When I first was asked to interview Scott Healy, a recent Grammy-nominated artist that had an album called “Hudson City Suite” I said “who?”. Then after doing some research it turned out that Scott was the keyboardist of Conan O’Brien’s musical band first on “Late Night With Conan” here in NYC, then “The Tonight Show”, and currently still with Conan on “Conan”(naturally!). What I also discovered was that Scott is a great jazz musician just waiting to breakout after sampling and ultimately enjoying his album which was quite a discovery I have to say. The music is full of passion and feeling much like the old guard of jazz that had a edge to it but full of restraint and melody with that crisp big band sound that is still amazing to this day and kept alive by the likes of John Fedchock and Gordon Goodwin.
For this very special interview with Scott, he shares candidly with me about “Hudson City Suite”, how the album came to be, the intricacies’ of jazz improvision for the album, his Grammy nomination and his continued work with host Conan O’Brien. So please sit back and take in the smooth, mellow big band sounds and passionate words of Scott Healy!
Please tell the readers about what made you become interested in music and what led you to become a song writer/composer.
SH: I’ve been interested in music as long as I can remember. I was playing piano by ear when I was four, but I also remember being very aware at an early age of chord changes and voice leading, in music on TV, on the radio, and on my dad’s records. I took piano lessons, played a lot of classical music, and eventually studied at Cleveland Institute of Music with James Tannenbaum. In between recitals and concerto competitions I was jamming and playing in bands, writing some tunes, mainly fusion and jazz. I arranged music for my high school jazz band, and also for a few vocal groups. I remember the first time I saw a “real” composer’s work—he was duplicating parts for a chamber piece, I asked him what he was doing—he showed me his neatly copied score and set of parts, I was transfixed. I knew then that I wanted to study composition, and learn to do it right, or at least technically so. I ended up studying classical composition at Eastman School of Music, and also getting heavily involved in the jazz composition and arranging classes. All through school I was playing gigs, weddings, clubs, big bands, anything I could do. I got a ton of experience on the bandstand performing, and lots of opportunities in music school to write classical and jazz music and hear my work performed by a variety of ensembles from string quartet to jazz ensemble to sixty-piece studio orchestra. When I was in New York I played gigs, but also kept up the writing, the jamming, producing my own music, while also doing studio work writing and playing for commercials and other artists’ recordings. I was somehow able to remain a composer and be a performer at the same time.
Let’s talk about “Hudson City Suite” a very engaging jazz swing album that you released recently and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental Composition. What was the inspiration behind the album?
SH: In my 20’s I moved to Jersey City, NJ, a town that has tons of history and character. The neighborhood I lived in was called Hudson City back in the mid 19th century, before being annexed into Jersey City—but I could see vestiges of the old ways, I could see it and feel it in the architecture and history that poked out from behind the weeds and aluminum siding. I guess you could say it has a real “vibe”. Duke Ellington’s many suites, like “Such Sweet Thunder”, “The Queen’s Suite”, and “The Far East Suite” inspired me to write music that was “about something”. He wrote about trains, streets, cities, people—somehow he and Billy Strayhorn were able to write from the heart, with a directness and purpose that I found really compelling. I had a nine-piece jazz band I had put together and had been writing for and gigging around NYC with for a few years, and I wanted to try and capture some of what I saw around me, using Ellington’s outlook as a point of departure. I expanded my band to ten so I could have three reeds and started a suite of my own.
How did you put together the ensemble that ultimately came to join you and play on the album?
SH: I came to LA in 2009 with the Conan O’Brien Show, and I had a stack of new and old music for nine and ten piece band, full big band, and some chamber music…and this unfinished suite from the East Coast…so I called a few horn players I knew and got a rehearsal band together. I dusted off some music, revised it, wrote some new charts, booked some gigs, then decided to finish the suite and do a record. Through this process I was fortunate enough to have developed a core group of players who really support my work.
What were your personal expectations behind the project?
SH: I really wanted the record to hang together, with the concept and intent being strong and compelling. It’s a suite, the individual tracks have the same vibe despite being a mix of modern and traditional sounds and styles, but there are a few musical ideas and themes that appear throughout. I guess I expected my players to play well, but on those days, and every time I play in LA I’m constantly shocked by their brilliance. I expected to be able to record fifty-six minutes of music recorded in two days, relying mainly on my players to make it work. What I didn’t expect was finishing early, which we did, and to have captured a few of the tunes on the first take. Personally, I just wanted to play the piano well, be relaxed, and try to get the most out of my charts, be true to my intent as a composer. But then there was the mix, the mastering, and the video…that’s the rest of the process, all things that were also in the back of my mind. My producer David Wesley helped me keep my head together.
What were the recording sessions like?
SH: Fun. It’s always tricky to have ten or eleven musicians in a room at the same time, plus I was playing piano and running the session at the same time, which is a real challenge. As is typical in LA, the recording studio was flawless and pristine, and it came together so quickly. I think the horn players might not use the word “fun”, as they worked hard, they moved a lot of air. I had NYC trumpet player Tim Hagans guest on three tunes, which was on the first day, and he lit it up, and set the tone for the rest of the sessions.
I know that a lot of jazz musicians love to do their own improvisations or riffs, did that happen on this album or was it just straightforward?
SH: That’s a really good question. Jazz is a mostly improvised art form, and historically any composing or arranging along the way serves improvisation. The traditional jazz ensemble is a platform for improvised solos and the individual soloist’s expression. To me you can’t invoke “jazz” without improvisation. I feel that my job as a jazz composer is as much to inspire my players as much my audience, and to communicate musical intent and ideas directly to everyone with what you put on the page. Since you can’t tell a musician what to improvise, the music you write has to guide the soloist. I’ve always been really interested in walking the line between what is written, and what is improvised, and while most of my music is through-composed, everything has lots of improvisation mixed in. I like to use my classical composition chops to develop themes and provide an emotional arc, but also to construct a piece that is (hopefully) rich and meaningful in the compositional sense, but also moves and feels expressively jazzy.
Let’s talk about “Koko On The Boulevard” the Grammy-nominated tune on the album. What was the inspiration for the piece?
SH: Poor Koko. He was a dog I saw from the car while traveling down Kennedy Boulevard in Jersey City. He was sniffing around on the sidewalk, and then suddenly darted out across two lanes of traffic, with a boldness and defiance I didn’t expect from a canine. He was immediately grazed by a car, and was thrown about ten feet—I stopped. Everyone stopped. As we stood over this panting dog, the owner ambled over. I said “is this your dog?” he said “yes”, then looked down and exclaimed “Koko, I told you not to go on the Boulevard!”. A title and an idea were born. Since the suite is about this neighborhood, it seemed like this fit right in. Plus I needed a little comic relief by track eight.
After listening to it a few times, there seems to be layers upon layers of different instrumentation playing on top of each other with the occasional duet or two instrument challenge of sorts. Is that how you envisioned the piece when you wrote it?
SH: Absolutely. The “Koko melody”, is played with soprano sax and clarinet in pseudo unison—written just close enough together, but just a little off, sort of a thickened melody by instruments that sound similar. There’s some looseness built in, I wrote it that way. The rest of the piece has a lot of counterpoint, different lines appearing and layering, ebbing and flowing, and building up the sound, tension and groove, and the overall arc of the piece.
How did you feel when you found out that you were nominated for a Grammy?
SH: Stunned. Elated. Frightened. Humbled.
The album really features some wonderful tunes like “Transfer”, “Central Trolley Station”, “Interlude” and “Gaslight” which remind me a lot of the jazz that was being played during the 1950’s and early 1960’s with its intimate and big band feel. Was the idea of the album based on paying an homage to that period that was so fruitful for jazz legends like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Quincy Jones and Count Basie to name a few?
SH: Well, I wasn’t paying homage to any single style or artist, but I certainly have been inspired by all of the artists you mention. That particular era of jazz, especially from 1958 to 1959, so many paths were blazed it’s hard to even imagine the wealth of creativity that was springing forth. I was in fact going for on this recording a mixture of small group and large ensemble, and something in between. The fruitful period of music that you mention contained all styles from bebop to postbop, swing to the emergence of free jazz, and I can feel all these influences in my writing, particularly on my record.
I’m really a huge fan of this type of music and you display a great feel for it as evidenced by your previous albums. Would you love to do a big band album inspired by Count Basie or just one in general?
SH: I’d love that idea, let’s do it! Basie had so many great arrangers writing for him, and no band swings harder.
Let’s now talk about the album that you released. Please tell the readers how you put the album together and what made you decide to put on the CD together the way you did?
SH: It’s a suite, nine thematically and sonically related pieces, so all aspects of the CD needed to reflect that—artwork, song order, liner notes, they all come together in the final package. In a way, it’s really one long multi-movement piece of music.
People have raved that the album is “The crown jewel in your career”. How do you feel about that personally?
SH: I’d say as a recording artist it definitely is the highest point so far. I think I made a piece with solid writing, content, great playing by my band, and I wouldn’t change one note. Well maybe one. But I owe much of the record’s success to my players, they made it happen, and it happened quickly.
Speaking of which, you’re also the keyboardist for Conan O’Brien and his show on TBS and before that you were with him on NBC Late Night and the short lived “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien”. Please tell us your experiences working with him?
SH: Conan is a brilliant performer, and an inspiration to work with. But he’s also a huge music fan. Music has been such a huge part of his shows, not just with us in the house band, but with guest bands, comedy bits, and his occasional “serious” music performance. He plays guitar, sings, and really knows his music history. He’s created a workplace that is as much work space as it is a play space. At the studio I laugh all day long at the comedy, and play great music with world-class players at the same time.
Is working with him on the show different than what you do when you play jazz or perform with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Al Green, BB King, Jackson Browne, Levon Helm, Son Seals, Hubert Sumlin and Tony Bennett?
SH: Every situation is different, but it’s all the same somehow. Performance is performance, and despite the fact that there are always unique challenges, you have to bring the same skills and professionalism to bear. Some of the artists you mention I played with on Conan, some in the studio, and some on live gigs and tours. On the show in the house band I have to start and stop on a dime, shift gears from rock n roll to funk to jazz and blues, all within the span of one hour, and in front of a camera. When backing a guest act on the show we must fully learn the material and be able to perform it pretty much perfectly in front of an audience and the same cameras, after having rehearsed it maybe three times six hours ago. Although in that situation it feels like playing suddenly from a cold start, if you focus and concentrate (and play well) it’s really great. Whatever venue you find yourself in, as a sideman your job is to give the artist what they want, and put just enough of yourself into the music—not too much—to serve the song and make it happen. Levon’s band was very relaxed, but the styles were specific—New Orleans piano is quite different from Chicago Blues and Texas Shuffle, and the band knows when you’re doing it right, and when it’s right, it’s magic. My mantra is “do your homework”, try to know the material cold, listen to the original recordings, learn the styles, and practice your feel, rather than just the notes. I find it really hard to switch from rock to jazz though, and if I have a jazz gig or session, like last night with my organ trio, I have to sit down at the piano, practice some scales, some Chopin, put on the metronome, and relax into a totally different way of playing, with less weight, more swing, a lighter left hand.
Please tell us about your most memorable experience of working in music?
SH: Three things come to mind—the first time I played jazz live when I was a kid, it was at an outdoor festival in Cleveland, I think it was the first Rib Burn Off in the seventies. They were obviously desperate for entertainment, and we played for free. When we took the stage and looked at the crowd, I was terrified—but when we started playing it was a new feeling, unfamiliar but electrifying. Then they applauded for my solo and I was hooked. Secondly, another experience I think about all the time is watching Bruce Springsteen write a tune, in front of the band, onstage during a very long rehearsal. He just kept workin’ it—changing chords, the form, finalizing lyrics from a sketch in his notebook, dictating parts. We performed it that night in front of five thousand people. Now that I think of it, it’s either Bruce or the Neil Diamond impersonator I backed one rainy at a wedding in New Jersey! Thirdly, I don’t remember when it was, but I remember the feeling of giving a downbeat on a new piece and hearing my newly written music for the first time. It’s not always pretty, but it’s an amazing feeling.
Name a jazz musician (living or dead) that you would love to work with?
SH: Wayne Shorter. Of course I would have loved to be a fly on the wall at an Ellington rehearsal, or play piano on a Sinatra recording session, or hear Sun Ra perform in Chicago in the 60’s.
What’s your favorite album of all time that inspired you to be the musician that you are today?
SH: There are so many it’s hard to pick, and I honestly can’t point to one that solely inspired me. What I know is that my main inspiration was the discovery of the depth and richness of our culture’s catalog of recorded jazz music. It seems like every time I put something on I learn and am inspired. As a pianist I’d have to say the usual suspects: Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Bill Evans—but then it was Fats Waller and James P Johnson, then it was Keith Jarrett and Tommy Flanagan, then James Booker and Dr. John, then Ellington—who knows what tomorrow will bring. As a composer it’s a little clearer—so much of what I can do I got from my comp teachers in school, both classical and jazz. Again though, it’s the usual suspects: Stravinsky, Hindemith, Schoenberg, but then Joseph Schwantner, George Crumb and Steve Reich. But how ‘bout Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer, Gil Evans and Ellington, Sun Ra and George Russell—I could never say which singular artist inspired me. But I do remember the first time I heard walking bass, which was on Herb Alpert’s “Taste of Honey”. I was really young, and that record was in my dad’s collection. It might seem quaint, but if you listen to it now it still swings.
Will you record another jazz album soon?
SH: Immediately. I have a stack of music I’ve been playing live for a few years, and I’m writing some new pieces. The hard part is going to be choosing what to record. I really want to follow-up this nominated recording with something great. I now have something to live up to; I can’t just rest on my laurels. That’s a great feeling, and a wonderful challenge.
A very special and great thanks to Scott who is now my new friend and not to mention a terrific musician. He’s one of the reasons I love jazz so much! God bless! Also a very special thanks to Jeff Sanderson for his outstanding efforts and introducing me to Scott and a gem of a jazz album! I owe you one!