Drummer and composer Scott Clark has a taste for the “nerdy” sides of music and TV. Some of the music that he composes is held to the rigid structures of “Serialism” by using all twelve pitches in a repeating order. After late-night gigs with indefinable ensembles like Ilad and Glows in the Dark, along with a boogaloo/funk project called The New Belgians, he routinely chills out by watching re-runs of Star Trek at his apartment.
RVAJazz presents RVAJazzfest 2011
Saturday, April 9, 2011, 9pm
Purchase tickets online
Drummer and composer Scott Clark has a taste for the “nerdy” sides of music and TV. Some of the music that he composes is held to the rigid structures of “Serialism” by using all twelve pitches in a repeating order. After late-night gigs with indefinable ensembles like Ilad and Glows in the Dark, along with a boogaloo/funk project called The New Belgians, he routinely chills out by watching re-runs of Star Trek at his apartment. I met up with Scott in his apartment, where his own vibrant abstract painting hung above the couch in his living room, to discuss the impetus for his recently formed band, The Scott Clark 4tet, along with his thoughts on the Richmond music scene.
Educational note: “Serialism,” as it is called, had its inception with The Second Viennese School of composers led by Arnold Schoenberg in the early Twentieth century. Clark has re-imagined this exacting style with the unfastened, exuberant style of free jazz harkening back to saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s quartet of the 1960’s. Now read on!
RVAJazz: You’ve been a fixture in the Richmond jazz community for a number of years now, and you’ve got a quartet with a group of guys that have also been mainstays on the Richmond music scene: Jason Scott on saxophones, Bob Miller on trumpet and pocket trumpet, Cameron Ralston on bass, and yourself. What does each of these members bring to the group sound?
Scott Clark: All three of those guys have very unique voices, which is what makes the group work and have its own sound. Bob brings a very distinctive sound. Jason Scott is a great saxophone player, and nobody in town sounds like him, and that’s not a slam on anybody else. The same thing goes for Cameron. This is what you want when you’re starting a band. You want everybody who has a unique voice to begin with, so when you bring that together there is a collective uniqueness.
RVAJazz: And speaking of a unique voice, you formulated this band with the idea of another unique band leader, Ornette Coleman.
SC: Ornette is a big influence. I can’t say that there was one specific thing that drew me to that music, but I just knew that from the first time I heard it, I thought, “Oh my god, this is amazing music.” I remember Cameron asked me, when we first met, if I’d ever checked out Ed Blackwell, the drummer for Ornette. This was before I’d checked some of that music out. He said he heard some of that type of playing in my playing. So I went and checked it out and was like, “Yeah, OK! This is some amazing music.” It just clicked. That instrumentation of a chordless quartet is a really intriguing sound. I’d wanted to put together a band like that for a long time.
RVAJazz: And so the compositions that you’ve written here might be free jazz in interpretation, but you’ve also incorporated some twelve-tone music in that as well, correct?
SC: That’s right. Again, it’s another one of those things where some friends of mine who were going to school at JMU talked to me about these twelve-tone composers that were doing this “Serialism” stuff, which was really intriguing. So I would sit and write these twelve-tone rows in Finale [music notation software], and got really nerdy. I still have a bunch of stuff on my computer. I used to write string quartets with these strange things. I never had the intention of having people play them, but it was always just fun to listen to in Finale. I’ve been doing that for years. So I wondered if I could do this with certain rhythms that would make it sound like a swing tune or a jazz tune. And it worked! You have to be careful, because since you are only using the same row of twelve notes, sometimes you can hear it start back over. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because jazz tunes do that. They often have a head, then solos, and then you hear the main melodic stuff come back with the head. Even still we’re finding more possibilities to experiment with these twelve-tone ideas.
RVAJazz : How might you put together a piece in rehearsal with your band?
SC: I have the tunes ready and we’ll play them, but they’re pretty loose. I’ll say, “Here is the head of the song,” and we’ll take solos, and we need to figure out how to get to the end of the song. And then if anybody has an idea while playing through it, like “Maybe we should do this thing here,” we try it out. I think doing it that way is the best, because, like we said, all these guys have unique voices. A lot of times, if it comes down to a matter of doing something on the bass for example, I’ll defer to the bassist.
RVAJazz : So you trust those guys.
SC: Yeah, one-hundred percent.
RVAJazz: Tell me a little bit more about some of the gigs that you’ve had with your band leading up to your upcoming RVAJazzfest performance.
SC: Yep, there have been the Jazz at The Camel gigs on Tuesday nights. It’s been a great outlet for various bands, especially bands that are just getting started. There’s already a built in gig there, and all you have to do is make sure you get into the rotation. Reggie Chapman has also been doing The Black Hand [Sunday Series] thing. Again, it’s another gig that’s built in, and that’s open. They are free gigs so people can just come. I think it’s really conducive to what is happening. A lot of those groups that I’ve played with recently, those venues have been our first gigs. For us, we rely on having those chances to take these songs and bring them to life in a performance situation.
RVAJazz: Thankfully some of those gigs from The Camel have been recorded and are up on the blog now. It’s great that if people didn’t make it to the show, they can still hear your band on the blog.
SC: I think it’s a great thing that the RVAJazz blog is doing. Not only is it good for us in Richmond, but also for people outside of the city that have been hearing murmurs of what is happening in Richmond. There’s an outlet where you can go straight to the source, and check out what is going on. Like this is what it sounded like last Tuesday night. And they put them up online quickly. I think their goal is to have them up by the Saturday following the Tuesday event. It’s good for us so that we can go back and listen as well, and check out what worked and what didn’t, and swap out ideas.
RVAJazz: Great! In addition to your own compositions that you feature in your band, you’ve got some other repertoire by other composers as well?
SC: Yep, we do one tune by a saxophonist named Fred Anderson called “Little Fox Run.” It’s a song that I actually did on my senior recital, with a different arrangement of musicians. I played a duo with Howard Curtis, and there was a bigger group that did “Little Fox Run.” [Saxophonist] Darius Jones played on it, and Cameron was actually on it too. So it is just one of those songs that I thought would be great to hear Jason and Bob play that way. Completely with a free energy. People have been really receptive to that tune, which is the opposite of what you might think. It can turn off people in the wrong setting, in all honesty. We wouldn’t be doing that tune at some restaurant like Ruth’s Chris or something.
RVAJazz: [laughs] Or a wedding.
SC: That’s right. But when you’re playing a gig especially like that, where people come to hear that sound, I think that tune works really well for us. Fred Anderson is a big influence on me, as well as a lot of the Chicago free jazz scene. The late 1960’s, the whole AACM movement that was going on. I was fortunate that Howard Curtis turned me on to all this stuff when I was at VCU. When I was there at first, I didn’t really know anything about it. I had always been attracted to lots of weird music, and various types of non-commercial radio. But he used to just bring in stacks of CD’s, and we’d take a whole lesson where we’d listen to this stuff. That was when Tower Records was still here, and Plan 9 had a healthier selection of music. I would just go and buy all that stuff. I just got engulfed in that sound.
RVAJazz: Who in addition to Fred Anderson and the AACM, who else from Chicago has inspired you?
SC: Well, there’s The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Joseph Jarman, another great player Roswell Rudd. I’ve been checking out this record by a newer trumpeter named Josh Berman, who is just a great writer. It’s like new Chicago stuff. Ken Vandermark, Tim Daisy, Frank Rosaly is another great drummer, who actually came to Richmond and played when The Jeb Bishop Trio came to town and played with No BS! Brass. Jeff Parker, the guitarist from Tortoise. There is something real cool about the energy up there that seems like a different thing, and musically I feel like there’s some kind of weird connection between what is happening there and what is happening here.
RVAJazz: This might be like Chicago-lite or something.
SC: That’s right. [laughs] It seems like everybody there is playing on each other’s albums, and each other’s gigs. That is kind of what is happening here. Everybody plays on each other’s records. There are so many projects. Everybody can have their own thing, and they have a pool of friends to draw from that are equally as open minded to doing those projects.
RVAJazz: The Richmond scene does seem to be gravitating in a similar way, and creating in a similar way. So you mentioned earlier that your band was a project that you started thinking about years back, but in the midst of free-lancing with Ilad, Glows in the Dark, and The New Belgians, it didn’t come about to start the band until you got the opportunity.
SC: Yeah, actually the two songs that started the band I wrote in 2004, and I’ve been sitting on it forever. At one time, I got together with Cameron and Bob to play them as a trio, and again it fell to the back-burner while other things were happening in life. Probably a year ago now, I felt like I just want to do this, and I started to write more songs, and it came time to make the band happen. I was lucky that all those guys were super into doing it, and I didn’t have to pester anybody. As soon as I asked, they all said “Yeah, of course.”
RVAJazz: Very good! So you guys have had a few gigs now at The Camel and The Black Hand, and what is coming up for the band post-RVAJazzfest?
SC: Some more stuff in the same places, and we also play at the Commercial Taphouse maybe every six weeks or so. Those gigs are always a lot of fun. It’s a great place to play with a whole different energy. It’s funny because I used to go see Brian Jones back in the day when he played there quite a bit, and it’s funny to be on the opposite side now.
RVAJazz: Leading a band yourself.
SC: Yeah, that’s right. And I’m hoping that in May, we can record this batch of tunes that we’ve been doing, so we can document them. I also started writing some new stuff, and now that I’ve got the sound of the band in my head, I can write specifically for those musicians. Hopefully we can record sometime in May, and it won’t take forever to get the record put out. In the immediate future, that is what is happening. I’d love to be able to tour and take the band out on the road, but it’s just a matter of logistics.
RVAJazz: Yep, and keeping the costs down.
SC: That’s right. It’s hard to do when gas is over $3 per gallon, and tolls to New York are like $30 dollars or more.
RVAJazz: Yep. Is there anything you’d like to add before signing off?
SC: I’d like to say thanks to Dean for making this jazz festival possible, and the RVAJazz blog possible. All the stuff that we’ve talked about in some way relates back to the RVAJazz blog. They’re the ones putting this music up on the web. It’s a central location for the Richmond jazz scene.
RVAJazz: Definitely. It’s well promoted, and Dean has put a lot of love into the jazz community here.
SC: That’s right. He keeps it updated so people keep coming back and checking stuff out, and he comes out to shows, and there’s a presence that is a really important thing to have.
RVAJazz: Everybody has been fortunate that he’s done a lot of promo work that not every musician has the stomach for.
SC: That’s part of the game, man. That’s the dirty side of the game, which they don’t really teach you in school. Like when I go to teach younger students today, I won’t be talking about how to book gigs or get your shows listed in newspapers. They don’t care about that. They don’t see that as part of the process, but it should be talked about, because that’s our jobs. You’re going to get as far as you’re willing to work.
RVAJazz: There are two sides to being an artist: you have to be an artist, but you also have to be a businessman.
SC: Right, you have to be a businessman. Drummer Billy Williams, I think, has a business degree. He’s an incredible drummer anyway, but I’m sure he’s learned a lot from taking that path. So as you make this your career, you can see the bigger picture, and reach wider spans of people.
RVAJazz: And hopefully get gigs out of it.
SC: Ultimately that’s what it will come down to: make money, right? [laughs]
RVAJazz: [laughs] That’s right! So what other things are you doing aside from music? I’ve heard you like your late-night Star Trek viewing after the gig.
SC: I’m not ashamed of it. I’ll admit to it. You know, you get home from the gig at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, and there’s not really anything on TV except that. I’ve watched a lot of Star Trek. I think I’ve seen them all…a lot. I’m not really waiting for new episodes. [laughs] It’s a great way to un-wind after the gig.
RVAJazz: Well maybe more people will incorporate that into their wind-downs?
SC: [laughs] Yeah, it will become part of the scene. Most people will watch Sportscenter, which I will too during commercial breaks, or if there is a particularly boring Star Trek that I’ve already seen maybe twenty times. Or I’ll just go to bed, which might be a better idea.
RVAJazz: There you go. Of course, there’s some especially exciting stuff on Sportscenter right now, with VCU and UofR Basketball going so far.
SC: Yeah! There’s a lot of pride in Richmond right now. One thing that’s really unique is that you see the love that a lot of musicians here have for the scene. Maybe that was missing at some point in time, I don’t know, but it seems stronger now than it was in the past. I think it is because certain things have started to get some notoriety. Fight the Big Bull has gotten onto a much larger scene, and NO BS! has done a lot of stuff. And they’re seeing that they can do that stuff here, in the city. Fight the Big Bull has been on who knows how many Top Ten Records lists this past year. And they’re here in Richmond! An interesting side-note: Fight the Big Bull recently played in Roanoke, and there is a guy there who is a Clean Feed Records fanatic. He buys all their records. Fight the Big Bull is one of his favorite bands. He never put two and two together that they were from Richmond. He thought that they were a European band or something. But he was reading the liner notes [to a FTBB album] and saw that they were from Richmond. So he got a hold of Matt White and booked the gig. So that’s kind of the thing to do. Getting people to realize that there is this kind of caliber of stuff happening here.
RVAJazz: Yeah, and your band included.
SC: Yeah, we’re trying to be a part of the scene here.
RVAJazz: Definitely. Well best of luck to you in the band leadership role, and looking forward to hearing you at RVAJazzfest.
SC: Yeah, thanks man. I appreciate it.