Best of birthdays to bass master Scott Colley, who turns 54 today. For the occasion, here’s my liner notes for his 1998 Criss Cross CD, subliminal…, in which Scott spoke at length about his background, influences and aesthetics.
On subliminal…, his Criss-Cross debut, Scott Colley and a world-class quartet present a seamless, suite-like program of music that has the quality of wide-ranging conversation, at once animated and reflective. “I knew from playing in trio with Bill Stewart and Chris Potter that it doesn’t matter what material we’re playing because they’re such experienced improvisers,” notes the 34-year-old bassist. “We’ve done things with no preconceived forms whatsoever, and I know it will work. I can hear their sounds while I’m writing, which makes me feel free to experiment with my compositions. When I’m composing it’s important for me to have specific musicians in mind.”
Of Potter, a tenorist of uncanny chops and rampant imagination currently with Dave Holland’s band (his litany of credits is now too long to list), Colley says: “I have very strong feelings about Chris’ playing. I’m impressed with his directness, his ability to focus which allows him to get incredibly deep into a tune, and in that way it’s challenging to play with him. Here he explores a lot of different sounds from the horn, using the extreme range of the instrument, changing timbre constantly.”
Of Bill Stewart, a keenly textural drummer of emphatic beat whose rhythmic palette encompasses delicate watercolors to action painting, Colley continues, “As much as Bill can stretch the form and execute polyrhythms in different ways, his playing is very intricate and precise. He’s aware of exactly where he is in the form all the time. His focus is amazing. It’s almost like turning on and off a light switch; when he starts playing, it’s there.”
Of pianist Bill Carrothers, with whom Colley first played a few weeks before the recording, the bassist remarks: “I’m impressed with Bill’s ability, while playing changes, to voice them completely different on every chorus; he’s very present, hears the solos, hears everything that’s going on, and adapts his voicings accordingly. He’s obviously very influenced by 20th Century Classical Music. The first night I played with Bill we played a Bill Stewart ballad that I hadn’t played before, and he did what I described. I soloed, started to pick notes outside of the written chord changes, and he’d immediately incorporate those into his voicings.”
It all boils down to listening for the California native — on the most subliminal level. That’s how he began. “A lot of my early experiences were playing by ear,” Colley recalls. “At 13 I began playing two nights a week at a jam session in Pasadena. The older musicians would give me records and tell me which songs we were going to play next week. I’d take, say, the song ‘Old Folks’ from Miles Davis’ Someday My Prince Will Come, which was one of my favorite records at the time. I’d play Miles’ solo over and over, then play along with Paul Chambers’ bass lines and try to arpeggiate the inner voices, figure out on piano exactly what was going on. That turned out to my benefit, because I had to rely on my ear. It wasn’t until later that I realized what I was doing theoretically. Learning music in this way teaches you the importance of musical conversation. If all you have is the paper, and you’re learning chord changes by sight, you’ll understand the theory, but you don’t gain the feeling, and your ear doesn’t develop. There’s so much inflection in the way all these great musicians play, and that’s what you really want to get to.”
Colley’s been a professional musician ever since. “I did the jam session for three years,” he recalls. “I would play there until 1, then from 2 to 4 I often went to a place called the Espresso Bar, playing behind poets, duos or trios. From 16 to 18 I played duo gigs around L.A. with Jimmy Rowles. He would never tell me what he was going to play; he’d just do it. I learned song after song that way. He was a beautiful player and a great composer.
“At 13 I started studying with Monty Budwig, a very giving teacher, a great influence. He was playing with Zoot Sims and many other players, and he’d take me to L.A. clubs like Donte’s and Carmelo’s. The lessons were all-day sessions where we’d listen to records, he’d give me records to take home; we’d play classical duets and then jazz standards. I was studying particularly Mingus, Paul Chambers, Scott LaFaro and Charlie Haden. Mingus I loved very early on in terms of structure, composition, the variety of sounds and textures he used, the incredible orchestrations, the power of the music — and so much conviction. With LaFaro, it was his fluidity, melodic sense, and incredible facility, which blows you away at 13 years old — and still does. I spent a lot of time playing along with Paul Chambers’ solos, which were complete, easy to follow, very direct and beautiful.
“I was really kind of a purist until my older brother, who is a drummer and was always trying to turn me on to different styles of music, took me to see Weather Report during their Heavy Weather period. It was one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever seen. Seeing Jaco Pastorius play made me realize that there was so much other stuff out there other than the straight-ahead types of jazz that I’d been listening that I had no idea about.
“Later, at 16 or 17, I listened to a lot of Ornette’s music, and Charlie began to influence me. He had the same qualities of simplicity and beauty that I appreciated in Paul Chambers. More than that, I was impressed by his patience. He never plays anything superfluous; you get the feeling every note is exactly what he means. The ’70s was a bleak period for recording for bass. Everybody was using direct-from-the-pickup, losing a lot of the beauty of the instrument’s natural sound, but Charlie never seemed to succumb to that. His sound has so much integrity; it’s so much part of what he plays. Like Jim Hall, who I’ve worked with in the last few years, he’s a true improviser, with no preconceptions of what’s going to happen next, reacting to everything going on within the group in the atmosphere of that moment.
“I didn’t take high school too seriously, but I finished, though I didn’t plan to go to college. Then I heard that Charlie was teaching at California Institute of the Arts, so I auditioned. They were just starting a jazz department, and they gave me a full scholarship in 1984. It was a great experience. I became totally involved in the school’s incredible World Music program, which included traditional African music, Javanese Gamelan from Indonesia, North and South Indian music. There are classes on theory related to those different musics, and ensembles you play in. They also had a wonderful faculty.”
In 1986, Colley began touring and recording with Carmen McRae; two years later he received his Bachelors of Music degree, and moved to New York City. He became one of New York’s busiest bassists, working and recording with musicians representing a 360̊ style spectrum — Dizzy Gillespie, Art Farmer, Clifford Jordan, James Newton, John Scofield, Joe Henderson, Fred Hersch, Billy Hart, Mike Stern, Roy Hargrove, T.S. Monk, Phil Woods, Pat Martino, Chris Potter, Tim Berne, Lost Tribe, and many others. He leads Portable Universe, a sextet, and is involved in Lan Xang, a new collective quartet.
subliminal… is Colley’s third 1998 release. He can’t quite put his finger on what triggered this burst of composition after ten years blending as the penultimate sideman. “I’ve been writing more, and feel it’s time to do more of my own music,” he says. “The process of recording solidifies your concept. It forces you to get specific about the pieces you’re creating. I’ve done more than 60 CD’s in the last eight years, and I’ve been fortunate to play with a lot of great leaders, to observe how it’s done right.”
subliminal… opens with Bill Stewart’s “Don’t Ever Call Me Again,” a 24-bar tune in 6/4 “with a 4/4 bar in there somewhere. I like the way the melody is offset from the rhythm, starting two beats before the bass line begins. It’s interesting to play on.”
Colley’s compelling title track “was written on the bass. I like to compose that way because I hear a lot melodically that I don’t hear on the piano — it’s a much more open voice for me. It’s a challenging line, with the A-section in 9/2 and the B-section in 3/4. We solo over the 9/2 form, and play interludes between the solos.”
Potter’s burgundy bass clarinet tone is rich and blended throughout “The End and the Beginning,” a mysteriously wistful Colley ballad that evokes complex emotion. It’s followed by Potter’s “Turangalila,” inspired by the reedman’s meditations on a composition of Messaien. “Chris wrote it out with no changes per se,” Colley says. “The improvising is free. It has a bass and tenor melody in unison. It’s very open, and points you in a direction that lets you play very freely with the ideas.”
Carrothers’ chromaticism and Potter’s huge tenor sound bring Colley’s slow-medium ballad “Out of The Void” vividly to life, then the band plays Charlie Parker’s “Segment” with inspired idiomatic heat. Bill Stewart’s solo at the top “really illustrates his ability; no matter how abstract his ideas might be, the form is always there — it always comes back to one.” Potter’s rhythmically free tenor solo conjures the ghost of Bird ascending, while Colley walks with the confident assertion he imbibed from the playing of Leroy Vinnegar and Paul Chambers years ago.
Colley offers some thoughts on the nature of love with “Is What It Is,” utilizing the familiar changes and “adding a couple of notes. I like writing over forms I already know that everybody’s done for a long period of time, creating different melodies that give you new things to play over.”
“Impossible Vacation” contains 10 bars of 4/4, 11 bars of 3/4, and 4 bars of 4/4. “Playing freely over this piece so that it doesn’t seem like you’re marking time is a challenge,” Colley notes. The proceedings conclude with “Verbatim,” a spirited blues.
“I think a lot about contrast in general,” Colley concludes. “Rhythmic contrast, harmonic contrast; thinking about what’s come before a composition when you’re setting it up. It doesn’t have to be complex. Jimmy Rowles, for example, would write a simple chord progression, then place one note in the melody to offset it, like ‘Peacocks’ or ‘502 Blues.’ Those kind of compositions interest me. Also I get bored very easily, so I like music that has a wide range of textures — playing on changes, playing on no-changes, playing on a melody, playing in 4 or 7 or 9, different instrumentations.
“I want to be involved in a lot of different music. Some music might speak to me melodically, some rhythmically, some intellectually. If I’m playing with Jim Hall one night, with Andrew Hill the next, and something more groove-oriented like Lan Xang the next, it just feeds a different part of me. It’s all music I listen to, and absorb in different ways. Essentially I have my style, whatever that is, and I can subtly adapt it for many different things. I don’t think of music in terms of ‘this is inside and this is outside’ or ‘this is new music and this is old music.’ It’s more inclusive. It comes back to listening. When you’re listening to what’s really going on and not thinking about what you think is supposed to be going on, then you get to the root of what it’s about.”