The Story of "Seven"


In the career of many a creative musician, there comes a time when life changes and new directions in sound converge and become the same discussion. Scott Colley’s most recent album Seven—in fact his eighth album as a leader—both debuts the bassist’s new quartet Current, and serves as an earnest, effective example of the personal and the musical becoming one, the album a bridge between important life chapters.

“This last decade has been a big shift for me personally, and has made me appreciate the importance of being present in the moment, in life, as well as in music,” says Colley. “In addition, this album is my goodbye to a number of people who were important to me as both guides in life and mentors: my father passed in 2011—a man with a strong work ethic, an amazing, dedicated father. The last song on the record is dedicated to him. Andrew Hill, Michael Brecker, Jim Hall, Charlie Haden, and Fred Tinsley—all were incredibly generous friends, collaborators and mentors.”

“I’m 53 now. I’m a father and husband, as well as being a creative musician, a composer and bandleader. I have a new album and a new group, and at this point, any new music has much more meaning to me—my experience of it is heightened, and I think the strength of my voice as a musician and a composer is stronger than it’s ever been. I believe its because I'm more aware and trying to be fully present, and that’s true of this project and everything else that I’m approaching.”

Today, more than thirty years after first entering the professional music world touring with Carmen McRae in 1986, and almost twenty years since his first recording as a leader (1998’s Portable Universe), Colley is a leading bassist in the field of improvised music. He is a first-call sideman for jazz heavyweights and has performed on over 200 recordings. He is as renowned for his role in groups led by well-known headliners (John Scofield, Herbie Hancock, Chris Potter, and many others) as he is for being part of all-star projects (“Still Dreaming” with Joshua Redman, Ron Miles, and Brian Blade; “Steel House” with Edward Simon and Brian Blade; and others).

Most significantly, Colley is now a leader of note, assembling his own ensembles of top-level talent; Current is the name of his new band, a quartet that benefits from the combined prowess of four musicians who have never all been in a band together yet who all share a marked innovative drive: Colley, plus trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, pianist/vocalist Kevin Hays, and drummer Nate Smith. Colley dubbed the quartet Current (“I think that’s somehow without thinking about it, this idea of being always present in the moment is what drew me to that name”) and their collective potential is the primary inspiration for this project, the first step towards their debut recording Seven.

Seven is a nine-track album bristling with the confidence of a composer of experience and renewed clarity, filled with performances that range in sentiment from atmospheric and pensive, to sinewy and funky, to hard-driving and restless. If a thread links the music throughout, there’s a contemplative, generous feel—much like an informal exchange among friends that’s also open for anyone to enter. It colors the music and labels Seven as a true group project. Colley notes that, “my last few records have definitely been more of a sonic landscape, especially [2010’s] Empire. But on this recording I really wanted to be able to explore many different textures and think of it more as a blowing record.”

It’s no surprise that the first step towards Seven was Colley’s concept of the group itself.

“When I started the project last year I had these three musicians in mind—it was very deliberate on my part,” says Colley. “From the very beginning I could imagine interacting with these three in a very organic, very powerful way. I have a lot of trust and confidence in Jonathan, Nate and Kevin—in their ability to be selfless, focused musicians, to create a conversation, and above all, to listen. Also, though I’ve played with all of them separately, and we’ve been friends for many years, they’ve never really played with each other. So there was this element of not knowing exactly what was going to happen.”

Colley’s plan was to first bring Current together to play some gigs—which they did at the famous Village Vanguard in Manhattan—and “then write some structures to frame the way that we all play together. Ultimately I wanted to point them in a general direction with my writing but in the process of making the music I wanted to become just one equal part of the quartet and approach it from my standpoint as a bass player in the group.

“I’ve always been more interested in writing music that doesn’t necessarily seem like a bass player’s record and so my role in the music doesn’t really change much whether it’s my compositions or someone else’s. To me, that’s an interesting balance: to be decisive and solid and create music that has direction, but in the process of playing the music, to step back and not control every event. That’s what brings the space and the beauty but also brings the power.” 

Seven proves Colley’s point time and again, track by track. He credits the experience and input of the three musicians he hand-picked for the project. “I started with Kevin [Hays] because I’ve known him the longest. We have a lot of history and have developed a deep trust, so it’s been incredible to hear and see his growth on all levels. We met in the first months after I moved to New York City around 1990, and started playing together right away and formed a few groups. I played on his first record. I was immediately drawn to the openness in his approach, and his amazing skills as a musician. We continued to play together quite a bit in different formats, including Chris Potter’s quartet with Bill Stewart.”

One of Hays’s talents is his singing voice, which is featured on the track “Don’t Rise”. Says Colley: “I had written that tune in about an hour, it came out pretty fast, and then Kevin asked, ‘Do you mind if I put some lyrics to it?’ I had an idea already for the title—something like “if the creek don’t rise”—and he took that idea and ran with it. I think Kevin’s got a really unique, expressive vocal sound, and I see this recently in his playing as well, a burst of new creative energy and fearless approach to his playing.”

“Nate Smith I met about 10 years ago, also through Chris. I’ve been playing with him quite a bit on different projects and he’s amazing—everything he touches feels completely organic like it’s just the right rhythm for the music, whether it’s some funk groove or something that’s swinging. The music can shift, go in any direction and he’s there, guiding it along. He also has an incredible vocabulary—this ability to improvise with any polyrhythms—and also he’s a wonderful songwriter. He’s a lot like Kevin, always putting the song first no matter what. You’ll notice certain songs on the record are about a very particular feeling or direction, and you can hear how everything they do is in support of that idea. Sometimes that means doing a great deal but sometimes it means doing very little. I really appreciate that kind of an egoless approach to the music— as a rhythm section player that’s something that drew me to both Nate and Kevin.”

Colley names Jonathan Finlayson as the relative newcomer to his circle. “I’ve known Jonathan for more than 12 years and though we never played together, I’ve been following his music through his own recordings and his playing with [saxophonist] Steve Coleman. Hearing his playing in a group I was leading was something I could really imagine. His trumpet sound is amazing with an incredible amount of control and clarity—that really warm higher register that he has. To me, it’s a very vocal sound and his choices are very unusual—that combination always drew me to his playing. He really knows how to get the sound he hears in his head and in fact I think that’s true with each of these musicians.”

Colley returns to the message behind the music on Seven, the idea that while paying tribute to the important mentors in his life, “I think about them not through sadness but a celebration of their lives—the idea that they each had this moment here and each shared their gifts with me and I can still use those memories and experiences to grow and enhance what’s happening now. I’m sure that’s what they would want me to do, and the tracks on this album are the kind of conversations I can still have with any of them.”

Seven now joins an expansive catalog of compelling recordings that constitute Colley’s recorded output, seven to date as leader. Asked about the slightly odd choice of title for his eighth studio album, Colley explains that it all came from the cover art—a photograph of an ornate clock face. “I love that image, and the idea of a clock and of being in the moment—being current, so to speak—all made sense. I’m not really particularly sure why I’m drawn to the number 7 because I don’t really believe in luck per se. Only after it was all done was I like, ‘oh sh*t, this is not my seventh record—I’ve made more records than that!’ But why let something that rational get in the way of a beautiful cover?”

Ashley Kahn 5/2017

Bassist + Composer