Covering the Basses

Frederick's Scott Ambush is a Citizen of the World with a Local Band

By Kate Poindexter | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 10.01.13 – In the Studio, Lifestyles, Music

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When Scott Ambush performs, the local favorite morphs into the Grammy-nominated artist. As the bass player for the international jazz-fusion pioneers Spyro Gyra, Ambush helps produce the band’s famous cool rhythms. But on any given Saturday or Sunday evening, he may be playing rhythm and blues, funk, or even rock in Baker Park, in local bars, or regional clubs. Leave a message on his cell phone and he’s just as likely to call you back from New York, South Africa or Frederick.

He’s traveled the world and made a name for himself on the international stage, meeting and performing with jazz legends such as tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine and drummer/vibraphonist Omar Hakim. The greatest part of the year for Frederick’s native son is touring for weeks at a time, but he always returns to his hometown.

“Frederick is family and friends,” he says.

Ambush’s local roots run deep. He is the son of Webster and Jeanette Ambush, has three siblings and a multitude of cousins and extended family in the area. His father is a retired FAA air traffic controller and a builder who constructed Ambush’s boyhood home. His mother was a homemaker, nurse and soprano in the St. Paul AME church choir. Ambush’s own interest in music came at an early age, according to his guitar teacher.

“Scott was about 12 years old when I first started teaching him,” says Steve Hissey of Steve Hissey Guitar Studio on East Street in Frederick. “He was a quiet, shy kid and he had a natural talent that I can’t take credit for. He was into [Jimi] Hendrix back then and was in a rock band at Frederick Middle School. Even then, he seemed serious and determined and focused on playing music. Evidently, it was his calling—what he was meant to do.”

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Ambush was a founding member of the band The Cool Jerks and played with The Rhythm Method, Dr. Blue and the Disorderlies, and Tabu. He collaborates often with other local and regional musicians including Deanna Bogart and The Knight Brothers. He also assembles various musicians for shows in local venues and sometimes bills the concoctions as Scott Ambush and Friends.

Beyond the basses, Ambush has a multitude of other talents and interests. At Frederick High, in addition to the jazz ensemble, he played football. He was, and remains, a self-described “gear head” and as a teenager bought a ’67 Camaro without an engine and methodically pieced one together. He tinkers with cars and motorcycles to this day. He has created logos, written for Bass Player Magazine and wants to learn to paint and sculpt. Over the years he learned to design and build bass guitars and maintains six to 12 instruments at any given time. Any one of his hobbies could rise to the level of a career track, but there are so many places to go and there is so much music to perform.

He calls the local live music scene vibrant. “There’s actually a lot of music,” he says, and a lot of places to enjoy it. He cites businesses such as Café Nola, JoJo’s Restaurant & Tap House, The Cellar Door, Firestone’s, Bushwaller’s, Magoo’s, Jekyll and Hyde, Café 611, Griff’s Landing, and The Canal Bar & Grill that feature bands on a regular basis. He fondly remembers the old Carroll Creek Dam on Market Street. “I used to play there with Tabu and even played there with a bluegrass band once.”

Playing, Recording and Connecting

Of course it was the music that brought him recognition and eventually landed him an audition with Spyro Gyra, the jazz band founded by saxophonist Jay Beckenstein. He didn’t get the nod for the job on his first try, but was called back to New York to audition when the spot opened up again. On Christmas Eve 1991 he received the news that he was in. “It was OK,” he recalls, laughing. He made his studio debut with Spyro Gyra in 1992 on the album Three Wishes. Twenty-one years and 15 albums later, he’s still providing the bass line for the band, most often playing one of his handmade Ambush Custom five-string bass guitars.

On recordings and on stage, Ambush joins band mates Beckenstein, pianist Tom Schuman, guitarist Julio Fernandez and drummer Lee Pearson. Since its debut in 1977, Spyro Gyra has become a formidable force in jazz music, releasing 32 albums, switching comfortably from studio to stage, and back again. On its new record, Rhinebeck Sessions, set to be released this fall, band members assembled for live sessions in Rhinebeck, N.Y., actually writing and trying out new material in-studio, then sending tracks for mixing to a separate studio in Kentucky. Later, they listened to edits posted on an internet cloud file-sharing program. Throughout the production process musicians and technicians emailed comments back and forth to each other.

While technology’s effect on the culture as a whole and music in particular can be debated by artists and fans alike, Ambush says, “It has leveled the playing field for a lot of people to make a professional-sounding album, and that’s a great thing.”

Even so, he says he knows that audiences connect with live music in a special way, as a special form of communication. “The experience of seeing live music will always be an interaction for people, an ebb and flow. It will always be there. I’d like to think it will anyway.”

He describes a moment when the live audience connection struck him profoundly. He was in Cape Town, South Africa, in an arena with 10,000 people. The band started the opening notes of Morning Dance and the audience started swaying and humming along. “I got goose bumps,” he says.

Ambush says he still feels like a kid when he’s performing music out on the road. “I’ve never felt my age,” he says. What he does feel is fortunate to be able to see the world while playing this timeless, borderless music.