Our man Max Owre chats with his pal Andy Cotton about life as a member of the Gordon Stone Trio and the zen of playing bass.
When I was asked to interview Andy Cotton, I had to admit that I may not be the most qualified to give an “objective” interview. He has been a very close friend of mine for close to ten years and those years have included good times and not so good times. We were in a band together called Rina Bijou and since we broke up in 1994, Andy has made a name for himself playing with many local and regional acts including the Parima Jazz Band, Michael Ray and the Cosmic Krewe, the New England Exploratory Orchestra, Tobias Broccoli (with Brian Boyes), Jonestown Punch, and most recently the Gordon Stone Trio. He has also sat in with just about every musician in Vermont.
His style on his instrument is idiosyncratic and instantly recognizable. He is currently sharing his sound and philosophy as an adjunct faculty member at Johnson State College. Andy also wanted me to let the world know that he is open for gigs and lessons, so let’s get his phone ringing…
Good Citizen: Andy, can you run through some of your early experiences? Where did it start? You started on trumpet?
Andy Cotton: No. Saxophone, but…inconsequential. Then years later I was the only one of my friends not to play an instrument, and none of them wanted to play bass. So… I got one.
GC: So life didn’t really start for you until college. Tell me about college. I know that we played together in college at UVM, and you were doing other stuff in Slade Hall.
AC: College was a down time for me. I got to college and got really busy. I took a year off just to play, and that might have made the decision for me.
GC: Is that when you went to Norway?
AC: When I went to Norway, and I lived in the mountains and played and skied.
GC: So, why Norway? Was that a decision based on music?
AC: I’ve always loved mountains and it’s beautiful there and I knew it was a place that would be quiet and I’d have the time to play. I went to a school that supposedly had a music program. I got there and found out there was pretty much a music program for beginners who wanted to play in a marching band and they only taught in Norwegian, which I didn’t know at the time. So I started to self study, and there was a teacher that would come and teach guitar and bass, he was from Chile.
GC: Which is really close to Norway.
AC: So I went to Norway and ended up learning about Latin and Salsa bass. Which was a really great thing… all those crazy rhythms he had me going back and forth between the threes and the fours. He had me playing these really syncopated lines, and really let me play my own things. Came back- went to college, didn’t like it, couldn’t wait to be done, met you and Neil and all those guys (actually two other guys, Oliver Carling and T.J. Stacy) and started Rina Bijou.
GC: Would you say that Rina Bijou was your first professional music experience? In terms of making some beau coup? Like we made a ton of money?
AC: (laughing) Tens of dollars. Rina Bijou was the first of a lot of things, and I’m not sure I can describe what those all are. But definitely the first original music thing that I was involved in where I had a part in the writing of the music and liked the stuff. At the time, with the five of us, it seemed like it was the thing. Like we would do that one band for the rest of our lives. We had our influences but we just kinda went down there (the basement of the Flynn annex), and it was all based on what we thought was cool, and that is how we made our decisions. It ended coming out with really good undiluted music. Then time went on and we started playing pieces like (censored) and said “Okay, we are going to change what we are doing to please the dancers” and it just didn’t work. You know we’re not commercial musicians, Max. I think that we are doomed.
GC: When I first met you Andy, you were very much into jazz, and you sort of denied being a “jazz bassist.” You said that no musician is any one genre, but you have played with just about every jazz player in town. How did the jazz thing start?
AC: Well, I started studying jazz because I wanted to learn more about music. It seemed like if you wanted to learn, you have to learn from somewhere, and every interesting avenue I found had to do with jazz. You can study classical, but I just didn’t connect to that music or don’t understand it- that will be something for later in life that I will grow into. As time went on I learned to listen to forty minute improvisations and really like them and really listen to every minute of it. So the natural extension of it came in college. Somebody gave me a Thelonious Monk tape, and I listened to “Blue Monk” and I realized that what was happening with Thelonious Monk was really burning and I could leave the Dead behind. What I found was a more harmonic and rhythmic intensity, and also a deeper exploration of music.
GC: Knowing you as a musician I think to call you a jazz bassist is a misnomer because you can play in the genre but you are not limited by the genre. That’s what gives people a sense of identity. The same thing is true of rock, don’t you think? With a genre like rock and roll the same confines apply. Especially with rock and roll where you are told: “Dude, play the one on the one.”
AC: Yeah, fortunately I haven’t had too much of that. A little bit of that, Jimmy Branca used to give me the eye, you know like “Play bass!” I’d say, “Okay, I’d rather play saxophone, but I will play bass for you.” There is really beauty in all music, and I’ve had a great time at Charlie O’s with Jimmy Branca. Times when you shut your eyes and the song is over, and you want to start another song before you open your eyes and an eighty year old toothless woman starts drooling on you.
GC: A pretty picture. What is the relationship between ensemble playing and improvisation? There is an element of ensemble playing where you really are restricted to a rote pattern or part and the magic of it is when you realize “I’m playing my part right” and it is fitting in with what everyone else is doing. Certainly bass.
AC: I take a lot of pleasure in that.
GC: How about improvisation. What do you think of it?
AC: (Laughing) I think that the ultimate goal is to become a great improviser. To me the musicians who are the heaviest are always the ones who, whenever they play, it’s always what’s coming out of their heads and it’s always intensely beautiful. That’s where I want to get to. I’d like to be at that point. In the meantime there are things you have to do, like being an ensemble player – you have to learn to get in the pocket on all different kinds of things. Basically, cause I’m not going to just do it with jazz. So, I want to know how to play good funk groove.
GC: What about the bluegrass element? You are playing with Gordon Stone.
AC: Well, we don’t do just bluegrass. We do some bluegrass, but Gordon never asked me to play or learn bluegrass bass. Basically we hold no style as our own. We want to bring out the feeling of each tune, whether it’s a reggae tune, jazz tune or bluegrass tune. Playing real bluegrass bass has a lot to do with having the sound and the feel for time. If you’re a reggae player you feel time one way, and if you’re a bluegrass player you understand it in a different way. I’m neither. I can play those things and it won’t sound like bluegrass or reggae…it still sounds like me playing those things.
GC: Upright bass is a relatively new thing for you. How does it compare to electric bass?
AC: Learning upright has been fantastic. I’ve really enjoyed playing it, it brings out different aspects of my playing. Now, three years into it..it has made me be more careful about the things I play. I like upright and really I’m a student of upright. I do play it out occasionally, but I feel like I’m still an electric player who is upright now. They are really different instruments. You play the same stuff, but you don’t play the same stuff.
GC: The compositional and arranging facets of a group of people writing together is interesting to me. What are your thoughts on this?
AC: Well, Rina was a real lesson in that. We went into it with no idea of what we were doing and our first three songs were verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge. Suddenly, there is a pattern there. Rina was my first experience with that. After that there was a period of freelance work for me. The band broke up, as well you know.
AC: Yes, so after that I didn’t make any decisions, but the gigs kept on coming. Then I hooked up with different people to play jazz with. That’s when Mackey (Abernathy-tenor sax) and I started to play at Muddy Waters. Then we got the gig at Parima, and that is where I really learned how to play jazz. When we started to play that gig, I started to get familiar with the music so I wasn’t thinking about every chord change. Eventually the tunes we played a lot I knew well enough so that I didn’t have to look at the charts and I could start to experiment with the notes and try to make it musical.
GC: In the future, do you want to do your own project or would you always want to be part of a group?
GC: How about the musical academia? What are your feelings about that now that you are teaching?
AC: People want to learn, and if you can help them learn, part of that is teaching them things, but people don’t want to be taught things. So as a teacher you’re more of a ‘learning helper.’ There are some schools that can intensify that experience, because everyone is looking for the same thing. The teachers at the good schools are exceptional. I think for years Johnson has had a great program with Andy Shapiro, Steve Blair, Dave Grippo, Joe Salisbury and a strong music faculty.
Now…they have me. (Laughter.)
GC: Is Vermont a large enough venue for a musician like yourself, who has had a niche style of playing and ambitions on a worldly scale? Can it happen here?
AC: The only way people are going to hear your stuff: they either have your recordings or they see you play. Without a major recording industry in Vermont… Burlington is not L.A. or Athens.
GC: Athens is a very old Greek city.
AC: Really, if you want people here to hear you play, you have to go out and do it for them, and that’s coming back into style.
GC: What do you feel about aging as a musician? Getting old?
AC: I don’t know. I only feel old half the time. Sometimes with respect to music I feel very young.
Andy Cotton can be seen all over Burlington playing with various bands but as the Gordon Stone Trio gets busier and tours the country with more frequency, Andy will be a lot harder to find around town. Andy Cotton will make his mark on music and that is a fact. Catch him while you can at smaller local venues, because his caliber of playing is a rarity in a small city like ours. ~GC~
Max Owre is guitarist/vocalist with the band (sic) and is a former member of both Rina Bijou and Motel Brown. His guitar playing can be heard on Motel Brown’s 1996 CD Too Much Time. Max and his wife Ceara are also the proud parents of a one year old daughter named Sara Josephine.