Spyro Gyra bassist shares the story of his upbringing, career highlights and how he’s held the same gig for over two decades!
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
July 28, 2014
Scott Ambush has been the bass player with American jazz/fusion band Spyro Gyra since 1992.
FBPO: How would you describe your musical upbringing?
SA: My mother was a wonderful Gospel singer. When she was young, she traveled across Georgia and Alabama with her mother and two sisters. After marrying my dad, she moved to Maryland and sang in the local churches there. Consequently, our house was full of great Gospel music by the likes of Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, Andraé Crouch and the Mighty Clouds of Joy. Many R&B artists of the day got their start in the church, so there was some crossover in her music and her tastes. I was introduced to Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Etta James and Curtis Mayfield, who were products of the church before they crossed over into secular music. There were also records by artists like James Brown, Chuck Berry and one of her favorites, Isaac Hayes.
When I became old enough to make my own musical choices, my friends and I were drawn toward rock artists like Hendrix, Black Sabbath, Grand Funk Railroad and more. At the same time, my R&B roots were still there because we also listened to Parliament Funkadelic, the Isley Brothers, Graham Central Station, Rare Earth, WAR and Earth Wind & Fire. My uncle was a wonderfully natural musician who played in local bands. He played a huge part in reawakening those R&B roots.
At that time, the “artificial” boundaries between genres weren’t so stringently drawn by the record companies and radio. You could hear many of those acts on the same radio station, played by the same DJ.
FBPO: How did you become a bass player?
SA: I actually wanted to play the drums! I was 12 and my buddies wanted to start a band. The drum chair – pardon the pun! – was already taken. Not to be left out, I begged my dad to get me a bass for my birthday. He finally caved and here we are today! I still have a love for the drums and drummers. I think that’s a positive thing for any bassist.
FBPO: Who were your bass influences?
SA: Initially, they were the bassists in whatever bands I happened to be enamored with at the time: Noel Redding and Billy Cox from Hendrix’s band, Mel Schacher of GFR, Bootsy Collins, Verdine White. When I started to listen to fusion and jazz, I heard the virtuosity of those bassists and began to follow them as individuals, rather than just as band members.
I guess the first guy that really made me sit up and go, “What the hell was that?!” was Larry Graham. What a revelation! Then there was Abraham Laboriel, Stanley Clarke, Percy Jones and Anthony Jackson. To hear Anthony on the O’Jays’ “For the Love Of Money” early on and then later on Al Dimeola’s Land of the Midnight Sun and Chick Corea’s The Leprechaun… Wow!
FBPO: How did your career get rolling? What kind of gigs were you doing, initially?
SA: Actually, I started performing for people not long after forming that band with my buddies. Our parents would drive us to gigs at the local military base, AMVETS club and church functions. I guess it really got started when I went to college at the University of Maryland. Being so close to DC, I was able to wade into that pool of clubs and musicians. Before long, I was playing more than studying, doing everything from blues to jazz, R&B to rock.
FBPO: How did the Spyro Gyra gig come to be?
SA: Through doing various gigs with people like Stanley Turrentine, Special EFX, Noel Pointer and Lonnie Liston Smith, I was recommended for the auditions. A funny thing that happened was that the auditions were held in New York City in the dead of winter. The truck carrying the band’s backline wouldn’t start because of the bitter cold. Unfortunately, that pushed the schedule back and caused a pileup of guys waiting to audition in the waiting area. I remember coming out after my turn and recognizing all these great players who were following me. We all were all were like, ”You’re here too?!”
FBPO: You’ve been with that band for a long time – over twenty years. That’s pretty rare.
SA: It is. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of a situation where I’ve been afforded the freedom to express myself creatively and perform for people all over the world. The band still has a huge following. We’ve always tried to keep the music fresh by being open to and drawing from any and every influence and challenging ourselves to write music that we love, rather than for some particular demographic or format. The band has released more than thirty albums – I’ve been a part of more than half of those – and we’ve tried to approach every one with an open mind and a fresh perspective.
Of course, there are two very important factors to acknowledge. One is that the logistical side of the equation has always been well managed, the things that get you from point A to point B. Our manager, our booking agents, our travel agents all do a great job of taking care of business. The amount of stress and chaos that is alleviated is not to be underestimated.
More important is the relationship between the guys in the band. We really are like a band of brothers. If there is time off on the road, more often than not, we hang out together, seeing sights, eating or having a drink. Like family, there are the occasional disagreements, but they are always worked out without drama and never go very deep.
FBPO: Having been with the band for so long, traveling to so many countries and doing so many recordings, you must have at least one good Spryro Gyra story you can share with us!
SA: Wow! Where to start? Many of the stories get long and involved, so I’ll give you a relatively brief one. We were doing a tour of Indonesia. One of the stops was the mountain city of Bandung. After a particularly hair-raising ride along narrow elevated roads, we arrived for the gig. We were set to play that afternoon under a wooden structure at the base of a sloping hill outside a municipal building. Unfortunately, the equipment left much to be desired. In particular, the PA was barely working. Neil Stadtmiller, our sound man, who is a whiz at making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, went to work piecing this thing together so that we would have something approaching decent sound. At one point, he was literally squatting down on the ground soldering wires together with a group of the Indonesian “techs” down on their haunches, marveling at what he was doing. There were “oohs” and “ahhs” with every puff of smoke as though he were inventing fire.
Needless to say, this took quite some time. Unfortunately, time was not on our side and the Muslim call to prayer rang out, requiring all work to stop. After the break, work continued to set up for the gig. Because of the lengthy technical delays, the less than state-of-the-art gear and recognition of the local religious customs, it was nearly dusk by the time we were ready to start. Of course, the gig was originally scheduled for mid afternoon, so no provision was made for lights! None! The solution? Throughout the show, each of us was accompanied by someone with a fluorescent light fixture attached to a long electrical cord holding said fixture over our head for the entire show! It was Spyro Gyra as Indonesian Shadow Puppet theater!
FBPO: Great story! Tell me about your equipment.
SA: As far as basses are concerned, I hand-build my basses myself. I do everything from design to construction to wiring to finishing. In the past, I’ve used composite necks that were custom molded for me by Moses Graphite Products. I carved the original plug and a mold was taken from that.
I’ve used Bartolini pickups and preamps predominantly, with Hipshot hardware. On my most recent basses I’ve switched to making the necks myself, integrating maple and carbon fiber in a five-piece laminated configuration. My present bass has a maple burl top over swamp ash. I’ve also switched to Babicz Full Contact bridges. They’re awesome! They incorporate a cam system inside a saddle to adjust string height. This allows the entire saddle to make contact with the bridge plate, rather than with just two height adjustment screws. It really makes a difference. Also, this bass has Nordstrand Big Splits under custom covers, with a John East preamp.
As far as amplification goes, on the road with Spyro, I use rented back line as per the rider, usually Eden, SWR. I’ve gotten quite a few Aguilar and MarkBass rigs, which sound good as well. Locally, I have an Eden WT800 and two 2×10 cabs, one Eden, and one LowPhat. Defintely looking for a new personal rig at the moment, though. For effects I have a Line Six M9 stomp box modeler.
FBPO: What’s keeping you busy these days?
SA: Well, a little bit of everything. Spyro has had a great year with bookings. This is the 40th anniversary of the band and the 35th anniversary of “Morning Dance,” so we’ve been out celebrating with the fans. I also gig fairly regularly with Deanna Bogart, who is a great pianist, saxophonist, singer/songwriter and friend. She terms her music “Bluesion” because, though it’s based in the blues, it goes so much farther.
I build basses to order for other players and have a few in the pipeline now. Unfortunately, with my schedule, it takes a little longer to finish one, but I’m putting some things in place now that will significantly reduce the wait. I’ll still be making them myself, though. The players who’ve ordered them have found them worth the wait, fortunately. I’m planning a booth at NAMM next year.
Something else that I’ve done recently is mixing music. I just mixed a couple of songs for a wonderful singer/songwriter named Anjani Thomas. In addition to her own CDs, she’s written and worked quite a bit with Leonard Cohen. I’ve always enjoyed the studio process and particularly enjoyed mixing those tunes. The process was complicated by the fact that she now lives in Croatia. Modern technology to the rescue!
FBPO: How about the future? What else would you like to do that you haven’t already accomplished?
SA: Bring about world peace! Speaking seriously, I’m writing for my solo CD now. I’ve been talking about it forever and people are constantly asking me when I’m going to do one. I’d really like to build the bass building in to a thriving business. I get so many positive comments about the sound, live and in the studio. Ultimately, I just want to continue to grow, as a musician and a person. I was a psychology major at Maryland and I’m still fascinated with what makes us tick. As a musician, I think it’s good to step back and take a look at your process and how you relate to the music, but there comes a time when it’s best to just let go and let your heart take over.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
SA: I have a real fascination with how things work, how they’re made and the creative process. I’ve never been afraid to take something apart and put it back together. My motto is, “If I can acquire the tools and the knowledge, I can do anything.” I’ve renovated bathrooms, rebuilt engines, painted cars and recently replaced the screen and battery in my iPhone. Don’t tell Apple! [Laughs] I’ve loved the automobile since I was a kid and thought about studying architecture or even medicine.
Perhaps I would be a car designer or customizer or an architect or custom home designer. I’m fortunate in that I get little glimpses of those things in my life now.