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John Scofield: Eclecticism in Action

By Published: May 11, 2005
JS: I met him in 1973 when he came to Berklee to teach and I was a student there. Steve only came to teach for one year because he really didn't want to be a teacher. He really became my mentor while he was there. We just started to jam together and really hit it off. I could tell he thought I played okay, and I thought he was great. We really didn't play any gigs together at that time, though. It wasn't until I joined Gary Burton's band in 1977 that we were in a band together. Pat Metheny had decided to quit Gary Burton's band and start his own group, and Steve was Gary's bassist. After that, Steve and I started to play some trio gigs in 1979, and we've been playing on and off ever since then.

AAJ: Steve's certainly managed to create a unique sound on electric bass—and was one of the first jazz bass players to go electric. Talk a little bit about his approach to bass.

JS: He's got this acoustic, very warm thing happening. And he plays with a pick! It's really weird—nobody plays like that. Part of it is he started playing electric bass before the current jazz electric bass styles took hold. Back then in jazz, there were only a couple of guys even playing electric bass. Swallow actually gave up acoustic bass and made the move to electric bass very early. Since then he's gone through all these instrumental changes to get exactly the sound he wants. He has a really customized instrument that's really different from any other electric bass. And actually, it's not totally accurate to say Steve makes electric bass sound acoustic. He really makes it sound like some other thing entirely. But he incorporates the jazz tradition of the acoustic bass in it—and that warmth. But it's definitely another thing.

AAJ: How about the drummer in your trio, Bill Stewart? How did you meet him — and why did you pick him as a member of the band?

JS: I first met Bill in 1989. He was just getting started in New York City and was beginning to play around the scene after graduating from college. He was playing some with Joe Lovano, and Joe was about to join my group at that time as well. I heard Bill and thought, man, this guy is just too much. I've got to get him in my band. I just had to have him in the group because even though he was still only 24, he was a giant even then. He's just one of those guys who are super-talented. It's just amazing the rhythms he can get to.

AAJ: It seems that whenever I read an interview with you, you're always asked about your time with Miles Davis. And while I'm sure it was a great experience for you, I'm really intrigued by some of your earlier musical experiences—especially with drummer Billy Cobham back in the mid-1970s. After he left the John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, he started his own band, and you became part of that band for several years. Talk about that experience.

JS: It was January 1975 when I joined that band. And looking back on it, that was really an introduction to a whole different world. That whole jazz-fusion band touring scene—when there was Mahavishnu, Return to Forever, Herbie Hancock's Headhunters and Cobham's band was amazing. We played theaters and big shows—a lot of times opposite all those other bands and Weather Report and Miles' band with Dave Liebman and Reggie Lucas. Plus it was still kind of the end of the hippie rock and roll days. Led Zeppelin was still around, and I remember after George Duke joined Cobham, Frank Zappa would be hanging around, because George had just left Zappa's band. We used to play a lot in California, especially the Bay area, and I can remember meeting the guys in Santana and Tower of Power.

AAJ: How did you end up getting the job with Cobham?

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