New York City, in attitude as well as geography, is considered a polar opposite from Hawaii. But string bass player Shawn Conley, a Punahou grad now living in Brooklyn, has found it to have as much aloha as his home state.
"Across the board, everybody’s so nice and so helpful, which is not what I expected," Conley said during a recent visit home. "I expected more of the cutthroat (attitude), but it was really a lot like the Hawaii musicians."
Talent, hard work and a record of accomplishment get that kind of respect, and Conley has been earning it since leaving Hawaii in 2001. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from Rice University, winning a scholarship to study in Paris in between. In 2009, his first year "out of school," he won a major bass competition, placed third in another and played with the Hawaii-based jazz group Bop Tribal on its inaugural CD, which got some early Grammy buzz. He usually sits in with Bop Tribal members during his visits back to the islands.
He also can be heard on the soundtrack to "True Grit," the recent remake of the John Wayne classic, which provided another challenge.
"The level of perfection is high, but the time that they take to do it is pretty quick because of budget concerns and studio time," said Conley, who played with an orchestra during a gunbattle scene and an interrogation scene. "You go in and sit down, and they put the music in front of you; and the composer is also the conductor, and they tell you what the scene is that you’re going to play and you play it. They go back and listen to it and then tell you a couple of things, you record it again and then move on."
It’s all the result of a life-changing choice Conley faced as a fifth-grader: Either go to study hall or try out some musical instruments at an "instrument petting zoo."
"I was like, ‘All right, let’s do this,’" said Conley, opting for music. "I tried them all out and they were all fine, but when I tried the bass, it was just really fun. It was bigger than I was, and it made all these loud, low, rumbly tones."
Still, he was "more interested in surfing" until his teacher, George Wellington of the Hono-lulu Symphony, convinced his parents to send him to a bass convention in the mid-1990s.
"I saw these amazing bass players doing these things that I had no idea you could do on the bass," Conley recalled. "You can’t go to a concert like that and not want to play the bass."
Life as a full-time professional musician in the Big Apple is exciting and fulfilling for Conley. "There’s so much music there," Conley said. "It’s hard to walk into a bar or restaurant and not find music there."
With a background and training in orchestra, he is in demand for classical music as well as jazz. He recently toured Europe with the Knights, a New York-based chamber orchestra known for innovative programming. He also plays as a guest artist with the Nashville Symphony.
Otherwise, he is out listening to music and learning from other bassists, studying their solos so that at a moment of inspiration, he can incorporate an idea or theme into a solo.
"It’s like learning how to talk," he said. "You’ve never said this sentence exactly how you’re saying it now, but you’ve said the words a hundred times."
His only complaint is that he doesn’t get to practice as much as he would like. Even as a teenager, he practiced until the wee hours of the morning, enjoying the physical dimension of playing such a large instrument as much as the artistry of it.
"I can feel the bass against my body," he said. "When my fingers are really into the string, it feels like everything is just … planted, solid. With the bow, I just love being able to put out all this resonance."