An interview with Matt Smiley, free improvisational bassist
he made a Dune-themed experimental jazz album!!
Welcome back to The Molly Zone. Today we have an interview with bassist Matt Smiley!
Matt is one of the musicians Alex White recommended I speak to, and I am so delighted I was able to. He is a bassist and composer in Colorado and his specialty is experimental, free improvisational jazz music — something I know almost nothing about, but was very excited to learn. After all, wow the hell do you get on a stage with other musicians, some of whom you might not really know at all, or perhaps someone you are already a huge fan of, and...make music up from scratch??
I am a tinkerer, fiddler and overall fuss-er so the concept of total public creative experimentation is foreign to me; Matt was kind enough to explain the nuts and bolts of what goes into his performances, which, from my delving into recorded videos, are all fascinating ventures into emotion, tension, and time.
By his estimate, Matt has played on 40 recorded albums and in over 3,000 live performances, so you could maybe think of his improvisations in the same mode as a super-seasoned gambler approaching the card table: with a deep knowledge of the deck at hand and many tricks up his sleeve, but always dancing around the possibility that pure chance will intervene and change the course of the undertaking.
Read on to learn about Matt's musical history, his now recently-released Dune-inspired album, and which car is the best car to transport an upright bass.
MO: Well, thank you for taking the time to talk. I'm glad Alex gave me your contact info! I figure we can just, like, have a little chat about the kind of music you play and then just talk about whatever comes up.
MS: Yeah, yeah, that sounds great. I met Alex through the free improv experimental scene out here. So I do a lot of different things. I've been a freelance musician pretty much since high school and then really haven't had a non-music job in years. My specialty is very much experimental music and free improvisation. I've been really lucky. Over the last six years or so in particular, I got connected with this really great drummer and percussionist up in Wyoming named Ron Coulter. We've done tours around Wyoming and Colorado, where he usually puts together these things for us to play as a rhythm section behind all these pretty well-known, more experimental jazz artists.
MO: Okay, cool.
MS: So we've played with people like Matthew Shipp, Tony Malaby, David Murray, Sam Newsome, Vinny Golia, a bunch of people who are huge names in the free jazz world. So that's been something that's been really, really special in the last five or six years.
MO: That's awesome. What is the performance vibe is at something like that?
MS: Those started with doing these [performances] through the university that Ron used to work at, Casper College. And so it's kind of funny having these really big name artists play in the middle of nowhere, Wyoming. They would always be very excited to come out and play and play improvised music. Sometimes I think it would be like anywhere from like 7 to 15 people. Sometimes more than that, but pretty small audiences of people who for the most part are not really that aware of that kind of music.
But I think all of us were just so excited to play, that regardless of the size of the audience, we would just get really enthusiastic about the music. And it would be a situation where usually the artists would come in from out of town, we'd have a, like, 30-minute rehearsal where literally we would just get our instruments out and not even really say anything and just start playing, and then be like, okay, great, let's get some dinner and then the concert's tonight, and we'll do the same thing for for like an hour and a half.
MO: That's so sick. I want to ask you more about free jazz in general, but for a performance like this, is there any prepared element of it or is it entirely improvisational?
MS: No prepared element at all, no sheet music, just show up and play very instinctually — like, whatever happens, happens.
MO: Okay. When you are playing like this, are some ensembles better than others? And how do you know when you're having like a really good improvisation?
MS: So it's funny because, especially with these well-known artists, different people have different, I guess, artistic aesthetics. So some of the musicians we've played with have been a little heavier on the jazz side, and we might improvise closer to a traditional jazz vibe. And then other guys I've played with — like, for instance, I played with this musician, Jack Wright, who is this crazy 70-something year old free jazz saxophone player. He's been touring the country for 40 years. And when I played with him, he was actually a little critical. He was like, yeah, I kind of was wanting a little bit more of a free improvisation kind of noise and texture thing, and less jazz.
MS: And for whatever reason, me and the drummer at the time were playing a little bit more on the jazz side, and he kind of was like, Well, that was cool...BUT. [laughing]
MO: [laughing] That's so interesting that you have to figure out how to communicate in the absence of having a piece that everyone is looking at and has memorized or, you know, needs to be conducted or something like that. Does someone generally take the lead, or does it kind of flow from one person to another, or...something else that I'm not thinking of?
MS: In this case with me and this drummer, it's both of us following a third person. It could be a saxophone player, a trumpet player, a piano player. But there have definitely been times where it moves around, though. The third person is always listening to us and playing off of us. But I always feel like I am listening to whoever our guest artist is for the most part. And then I still feel all the time when I'm in these really improvised settings, I'm like, okay, I really can't come up with something to play, so I'm just going to stop [laughing] and let the other two people play until I figure out where to go next.
MO: I mean, I feel like that's that's kind of an underrated skill of knowing when you need to stop and take stock of things. That's an interesting musical tactic.
MS: I have another musician I've worked with who aligns a lot of this to breathing and the breath. And I feel like that's a good analogy of this: okay, there's this kind of new breath that's coming in to the music, so maybe I should just take a step back and let that unfold until it's time for my breath to enter.
MO: Okay, so you play upright bass. Will you tell me about your bass journey, of how you ended up playing bass to begin with?
MS: Yeah, totally. I started off as a middle school drummer. I really enjoyed playing drums, but I didn't like practicing it. I wanted to switch to something that was more pitch-oriented, so I started playing guitar. And then, like a lot of people, I started playing in a rock band that already had three guitar players. So I was kind of relegated to play bass. And then I knew I wanted to pursue music in college. So I went from electric bass to upright, went from playing bluegrass gigs to then playing jazz. Since then, last I checked, I have about a 40-album professional discography for things I played on as a leader or as a sideman. And then just from calculating this a few years back, I think I've played over 3000 gigs in my life, just from being super busy over the last twenty years.
MO: Oh, my god. So for me, a bass outsider, the transition from an electric bass to an upright bass seems like it would be intimidating just because of the size of the instrument. Is that, is that not as much of a big deal if you are actually experienced in playing the bass?
MS: I feel like the biggest issue is actually the frets, because playing electric bass is a fretted instrument, so if you put your finger in a certain spot, that's going to be a C and that's going to be in tune. But then with the upright not having frets, that was the hardest thing to navigate. And so still to this day, even though mostly I play jazz pizzicato, just with my fingers, I still practice with a bow every day if possible, because I feel like that's how I can make sure my intonation is sound, to be able to hear it well by playing long tones with a bow. But yeah, I feel like the size wasn't as much of an issue, although now I'm on my third Subaru Outback because they're the best vehicles to haul an upright bass in.
Mo Oh yeah, it's got like a trunk door that pops out!
MS: Yeah, a hatchback.
MO: That's so funny. So you got your doctorate in music. Will you tell me about your studies and how you took things to the academic part of music?
MS: I was basically just a freelance musician for about ten years out of school, and I ended up moving from northern Colorado down to Denver. And then in that transition of relocating and being in a slightly different scene, even though I still knew a lot of people around Denver, work just kind of got a little slow for me and I was trying to figure out what I should do. And just on a whim I was like, you know, it wouldn't be that bad of an idea to go back to school. And then CU Boulder has a really great program if you get into the music program as a teaching assistant. So I went back to school to get my doctorate with no student debt whatsoever, just a full tuition waiver and a stipend. So that was my day job, just to go to school and study and research.
I was a jazz studies major with a kind of performance-based education. So I did five different recitals and and a dissertation project. And I ended up doing my dissertation on teaching experimental jazz and teaching free jazz to college students, as a way to teach them to improvise and to build confidence and come up with new ways to get better on their instruments, and more confidence to just, you know, make music out of nothing.
MO: That's so cool. What was that experience like? Was that hard or easy to get undergrads to get in that mode of being?
MS: Most of the students were totally in to do all the weird experiments and different exercises I played with them. About one out of ten people are just totally shut off and they don't want to have anything to do with more experimental stuff. But also, you run into this I think especially in music school—certain people just have a narrow view of what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. Even if it was other music genres, I feel like some of those same students would be just as checked out, because they're just focused on this very narrow thing they want to do.
But for the most part, people are really cool. And I've been lucky enough teaching experimental music to people over the years where I've gotten a lot of positive feedback like: I ended up being becoming a middle school band director, and I tried some of your stuff with my band students. So stuff like that has been really cool, how it's expanded to other music communities.
MO: Well, I think the only other question I have for you is, is there a performance you've done that has stood out to you as one of your favorites, or particularly memorable?
MS: Yeah, probably the one of the most important ones for me lately is about a year ago, I got to work with this great tenor saxophone player from New York, Tony Malaby, playing trio with him and my Wyoming drummer friend Ron Coulter. And then we brought him back out and did a short Colorado tour with him just this last April. And so for me, just working with him last year and this year is just a total dream come true.
He's somebody I've been listening to on record since I was 18 years old. Literally one of my favorite living musicians. And so just to get to hang with him and play music with someone at such a high level, who's also just a very cool, very down to earth kind of person, was just such a special experience. We recorded in the studio while he was here recently, and I'm hoping eventually we can release some of that music to the public.
MO: That's awesome. You know, I feel like sometimes you hear, "Don't meet your heroes," but if you actually get to play with them and they're cool, that's a nice treat. Anything else you'd want to say on the record — or plug, perhaps?
MS: I do have a new album that is almost released. [ed note: it is out now!] This is an album I recorded about two years ago. It was one of the first things I did when things started to open up again after the pandemic. It'll be on my Bandcamp, and it is Dune themed, as in Frank Herbert's Dune.
MS: The name of the album is Gom Jabbar and a couple of the tunes are titled after different things with Dune. It's something I've never done before. It's an acoustic trio with drums, tenor saxophone and acoustic bass, and all of our signals are being run into a fourth person who's doing laptop electronics. He's improvising electronic things using our signals in the studio and in the moment, so it's this sort of this acoustic jazz meets weird electronic glitchy stuff. I'm really stoked for it to come out.
MO: That's awesome. I mean, you had me at Dune.
Thanks for reading! See u next week :)