Q&A with saxophonist/visual artist Dana Colley - one of the most original saxophonists of his generation

"Blues and Jazz were always the voices of the downtrodden. The slaves created it as a rebellious statement. They could be chained and whipped but no one could take their voices, their rhythms."

Dana Colley: Vapors of Art-o-phone

Dana Colley is widely considered to be one of the most original saxophonists of his generation. With his signature 1930s Conn baritone, Dana reclaimed rock and roll for the big horn. (Sandman used to point out that Little Richard had two baris in his band.) Even before ground-breaking electronic effects became a mainstay of his live sound (post-Morphine), Dana’s playing was often compared to guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, who were in fact a huge influence. (Dana also played great tenor on the odd tune, and sometimes bari and tenor simultaneously.”) Dana was born in Portland, Maine and raised in Hanson, Massachusetts, where he took up the clarinet in the 4th grade, switching to tenor sax in 7th. He picked up baritone in 1984, and joined the band Three Colors in 1985. Dana is also a talented visual artist, and attended the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. In 1989, a casual jam session with Mark Sandman – leader of the Hypnosonics, of which Dana was a member – led to the creation of Morphine and “Low Rock.” Mark recruited drummer Jerome Deupree and the band was formed. Mark invited Dana to be “guitar tech” for an upcoming tour with his band Treat Her Right (including future 2nd Morphine drummer Billy Conway), opening for Los Lobos. Mark shared a Morphine demo with the headliners; Los Lobos sax player Steve Berlin asked who was playing bari on the recording. Mark pointed out “that kid winding cables.” Steve, who also played baritone, ended up inviting Dana to sit in, and became something of a mentor to the younger player.

It was not long before Treat Her Right ended a good run, and Morphine became Mark’s primary focus; the band was signed to Ryko and then Dreamworks. They toured the world, right up until Mark’s tragic death in 1999. After Morphine ended, Dana, Billy and Jerome formed Orchestra Morphine with members of the Hypnosonics, plus Laurie Sargent of Face To Face and Christian McNeal on vocals, to support the release of Morphine’s posthumously released fifth studio record The Night. Out of OM came Twinemen with Laurie and Billy and Dana, plus bassist du jour (Andrew Mazzone, Stu Kimball or Jeremy Moses Curtis) performing mostly original tunes, plus an occasional Sandman number. It was with Twinemen that Dana introduced his effects-laden electric sound. Twinemen got their name from a comic strip Sandman drew. They also had a home base at Hi-N-Dry, Mark’s old loft apartment and recording studio in Cambridge. Billy, Dana and Andrew Mazzone formed Hi-N-Dry records (producing dozens of great records by local talent) and the Mark Sandman Music Project, designed to mentor kids with musical interests. Another post-Morphine band of Dana’s was AKACOD with drummer Larry Dersch (who played on the title track of Morphine’s Like Swimming) and bassist/vocalist/songwriter Monique Ortiz, who was a fan and a Sandman protege. The band’s 2008 CD Happiness was a well-received, darker spin on the Low Rock sound. AKACOD more or less ended in 2009, but the group has played some shows since, most notably in Slovenia and Slovakia. Apart from his work with Morphine-related projects, Dana is a player in demand on the Boston scene and around the world. He has collaborated and performed with dozens of other artists, including the Alloy Orchestra, Lee Renaldo, Dub Apocalypse, Club D’Elf and Les Claypool. Dana is a member of the “virtual” band Delta Horse.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Rock n’ Jazz culture and music? What does the blues mean to you?

When I began to listen to music as a child the sounds that made me physically feel something inside seem to always originate with the early American Jazz and Blues. The soulful expression. A voice that resonates to your ear and also moves something inside your chest. The great singers like Ella and Sarah, the great tenors like Coltrane, Sanders, Rollins, the great early pioneers like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington Count Basie and all those players in those bands. Then the small jazz spinoffs from the big band era. All of that history has come and gone before I ever picked up a horn. I feel that I am always learning from those who have come before me. Every musician is trying to balance the sound they have heard with a voice of their own. The Blues is a bridge from which most American Jazz and Rock crossover. The Blues is never missing from most of the music I make.

How do you describe Dana Colley sound and projects? What characterize your music philosophy?

I have been recording for a lot of projects all very different. I try to hear where I could offer something and then focus on nuancing those specific parts. That could be a horn section comprised of different saxophones recorded multitrack or it could be just a note hear or there. If it is Vapors of Morphine it is a different approach. We play as a trio so we need to account for the basic foundation of each track. What works is usually some distilling and sharpening of a little riff. Or lately we have been trying to create on the spot and let the recording run. Listen back locate what works and then refine that.

"When I began to listen to music as a child the sounds that made me physically feel something inside seem to always originate with the early American Jazz and Blues. The soulful expression. A voice that resonates to your ear and also moves something inside your chest."

How has the Jazz and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

It gives me hope that there are like minded sensitive music lovers who are mostly interested in truth and human expression. I continue to observe this everywhere we play. Music is an amazing language. Counterculture is kind of a funny word. It seems that it should just be culture. Because with out music, art, poetry… there is no culture.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

As a "younger" musician It was validating to be recognized by musicians who you respected and admired. That didn't have to be much. It could just of been Richie who was the first kid on the block to have a guitar and an amp. But if you got a little respect it felt pretty great. I've always been really appreciative of the people who stand on the floor drinking beer from a plastic cup, probably paying more than they should, clapping after you've just laid your heart out for all to see. The people who go and listen to music have been my most important experiences. The people around the venues who work the bar , provide hospitality, do the booking, sweep up after. Other musicians who I've played with or shared a drink. The camaraderie that you have with your bandmates and crew is like a family. The best advice was given to me by my father who is a painter and a teacher. He said "Son find something in life you love to do and make a life doing it." He didn't exactly get into the details of how that would work..Some things you have to find out for yourself.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I've had many memorable moments many compete for the top one. If I would have to choose, It would have to be meeting Little Richard in the elevator of the Hilton Hotel. We were staying there and me and a friend got into the elevator. It stops and on walks Little Richard dressed to perfection. The door of the elevator closed and began to descend. It is dead quiet. No one is saying a word. Until I couldn't take it anymore and decided to say something. I blurt out "I am sorry,.. but you're Little Richard may I shake your hand?" Little Richard turned looked at me and smiled wide and said like only Little Richard could. " Of course!!! you can shake my hand!!! I want to touch.. EEEEVERRRRYYYBODDDY…!!!" Little Richard then took the hand and touched everyone in the elevator and it was if he was performing right there in a private portal. The door opens he walks out and I don't think I washed my had for a month. He lives in the penthouse of the Hilton to this day I believe.

"Music is an amazing language. Counterculture is kind of a funny word. It seems that it should just be culture. Because with out music, art, poetry… there is no culture."

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Music is instantly in the past. Perpetually in the past. But a musician is always moving forward even when he has played the song a hundred times. Pine for the past and fear for the future. doesn't give you much wiggle room does it? Maybe thats why live music is culturally necessary to combat the inert paralysis of existential crisis. When you translate that can you then explain it to me? Ha!

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

It would be that we could figure a way for musicians to survive making their music. The current system leave very little options to survive. I don't know if there will ever be a way to do it. But everyone I know is scrambling to make a living.

What touched (emotionally) you from the Beat movement, A Coney Island of the Mind and Lawrence Ferlinghetti?

The commitment to the moment. The inspired drive to keep seeing and to react with a written account in poetry of a world that is very ordinary and extraordinary at the same time.

What is the impact of Blues, Rock and Jazz music and culture on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Blues and Jazz were always the voices of the downtrodden. The slaves created it as a rebellious statement. They could be chained and whipped but no one could take their voices, their rhythms.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I would love to have been in a number of recording sessions. At Electric Lady Land while Hendrix was laying down some tracks would of been pretty cool. Maybe at the Kind OF Blue Sessions...

"The elements of art were examined, light, sound, motion, time. There were no lines connecting Art with Music because they are one in the same. The difference seems to be boiled down to... how is the art documented? Can you see it on a page or hear it in a room. Can you put it on a wall or put it on a turntable and listen in your living room?" (Photo: Detail from Dana Colley's artwork) 

What experiences in your life have triggered your artwork ideas most frequently?

I grew up in an artistic household. My father taught art and is an artist painter and cartoonist. My Mother is an artist of the home.  She can sew or knit anything. My dad was always hammering glueing or tinkering with a multiple of mediums, always painting or drawing. Both parents are still creating some of their most beautiful work at the age of 79 and 80.

I began drawing by watching my dad turn a blank page into of world of its own. I never had the mastery of my father. But I understood "seeing" with a pencil. As kids we had always done linoleum block prints. I would always doodle on scrap paper back in the day when phones were attached to the wall. You would talk on the phone and just start drawing. The wildest ideas would pop out because you weren't really trying to draw anything consciously, just freely enjoying the sensation of letting the pencil make a mark. Everybody does that. Right? My doodles usually took the form of some character with weird features. I really love the challenge of drawing a figure in space. Any way these little outbursts on the page gave me an idea to try and give them some life. So I began transferring some of the doodles to a lino block. The finished result is exciting because suddenly after weeks of carving you have this magic printing process that gives you the image in reverse.

What has been the relationship between music and visual Art in your life? What are the lines that connect: Music and Visual Art?

My interest in drawing brought me to Massachusetts College of Art after high school. There I became exposed to a variety of artistic expressions. I gravitated to the Studio of Interrelated Media (SIM). SIM was a performance art department. The elements of art were examined, light, sound, motion, time. There were no lines connecting Art with Music because they are one in the same. The difference seems to be boiled down to... how is the art documented? Can you see it on a page or hear it in a room. Can you put it on a wall or put it on a turntable and listen in your living room? Do you pay a dollar to stand in front of it? Or do you walk right over it on your way to work? How we interact with the information is as much the art form as the work itself.

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