie Haden. Colley spent “only a few minutes” writing the song, but the result brings forth a feel-good, lifeaffirming, peaceful ballad.
In contrast to “Don’t Rise,” “Fragment” lights the burning, post-’60s jazz fire with gasoline (Ex. 2). “Fragment” is loosely based on Charlie Parker’s bebop classic “Segment.” Colley deconstructed the bop anthem’s vibe to arrive at the new composition. “I changed ‘Segment’ into a different key, took away the melody, elongated the form, and then wrote some oddmeter sections. I love the process of taking something familiar to me, focusing on some small aspect, and drawing out something new.”
“Fragment” takes the listener on a journey, with Colley and drummer Nate Smith acting as polyrhythmic tour guides. “You can set up a compelling groove by playing polyrhythms and creating tension,” says Colley. “The decision to make when playing with someone like Nate, who has so much rhythmic knowledge, is when should we finally resolve into playing one. We can float around and play polyrhythms for chorus after chorus—and sometimes we do, just to see what happens. When we finally hit the downbeat, then the skies open up.”
Scott Colley, 7 [2017, Artist Share], Empire [2010, Cam Jazz], Architect of the Silent Moment [2006, Cam Jazz]; John Scofield, A Moment's Peace [2011, Emarcy]; Chris Potter, Imaginary Cities [2015, ECM]; Pat Metheny & Gary Burton, Hommage to Eberhard Weber [2015, ECM]; Julian Lage Trio with Kenny Wollesen, Arclight [2016, Mack Avenue]
Bass 1950s Andreas Morelli
Amps Wayne Jones preamps and speakers
Strings D’Addario Orchestra Medium
Microphone Schoeps CMC6 (with supercardioid capsule)
Pickup David Gage Realist