John Scofield: Up Close & Personal

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I've been really lucky because I've gotten to play with a lot of my idols. To say that any one of them was more fun to play with than any other would be wrong. I was just lucky to get into a room with these guys.
No different from your prototypical professor, John Scofield is eager to chat (be it to audiences or to interviewers) and eager to hear from fresh young minds. Hence his trio's current tour of college campuses on a co-bill with the Brad Mehldau Trio. But John Scofield is not your prototypical professor. A master jazz improviser, he has a canon of work that rivals any of the greats. And he's just getting started.

Along the way, Scofield has played with a veritable who's who of jazz musicians. From Mulligan to Miles, Hancock to Harris, Shorter to Stewart and everyone in between, Scofield has been in the thick of the jazz scene for decades. He has all of his influences in order and simply enjoys playing, regardless of who with. When asked about his body of collaborations with these artists, he responded humbly, "I've been really lucky because I've gotten to play with a lot of my idols. To say that any one of them was more fun to play with than any other would be wrong. I was just lucky to get into a room with these guys. He further noted, "I was able to learn about the history of jazz through them. I'm a jazz fan almost first before I'm a guitarist. I just loved getting to find out who these people were.

While his resume of collaborations is impressive, it tells only part of the story. Scofield has developed his own voice, both in improvisation and in composition. Many of his recent albums, beginning with 1993's Hand Jive, exhibit a unique combination of r&b, funk and jazz that has brought a new wave of younger fans to the idiom. His style is instantly recognizable, as much indebted to the great bluesmen as to the aforementioned jazz giants. His blues influence is in full view on 1995's Groove Elation. The album is deceptively simple in structure, going through what seem to be obvious chord changes and using logical clusters of notes to build solos. Yet it has a deepness to it; with each subsequent listen something new surfaces. When asked about the album in comparison to Miles' Kind of Blue, Scofield comments, "I definitely was trying to get simpler, but I think I'm always trying to simplify in that Kind of Blue is simple and really direct but deep. We were also in a really bluesy element in Groove Elation. Larry Goldings was really getting his own voice on the Hammond B3, and Dennis was the perfect bassist to play this kind of funky upright. The tunes were good on that album, it was a good period for me for writing for people. Everybody played so well. We were able to play simply together. Like Kind of Blue, the melodies on Groove Elation feel like you've heard them a million times.

Scofield's current trio with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart takes a completely different approach. They are as close to a reflection on the past as Scofield has ever done, playing essentially post-bop. But their music is quite vibrant, representing in all likelihood Scofield's busiest playing to date. The dynamic between the three players borders on the telepathic, Swallow's bass acting as a second guitar and Stewart's drums inventing polyrhythms while keeping perfect time. Scofield commented on the dynamic that exists between the three, saying, "It's my band, but I can't tell those guys what to do. Jazz is a cooperative thing. Both these guys are actually complete stylists. I wouldn't say I'm the leader but I bring in the tunes. And the tunes are numerous, drawing from both Scofield's and Swallow's repertoires as well as various standards and pop songs.

The setlists have also recently included some new songs, hopefully songs that will be included in future projects. Scofield recently recorded a new album entitled That's What I Say, earmarked for release in June. On this album, Scofield pays homage to the great Ray Charles, recording a group of selections from the Charles canon with a core band supplemented by various guest appearances. The core band consists of Scofield (guitar), Steve Jordan (drums), Willie Weeks (bass), and Larry Goldings (piano, organ). Guests include Dr. John, Aaron Neville, Mavis Staples, Warren Haynes, John Mayer, and David "Fathead Newman. This album marks a milestone for Scofield in that it's his first encounter with vocals. In his own words, "Working with vocalists could be awful. That's why I'm a jazz guitarist. But this recording doesn't comprise just any group of vocalists. According to Scofield, they are "legends of the r&b world, to get them on the record was a dream come true. When Verve Records initially broached the idea of a tribute album, Scofield was unimpressed. But as he thought more about it, he realized Ray Charles was more than just an influence on his playing; Ray's music is his favorite music to listen to. Says Scofield, "I consider myself to have one foot in jazz and one in r&b, and Ray was the first person to do that.

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