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John Scofield: Sco'in For It

By Published: September 21, 2006
John ScofieldOne would shortchange guitar maestro John Scofield substantially by describing him simply as a jazz musician. He has played in various genres from fusion to straight ahead to soul jazz. He made his first recordings as a leader in the mid-1970s and several years later landed the gig of his career by joining Miles' band shortly after Davis' emergence from the shadows of a self-imposed exile. Today, at 54, Scofield continues to grow by expanding into new territories. He has collaborated with composer Mark-Anthony Turnage on Scorched (Deutsch Grammophon, 2005), a jazz/classical amalgam that puts a modernist spin on some of Scofield's tunes; he's also worked with DJ Logic on the hip hop flavored track "Cars Trucks Buses featured on a CD tribute to Phish. And in the fall he's got a trio tour on tap with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart, continuing the fine work captured on the Verve release EnRoute (Verve, 2004).

"I've been having as much fun as I've ever had playing music, Scofield said during a recent phone conversation, having just returned from a South Carolina vacation. "It's been fantastic doing a bunch of different stuff. I'm lovin' it. One of those ventures is as a member of Trio Beyond with drummer Jack DeJohnette and keyboardist Larry Goldings. "A couple of years ago Jack was the artist-in-residence [at the] Montreal Jazz Festival [and] we tried to put it together then but neither Larry nor I could make it, Scofield recalled. "But we always had it in the back of our heads [that] we'd like to do some trio stuff.

Their live release, Saudades (ECM, 2006), pays tribute to Tony Williams, a brilliant musician who revolutionized jazz drumming at an age where most other young men are trying to negotiate their hormones. The song selections and group dynamics acknowledge Williams' tenure with the Miles Davis Quintet and his own groundbreaking trio Lifetime with guitarist John McLaughlin and organist Larry Young. "It was great to give it up for Tony Williams, Scofield said. "In a way, he's underrated. Miles said that Tony was the instigator of a lot of that music. At 17, man! Unbelievable! I don't think there's been a child prodigy in jazz like that since. There have been some other great players, sure, but Tony was an innovator, man. The way he played in 1963 changed jazz drumming. It was so aggressive, y'know? Balls to the wall.

The homage to Williams, the synergy of the trio and the dynamics of live recording were the perfect confluence of elements for Scofield. "You know, jazz is a real live thing, he explained. "I think live recordings tend to capture the best playing. Studio records are great for the sound and production and everything but [there's] nothing like the gig for the actual playing. And playing with Jack and Larry is the best. I can't imagine better people to play with on either instrument. I thought that it was particularly fitting that it was Jack's idea to do a tribute to Tony, seeing as Jack was his immediate replacement in Miles' band. The great thing about people like Tony and Miles is that if you do a tribute to them, what you really want to do is just play jazz as best you can. That's the tribute.

Scofield playfully braces himself when the compulsory subject of Miles Davis is broached ("Uh-oh, here it comes! The M.D. question! ), but his respect and admiration are evident. "Miles was my favorite before I ever met him. In a way, people might forget, he was the preeminent figure in jazz. There's nobody like him now. What I got from him was this incredible dedication to the 'real deal' in jazz and in playing, you know what I mean? And I'm not talking about what idiom you're in or anything like that. [He was an] absolutely pure jazz musician who [could] come up with the whole inflection and feeling of jazz. He was all about that and he did it in his own way and he loved jazz.

"He loved to talk about the greats, Scofield continues. "He was there with Bird and all that. So for me it was a history lesson and a chance to be around the creative process every night. [To Miles] it was just really important to be yourself and to have something to say. So I was just really, really lucky to be there. It was fantastic. It was a high! Here's the thing, man: he was a rock star as well. It was like Marlon Brando [walking] into the room. He was the coolest guy in the world and everybody knew it. People who didn't know anything about music and people who liked music who weren't jazz fans fell in love with his music too, because he communicated on such an intense level with his trumpet.

Still, with all of the fabulous people he has heard and played with, Scofield gives fellow guitarist Jim Hall the seat of honor in his pantheon. "Jim is special. There's an orthodox jazz guitar sound that everybody kind of shares. But Jim brought a certain elegance, vocal quality and incredible hip sensibility to jazz guitar that I don't think had been there before he came on the scene and it ended up influencing me and my whole generation. He brought in other elements of beauty and a lyrical sound. He's an unbelievable musician. He transcends the guitar.

Now Scofield is himself one of the venerated leaders who not only imparts his wisdom to young players but is also wise enough to keep his ears open. "You learn from every musician you play with that can really play. And when you get to be my age there's a bunch of guys that are incredible and I've been lucky that I've gotten to play with some. And you learn from them just like you learn from anybody who's great. And it doesn't matter how old you are. And you get the intensity of youth in your band. Sometimes people my age, you know, we get a little complacent maybe, and so I need to be kicked in the ass, that's for sure! And that's part of this tradition of the music, too, you know? That's the thing that gets overlooked when people write about jazz. They talk about the individuals, they talk about the compositions, but it's a very subtle thing, the way groups play together and create this energy that's bigger than all of the individuals.

"I think we all just share our experiences,' continues Scofield. "That's all you can do. And I have more experience than a younger guy, so they learn from that just like I've learned from the more experienced guys that I've played with. And that's all you can do, is tell 'em what happened and your take on it. The beautiful thing is, we're passing down this knowledge from the older guys. It's like life itself. And in jazz it's a great thing.

Selected Discography

Trio Beyond, Saudades (ECM, 2006)
John Scofield, EnRoute (Verve, 2004)
John Scofield, Groove Elation (Blue Note, 1995)

John Scofield, Pick Hits Live (Gramavision, 1987)

Miles Davis, Star People (Columbia, 1982) John Scofield, East Meets West (Black Hawk, 1977)

Photo Credit
Jose Manuel Horna

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