An Overdue Ovation for Scott Colley

"This natural, intuitive, empathic sense"

Scott Colley image 0

Scott Colley

When bassist Scott Colley, saxophonist Joshua Redman, drummer Brian Blade and cornetist Ron Miles took the stage at Jazz Standard on Jan. 12, in one of the first performances of Still Dreaming, their effervescent tribute to Old and New Dreams, it felt more like an uncanny reunion than homage. “Dewey’s Tune” and “Guinea” sat comfortably next to originals penned by Redman and Colley, yet the group handily eschewed the pitfalls of impersonating their musical forebears; the original quartet is irreproducible, but the new incarnation took its spirit and soared. The instantaneous group cohesion was no surprise. To some extent, all the players grew up with their Old and New Dreams counterparts.

On Dec. 29, during a set by the Chris Potter Trio at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Old and New Dreams’ bassist, the late Charlie Haden, loomed large-particularly when Colley quoted Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susanna” in the middle of his solo on “Sky,” the culmination of Potter’s densely orchestrated 2015 release, Imaginary Cities. With a Potter arrangement pared down from 11 to three parts but just as potent, Colley captured Haden’s striking ability to signify on pastoral Americana within an eclectic array of contexts, without ever compromising the integrity of the piece at hand, its historical backdrop or his own inimitable style.

The 52-year-old bassist and former Haden student has the same rare ability to traverse musical landscapes while maintaining his own impressionistic aesthetic, a versatility that he has applied recently to Still Dreaming and to a collective trio with Blade and Danish alto saxophonist Benjamin Koppel that released its self-titled debut last year. Colley will debut a quartet featuring trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, pianist Kevin Hays and drummer Nate Smith at the Village Vanguard in April, with an album to follow. He also appears on guitarist Julian Lage’s new trio album, Arclight, and a forthcoming album by Steel House, with Blade and pianist Edward Simon.

“I’ve always felt that Scott is one of the most musical bassists playing today. To me, he seems to have that same thing that Charlie Haden had-this natural, intuitive, empathic sense of how to bring the most out of the other musicians and the music he’s playing,” says Redman.

Old and New Dreams, consisting of former Coleman collaborators Haden, Dewey Redman (Joshua’s father), Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell, released four seminal albums between 1976 and 1987, coinciding with Colley’s formative years as a bassist; he wore out the grooves, even if he didn’t yet grasp the nuances. “It comes from a folk background, from the time when [Haden] was ‘Little Cowboy Charlie’ in his family’s band in Missouri,” says Colley, who sat down near Dizzy’s before his performance with Potter and drummer Johnathan Blake. “He brought that into Ornette Coleman’s music and then throughout his life-a sense of melody and of folk tradition. So even when the music could be considered very abstract, there was always this melodic thread that went through everything he was doing, and a sense of joy and humor.”

Old and New Dreams convinced Colley, a Los Angeles native, to apply to the California Institute of the Arts, where Haden was on the faculty. When Colley arrived, Haden was in a particularly prolific period, and while not on the road, he put theory into practice for his students, who also included trumpeter Ralph Alessi, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and pianist David Ake. “He’d bring in the lead sheets, and we did an all-Song X concert; we did [Pat Metheny’s] Rejoicing; we did The Ballad of the Fallen. It was incredible,” Colley says. “Left to his own devices, he loved to tell jokes, anecdotes and stories, but you could ask him anything. He was always a very open individual, very giving as a person and as a teacher.”

Haden often discussed his approach to tone. “He’s known for his use of space and simplicity, and for implying a lot of harmony in as few notes as possible, so sound was fundamentally important to him. And yet his technical approach was very unorthodox. It was the first time I really realized that the sound is inside the person,” Colley says. “The instrument and setup are very important, but I can even remember a day when he played electric bass in class, and it was hysterical. He put it on a stool and set it up so he could stand there as if it was an acoustic bass. He would pick up anybody’s acoustic instrument and you’d hear his sound come through. With one note, you’d go, ‘That’s Charlie.'”

Colley’s mentor gave him the foundation he needed to position himself at the forefront of a new generation that began to emerge in New York in the early ’90s. After touring with Carmen McRae, Clifford Jordan and Dizzy Gillespie, Colley graduated from CalArts in 1988 and relocated to New York, where he soon met Potter, drummer Bill Stewart, Donny McCaslin and others cutting their teeth on the jam-session circuit. This eventually led to collaborations with Joe Henderson, Jim Hall, Herbie Hancock’s Directions in Music, John Scofield, Gary Burton, Pat Metheny and Antonio Sanchez, to name a few, as well as seven albums as a leader and hundreds of recordings as a sideman.

Colley is no stranger to the harmonic freedom and added responsibility of the saxophone-bass-drums trio format, notably on his own This Place and The Magic Line. The Koppel/Colley/Blade Collective first performed in 2012 in Copenhagen, where Koppel organizes winter and summer installments of the Vanguard Festival. Koppel invited Colley, Blade, Randy Brecker and Kenny Werner to form a group at the festival, and from that performance the trio emerged. “There was a certain connectedness, a certain common focus that we had when we played as a trio that made a really interesting conversation. It didn’t really matter what we played,” says Colley. “No matter the size of the venue, we set up very close. It’s a very intimate experience of communication and being able to change direction very quickly.”

Blade has been performing with Colley for two decades. “It’s like a familiarity and knowing already existed between us,” Blade says of the Collective. “Scott is such a center point in any group that he’s a part of. He becomes that glue that you want from the bassist, rhythmically and harmonically, but it’s his ideas and spirit that ultimately just lift the thing and take it to a higher place.”

The material for Koppel/Colley/Blade Collective was largely developed on tour, but some pieces coalesced during the recording session, with each member contributing compositions and arrangements. In the spirit of the group’s multiculturalism, “Alphanumeric” is based on three alphabets recited in unison-Koppel’s daughter in Danish, Colley’s daughter in English and the latter’s friend in Gujarati. To bring this Tower of Babel into unison, each girl recited her respective alphabet to a click track at a different tempo; Colley, Koppel and Blade subsequently improvised separately over each track to create a cohesive interlocking narrative groove. “Process and improvisation, which is spontaneous composition and composition, can all live very tightly together and exist at the same time,” Colley says.

The remainder of the album avoids post-production splicing in favor of replicating the atmosphere of a live performance. Demonstrating his mastery of odd meters, Colley’s “The Seraph” transposes “Angel Eyes” into 11, with a bridge in 3. “The Smoke of Our Distraction” evolves from free improvisation over two contrapuntal melody lines. Don Cherry’s “Guinea,” taken from Old and New Dreams’ sophomore album, opens with a bass cadenza that channels Haden. “‘Guinea’ is one of the songs that I’ve been playing since I was 15 years old,” Colley says.

It was only natural to bring “Guinea” to Still Dreaming. “To approach this music with Josh, Ron, Brian and me, and it sounds corny, is a dream band,” Colley says. “I’ve been listening to this stuff for decades, so I don’t see how we can go wrong.”

Recommended Listening:

Scott Colley The Magic Line (Arabesque, 2000)

Andrew Hill Dusk (Palmetto, 2000)

Scott Colley Empire (CAM Jazz, 2010)

Koppel/Colley/Blade Collective Koppel/Colley/Blade Collective (ArtistShare, 2015)

Chris Potter Underground Orchestra Imaginary Cities (ECM, 2015)

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