Well, as promised in the last issue of eNotes, I have the interview with David Thorne Scott, vocal jazz teacher/composer at the Berklee College of Music! It was a real pleasure to speak with David and I am sure you'll enjoy reading about his comments on vocal improvisation, the importance of playing piano and lots more.
David Thorne Scott's CD "Shade" was a Top 5 Jazz CD by Jazz Education Journal, alongside legends Mark Murphy, Judi Silvano, Andy Bey and Kitty Margolis.
What you notice first is Dave's clear and accurate voice - you can understand every single word. But soon you realize that there is more than just an amazing set of vocal cords here. Dave is a musician, in every sense of the word. He bends rhythm and melody into new, expressive shapes in his masterful interpretations of standards and his novel original tunes. He draws a wide range of listeners, from first-time to long-time jazz fans, because he swings like Sinatra, scats like the top horn players, and puts over a ballad with emotion.
Dave got his start singing in vocal groups directed by Grammy-nominated arranger and pianist Phil Mattson. Dave learned how to put his own stamp on a tune singing with Mattson's brilliant, mercurial piano accompaniment.
Dave went on to graduate with a Masters Degree from the University of Miami. Since then Dave has shared the stage with Kevin Mahogany, Jon Secada, Gloria Estefan, Darmon Meader (New York Voices), Richie Cole, Cheryl Bentene (Manhattan Transfer), Bruce Forman, Michele Weir, Tim Ray (Lyle Lovett), Hal Galper, Jo Lawry, John Ellis, Andy McKee and Manolo.
Scott is a member of the vocal jazz groups Vocalogy (L.A.) and Syncopation (Boston). He is an Associate Professor of Voice at the Berklee College of Music. His vocal arrangements are published by Hal Leonard and UNC Jazz Press.
Debbie: Hi David, tell everyone what your background is in music?
David: Sure. I grew up singing and playing trumpet. Trumpet was my main instrument. Then I sang in barbershop quartets and madrigal groups. I grew up in Nebraska. Then I went to college at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey and had an a capella group there that I directed. Then I went out to Iowa to study with a vocal jazz guru called Phil Mattson. I studied there and taught for a while. Then I went to University of Miami and got my Masters degree in Jazz Studies. Then I went back out to Iowa and taught for Phil for a while, and then I moved to Boston. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been singing a lot of jazz and choral music. I sing with a group called Cut Circle, a renaissance vocal group and I sing with Syncopation, a jazz vocal group and I also play trumpet in that. And I do a lot of solo jazz singing.
Debbie: And you teach at Berklee College of Music. What do you teach and how long have you taught there?
David: Yes, I teach in the voice department and I’ve been here since 2001. As a matter of fact, my first day was September 11th, 2001. Classes were cancelled.
Debbie: Oh, wow. I just saw you recently at the Acton Jazz Café in Acton, MA. You wrote a few of the songs you sang, if not all of them!
David: Yes, I did write all of them.
Debbie: They were great!
David: Thank you. Well, I love songwriting and for years and years I felt like arranging standards was a great way to get my personality and creativity involved in jazz music. Then I realized that that can only take you so far and that if you really want to take music forward, you have to go out on a limb and get into writing. I felt like I had to do it if I wanted to be a jazz artist.
Debbie: Do you write music at the piano? I forget, do you play the piano?
David: I do. I didn’t start until I went to Phil’s school.
Debbie: Did he require that you play?
David: Oh, yes, that is a big part of his philosophy. I totally agree with that. I’ll start off by saying how it helped me. I have the intelligence to understand music theory as it was printed on a piece of paper and I have enough of a musical ear to hear when something sounded good and when something didn’t make sense and didn’t sound good. However, I didn’t make the connection to the reason why it sounded good. There is a theoretical reason. The piano makes the connection between my brain and my ears. It had to go through my fingers to really make that connection.
Debbie: So I am interested in how you write your music.
David: I always came up with the harmony first and wrote the melody based on that. After a while, I came up with a totally different approach. I started writing on airplanes and buses, anyplace where I didn’t have access to a keyboard. I felt that my music wasn’t melodic or organic enough and I figured that if it was something I could conceive of without access to a keyboard, then it was probably a stronger statement for me.
Debbie: I am a singer and a pianist. My pet peave with vocalists is to get them to play the piano! Do you think that’s important?
David: Oh, yes. And I am very proud of my piano playing. I would say I am a decent pianist. I’m not amazing or excellent, but you don’t have to be amazing or excellent to benefit immensely from piano. So I am very proud. If something compliments me on my piano playing, I am just on cloud nine because I work so hard at it. I take it seriously.
Debbie: So you don’t compose at the piano so much, but it helps you to understand the harmony and theory that’s going on and it helps you learn songs.
Debbie: Does your knowledge of harmony inform your vocal improvisation?
David: Oh, yes. 100%.
Debbie: How do you teach your students to improvise?
David: The way I teach my students is to have it based on the lyrics. There is nothing more annoying than empty riffing and empty improvisation. What I say is that students need to find out the words in each phrase you want to highlight and then change that note to draw attention to the word that it’s attached to. As vocalists, we have lyrics so anything we do, we have to highlight the lyrics and make the audience hear them. A compliment I love to get is “I never realized the lyrics to that song were so great!” That’s what I’m going for. So when I talk about improvisation for myself and my students, I pick a word that fits the mood of the song and accent it in some way to draw attention to it. How do you do that? You could hold the note out longer or make it shorter and cut off right after. You could make it a higher note or make it louder. So I think that’s a good way to get started with improvising and interpreting.
Debbie: Tell us more about the group “Syncopation”.
David: It is a vocal jazz ensemble. There is a lot of close harmony and lots of solo singing because we are trying to keep a variety of sounds coming at the audience. Sometimes you’ll hear beautiful 4-part harmony and then you’ll hear a more personal solo statement. We have piano and horn solos so we try to keep it interesting.
Debbie: You sing a lot with Mark Shilansky (pianist at Berklee who has been interviewed in eNotes). What do you like about Mark’s playing?
David: He listens. The way he plays and the way I sing are very similar. We both try to be in the moment so we can react in an instant to something interesting that we hear in the other players. So if you hear something interesting in the drums, you can grab that in your scat solo and go with it.
Debbie: So you play off of each other.
Debbie: Well, that’s it, David. Thanks so much for speaking with me today!
David: You’re very welcome.
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