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A Review of Scott Colley’s “Empire”

Scott ColleyEmpire, the latest from Scott Colley, is a very special record and must be a front runner for jazz record of the year. Colley has carefully assembled a great team of musicians to interpret his compositions. Empire builds a range of sustained moods and often intense and slow-building, burning grooves. There’s more than a hint of Americana of the kind you’d associate with Charlie Haden and Bill Frisell (a key presence here); alongside distilled melodies and incredible interplay and improvisation. Colley’s compositions create moods which are sustained and developed brilliantly by the variety of line-ups here.

I first heard bassist Colley in Bojan Z’s trio and was immediately taken with his assured sound and note placement. Of course, he’s been playing with some of the music’s heavyweights for years: Michael Brecker, Chris Potter, Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Andrew Hill and the like.

Growing up in Southern California, Colley studied with Charlie Haden and toured with Carmen McRae before heading to New York and gigs with a string of big names including Dizzy Gillespie, Jim Hall, John Scofield. The bassist has worked at length with Andrew Hill, Herbie Hancock and Chris Potter and Directions in Music (with Brecker). His own projects bear out his thoughts on music as music rather than genre.

“I’m not really interested in creating genre music,” he says. “I’m not even really that comfortable with calling my music jazz, although that’s one of my largest influences. But the great thing about improvised music is that it’s a language that allows for a individual to include anything that they’re interested in. And if you get with other musicians who also have that same openness, then anything is possible… any genre or idea can be entered into the mix. And to me that’s the most interesting part about what we do, placing the communication first before preconception so that we can make music together in a way that is unique to that particular time and place.”

Scott Colley: EmpireHis playing often features a bluesy country- or folk-like simplicity as exemplified in his solo on “For Sophia”, a special moment with its pure melodicism, and in his entrancing playing on “Speculation”, a trio track with piano and drums.

“Tomorrowland” is another highlight as Colley and Bill Frisell create a wonderful guitar/double bass duet. The combination of their tones and phrasing is exquisite. Both love to play with space and sonic texture and know how to create haunting atmosphere.

Bill Frisell is tremendous throughout Empire, especially over the record’s more airy, open textures adding some amazing sonic experimentation – he plays sounds more than notes at times. He solos to stunning effect on “The Gettin’ Place” and elsewhere, and builds remarkable textures with his exquisite imaginative accompaniments and soundscapes.

Drummer Brian Blade is simply remarkable here: superbly empathetic and sensitive, his playing is fine-tuned perfectly to the ensemble. He uses dynamics masterfully throughout and his playing adds to the inherent swing present all over the record. “5:30 am” which builds such a wide range of rhythmic feels and dynamics is a great example of his wonderful playing here.

Most of the tracks feature Ralph Alessi on trumpet and the Steve Coleman associate is a profound musical presence here. He plays with a tremendous, burnished tone on “Now What”, developing from a bitter-sweet melody to spiralling lines. His playing is rhythmically precise and often intense, proving a fabulous contrast to Frisell’s soloing at times.

“Gut” is a duet for bass and trumpet beginning with phrasing reminiscent of Kenny Wheeler, soon developing via intense rhythm dance and freeform interaction into gorgeous trumpet melodies over a bass ostinato.

Craig Taborn plays piano on four tracks adding his own unique musical presence and, like all the participants here, is keenly aware of dynamics and touch and how that interacts with and builds the music. He plays expansively on “Speculation”, building from meditative lines to a flowing intensity and with a lovely rolling feel on “5:30 am”.

The first two pieces hint at a intense almost raga-like expansiveness over burning grooves and gorgeous repeated odd meter bass figures. The opener “January” is redolent of In a Silent Way as the record begins and develops a Miles-like atmosphere of mystery only deepened by Frisell’s twanging ostinato and Blade’s light, grooving drums.

“The Gettin Place”, the second track, is stunning: again starting very quietly and gradually building with a remarkably atmospheric melody. Frisell is a wonder here and the track builds superbly before the inspired sonic mayhem of his guitar solo contrasts wonderfully with Alessi’s intricate flurries of notes. The interaction of Colley, Blade, Alessi and Frisell here makes this track an essential listen.

Given that the first two numbers develop mid-tempo grooves over bass ostinatos, the listener might expect more of the same. But the remainder of the tunes begin (at least) in ballad tempos. The relaxed assurance displayed here hints that this might become a future classic. Colley is superb throughout whether as a supple accompanist or as a deeply musical soloist and cleverly varies the combination of musicians throughout using the musicians in duos, trios, quartet and quintets

Excellent!

Preview and download Empire:

Empire Line Up:

Scott Colley – bass
Ralph Alessi – trumpet
Brian Blade – drums
Bill Frisell – guitar
Craig Taborn – piano