Scott Healy has enjoyed a great career just outside of the limelight. The versatile, expressive keyboardist has been most visible for the past 20 years as a member of the house band on Conan O’Brien’s TV shows. The BMI composer has also racked up an impressive resume as a studio and live sideman and an arranger with rock, pop, jazz, blues and R&B stars including Bruce Springsteen, Ricky Martin, Bonnie Raitt and Al Green.
But this year the spotlight is shining directly on the Cleveland native and his main gig: jazz composer. Healy was nominated for a 2014 Best Instrumental Composition GRAMMY for “Koko on the Boulevard,” from his Scott Healy Ensemble’s debut album Hudson City Suite. The album is a sweeping, modern work that evokes the classic jazz orchestrations of one of Healy’s main influences, Duke Ellington, while exploring highly contemporary harmonic and melodic ideas in its themes. Hudson City Suite’s nine compositions have a scope, narrative appeal and emotional palette rare in contemporary jazz.
“I had to relax into being one of the first-call guys for piano, organ, vintage keyboards and accordion on big rock gigs — although that’s the kind of problem you want to have,” says Healy. “But I consider myself a composer first, and this nomination validates that.”
Healy spoke about his process and inspiration by phone from Los Angeles.
What does a GRAMMY nomination mean to you in personal, practical and artistic terms?
Having the respect of your peers and of people who you think are better artists than you is the ultimate validation. Professionally, it’s another notch in your belt — the first thing in your bio. You’re a GRAMMY-nominated artist for the rest of your life. I haven’t gotten any big checks yet as a result, but I imagine doors will open. It makes me want to write, and, in fact, I’m starting the production process on another album today.
How was Hudson City Suite conceived?
It was conceived as an orchestral exercise and stared with “Prelude,” which is almost an academic takedown of “Lightning Bugs and Frogs” from Duke Ellington’s Queen’s Suite. His devices are so striking. He was involved in every school of jazz that developed, even bebop to a certain extent, and then there were classical elements. The suites are what really got me — Queen’s Suite, Far East Suite, his reworking of the Nutcracker with Billy Strayhorn. I became enraptured by his sound and technique. He used counterpoint to convey harmony without writing chords. That’s very striking when you hear it in jazz, because jazz is usually about chords. I gave a nod to Ellington’s sound with plunger mutes and orchestrational devices like doubling the clarinet with saxophone. That evokes the jazz sound of the ’50s and ’60s. But it’s a tribute, not an attempt at recreation. There’s a lot more modern stuff in there.
As far as getting the idea for a suite, I needed to do something aligned with Ellington’s mantra of writing about the concrete — a concrete feeling or even an object, like a train. That’s something I never did before. I’d just been writing for myself. When I started composing, I was living in what used to be Hudson City [now part of Jersey City, New Jersey], and there were vestiges of it around in the architecture, the ethnic groups, hidden graveyards, abandoned factories, bridges to nowhere, tunnels with arches covered with weeds. The songs reflect real things and locations. “Franklin Steps” are a historic set of steps that lead down the cliff of the Palisades. “Central Trolley” is a trolley that may or may not have once run on Central Avenue. “Koko” is based on a neighborhood dog that got swiped by a car, and he was okay, but his owner was very colorful, and the event was strangely hilarious.
What were the complexities and challenges of composing a suite?
If you want the pieces of a suite to hang together and be clear, you need to be very economical with your ideas and develop four or five melodic motifs that reoccur. If you keep track of motifs while you’re writing, it makes it easier to come up with new pieces of the suite. I used a walking motif, which is kind of a bluesy, out-of-time thing, in “Franklin Steps,” and it’s also in “Summit Avenue Conversation” and a little bit in “Transfer.” There is a rising and falling motif in “Transfer” that comes back in “Interlude.” This was a long process. I started writing the pieces 15 years ago and finished 18 months ago, before the recording session.
What is your writing regimen and your inspiration points for composing?
My regimen is always changing, depending on the TV show or whatever studio work I’m doing. But I think about composing every day or look at what I’m working on at night before I go to bed or first thing when I wake up. Keep the project going in your mind and ideas will come. What puts a fire under me is hearing something new on the radio or computer, or being inspired by hearing someone play.
Why did you establish your own label to issue Hudson City Suite?
I wanted to put out a few of my unreleased recordings on CD. I digitally released an ensemble record called A Song Without Words from 1989. I hadn’t put that out before except on the Maxell cassette label… [laughs] I also put out a quartet record, Northern Light, from 1991 with a guitarist named Glenn Alexander. And I re-released another record I did in the late ’90s with a band called the Coalition, Naked Movies. That’s a progressive jazz/electronica record.
How does playing many genres of music — pop, jazz, blues, rock— ground you as a musician?
Learning how to play rock, R&B, blues and these other styles for Conan really opened me up a lot. As a sideman I’ve learned that it’s all about economy; it’s all well thought out and the stylistic interpretation is most important. When you know the difference between Chicago blues, a Texas shuffle and New Orleans gumbo, you can approach those styles almost like a composer, analyze what makes them move and incorporate that into your playing.
Who are the three composers who have most influenced you?
Herbie Hancock, Wayner Shorter and Ellington… then Bob Brookmeyer and Gil Evans, as large ensemble writers. The late Romantic/early Modern composers Ravel and Debussy and Schoenberg also influence me; I always say that Debussy was the first jazz composer. I’m also influenced by a couple of teachers I studied with, especially Joseph Schwantner, who was in the contemporary classical realm and had a much different way of looking at rhythm and harmony. I studied with him at the Eastman School of Music, where I received my composition degree.
What advice would you give to composers starting out?
Listen and write, and if you’re stuck, figure out what makes something you like work and try that. And don’t get trapped in a genre. A lot of young composers are getting their degrees and trying to figure out how to have a career, and one of the few ways to have a career is to compose for film. If you only do that you might never write anything more than, say, 1:47 long. Try writing something with a beginning, a middle and an end that says something on its own. Keep yourself open to a lot of different stuff, and support live music. Just about every time I hear live music I bring something home with me, maybe a vibe or an idea; I’m excited when I hear others’ work. Get out there and support live music.
Then there’s networking, which is important. Composers spend a lot of time at home in front of their computers and score paper. Many don’t know a lot of other composers. Players are out doing gigs and studio work, and hanging out, getting each other gigs. Players are in this regard involved in a natural networking situation with their peers. I think it’s really important for composers to network like that, in addition to pursuing potential employers or creative opportunities.
What is your favorite live venue?
The Village Vanguard in New York, or Severance Hall in Cleveland, where I grew up listening to the Cleveland Orchestra.
Why did you join BMI?
I joined BMI when I had a song on a record or a co-write for the first time. BMI really felt nicer… it felt right. I was told BMI was stronger for TV, so I became very much a BMI composer when I from time to time contributed music to Conan’s shows. Plus, BMI has great networking opportunities. They do panels at Sundance and elsewhere, and they are very supportive of composers. Plus, they’re good people.