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John Scofield As A Sideman: The Best Of…

Ian Patterson By

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John Scofield is a modern-day jazz legend, one of the most instantly recognizable voices on the guitar, and an inspiration to many. In a solo career that began in earnest in 1977, Scofield has carved out his own sound on dozens of albums, including his tribute to Steve Swallow, Swallow Tales (ECM, 2020), a trio album with Swallow and Bill Stewart celebrating the bassist's compositions. It is a joyous, straight-ahead work-out, rooted in jazz tradition, yet feeding off contemporary tributaries. With Scofield, it has ever been thus. Past and present, it seems, are simply part of a continuum. Blues, jazz, rock, funk -pick any five Scofield albums at random and his healthy eclecticism is plain to see.

From the mid-'70s, Scofield has also been in demand as a sideman. The roll call of collaborations is hugely varied, and revealing of Scofield's tastes, flexibility, and influences. Singer-songwriter Gary Marks'Gathering (Arewea, 1974) marked Scofield's first recording as a sideman. It was a low-key affair, with Scofield on acoustic guitar. Since then, Scofield has played and recorded with many different artists, including Charles Mingus, Mirosolav Vitous, Lee Konitz, Jim Pepper, Don Pullen, Tal Farlow, Michael Gibbs, Chris Potter, Phil Lesh,...the list goes on and on.

Below is a baker's dozen of some of Scofield's finest recordings as a sideman.

Gerry Mulligan & Chet Baker
Carnegie Hall Concert
(CTI Records)
1975

Gerry Mulligan's quartet with Chet Baker was one of the hippest of the cool jazz bands of the '50s. This Carnegie Hall concert in 1974 would be their final reunion. The band also includes Ron Carter, Harvey Mason, Dave Samuels, trombonist Ed Byrne on two tracks, and Bob James, who switches between acoustic and electric piano. Scofield plays on all but one track, his up-tempo solos on "It's Sandy at the Beach" and "For An Unfinished Woman," and an improvisation od some finesse on the ballad "Song for Strayhorn" being the highlights. There are moments when Mulligan and Baker rekindle the magic of old, but these are rare. Still, an enjoyable set.

Billy Cobham
Life And Times
(Atlantic)
1976

Shortly after leaving Berklee College of Music, Scofield spent the guts of two years on the road with the Billy Cobham/George Duke band. Stepping into the shoes of John Abercrombie, who had left Cobham's band after three albums, Scofield shows terrific flare on this fiery, jazz-fusion/jazz funk outing. His scorching solo on the title track sets the bar high, while that on the classic "East Bay" still stands as one of the very best of his career. Some of Scofield's earliest compositions, such as "Earthlings" and "Ivory Tattoo" took shape in the Cobham/Duke band. The album Live On Tour In Europe (Atlantic, 1976) is a good document of the group's intensity, heavy grooves, and Duke-led forays into Frank Zappa-esque weirdness.

Jay McShann
The Last Of The Blue Devils
(Atlantic)
1978

Pianist and former big band boss to Charlie Parker and Ben Webster, this Jay McShann blues session sees Scofield rubbing shoulders with Count Basie alumni, trumpeter Joe Newman, tenor saxophonists Buddy Tate and Paul Quinichette, as well as Milt Hinton. Having been weaned on B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King, Little Walter, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf before getting into jazz, Scofield sounds right at home here. His solos are short but certainly sweet, with that on the slow blues "'Fore Day Rider" the pick of the bunch. The bluesiest record in Scofield's discography.

Zbigniew Seifert
Passion
(Capitol Records)
1979

The star of the great Polish violinist Zbigniew Seifert burned briefly but ever so brightly. Hailed as the John Coltrane of the violin, Seifert was part of Tomasz Stanko's first important group between '68 and '73, before embarking on a solo career. Sadly, he died of cancer in 1979 at the age of thirty-two, leaving behind a small number of important recordings. Passion is one of the best. Scofield, percussionist Nana Vasconcelos, Richie Beirach, Jack DeJohnette and Eddie Gomez provide a stellar backing band for the virtuoso violinist, whose compositions are as striking in their originality as is his playing. Forty years after the recording session, Scofield was invited to Seifert's hometown of Kraków as guest soloist with the Klongomert Big Band, playing arrangements of Seifert's tunes. "I was so lucky to get to play with Zbiggy, almost forty years ago," Scofield told the audience. "I'll never forget when I got the chance to play with him because it was really my first chance to play a kind of modern jazz that I was practicing and working on, and he heard that in me." Scofield's only recorded collaboration with a jazz violinist.

Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen
Dancing On The Tables
(SteepleChase)
1979

Anything by the great Danish bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen is worth listening to, but this recording with Scofield, Billy Hart and Dave Liebman is particularly notable. Scofield enjoys mazy extended solos on the bristling title track and "Clouds," but it is the strength of Pederson's original compositions (plus his arrangement of a Danish folk tune), some outrageous bass solos, and the quartet's chemistry, that make this such an appealing record. Liebman, who impresses on tenor and soprano saxophones as well as flute, would become something of a mentor to Scofield around this time. Contemporary jazz of quite distinctive stamp.

Dave Liebman
If Only They Knew
(Timeless)
1981

Dave Liebman assembled an outstanding band for this album released on the Dutch label Timeless. With Scofield were double bassist Ron McClure, Adam Nussbaum on drums, and the brilliant Japanese trumpeter Terumasa Hino, who had played on Scofield's eponymous debut as leader, released on the Japanese label Trio Records in 1978. This is the same line-up that had recorded Doin' It Again (Timeless, 1980), though this is arguably the stronger album, weaving confidently between post-bop burners and more contemporary fare like the title track, an edgy jazz-rocker crowned by a soaring soprano solo from the leader. Scofield brings his own "Capistrano" to the session, but is best framed on a laid back "Autumn In New York"—with Liebman on tenor saxophone—and at the faster tempi of "Reunion" and "Move On Some," where he cuts loose with fluid, biting solos. With Hino a long-established leader in his own right, and Scofield just setting on off his own solo career this band was never going to last, but this first-rate album is a potent taster of what might have been had it continued.

Miles Davis
Star People
(Columbia)
1983

Probably the strongest of all Miles Davis' post-hiatus albums Star People benefited from the subtle arranging hand of Gil Evans, who went uncredited. It was not only the last collaboration between Davis and Evans, but also with producer Teo Macero. Scofield had joined the band in late '82, sharing guitar duties with Mike Stern. Although Scofield only plays on two of the six tracks, his playing on the slow blues "It Gets Better" is quietly smoking, while "Speak," recorded live at the Cullen Theatre, Houston in early '83, is a high-energy jazz-rocker that sets Scofield up for some typically fiery soloing. The band, which also featured Al Foster on drums, percussionist Mino Cinelu, Bill Evans on saxophone, and Marcus Miller on electric bass, is tight, while Davis is also in fine form. This was the first Davis' album carry his artwork on the cover. An overlooked entry in the trumpeter's discography.

Marc Johnson
Bass Desires
(ECM)
1986

Acoustic bassist Marc Johnson showed great vision in bringing together two of modern jazz' most iconic guitarists. Scofield and Bill Frisell couldn't have more distinctive voices, but it is precisely their contrasting tones that make this album so interesting. Peter Erskine is the other half of the dynamic, earthy rhythm section. Frisell's use of pedals and guitar-synthesizer brings a powerful, experimental edge to the music, while Scofield's solos follow a more straight-ahead path. The different approaches are heard to most striking effect on John Coltrane's "Resolution." No less radical a make-over is given to the Scottish folk song "Black is the Color Of My True Love's Hair," reimagined as an ethereal, ambient piece. There's also plenty of bite in this quartet, notably on the grooving, reggae-tinged "Mojo Highway," where Scofield comes into his own. A standout recording in the respective discographies of Johnson, Scofield and Frisell, one that respects tradition while embracing modernity.

Gary Burton
Times Like These
(GRP)
1988

When Pat Metheny left Gary Burton's band in 1977 to embark on the phenomenally successful journey that was the Pat Metheny Group, he left the door open for John Scofield. In the end, Scofield spent only a year in Burton's band, a period, more's the pity, that went undocumented on vinyl. This session, which brought together Scofield, Marc Johnson, Peter Erskine, and, on a couple of tracks, Michael Brecker, features two tracks by Makoto Ozone, a long term collaborator with Burton, and two by Scofield. On the Jay Leonard ballad "Robert Frost," Scofield is at his bluesy, seductive best, while the self-penned "Do Tell" showcases Scofield's duality as a guitarist and composer. The production values are very much of their time, but Burton is as fluid and lyrical as ever.

McCoy Tyner
Things Ain't What They Used to Be
Blue Note
1989

A McCoy Tyner album of solo and duo recordings, from a 1989 live performance at Merkin Hall. Tyner and tenor saxophonist George Adams play two pieces together, while the pianist invites Scofield on three tracks. Tyner recorded the Coleman Hawkins/Thelonious Monk tune "I Mean You" several times during his career, and on this one guitarist and pianist basically take turns to solo. The much-travelled ballad "Here's That Rainy Day" is a showcase for some tender playing from both Scofield and Tyner, while a sprightly version of Clifford Brown's "Joy Spring" sees more expansive soloing from both musicians. For the rest, Tyner unaccompanied is in commanding form, interpreting classics from the standards songbook, plus a few originals.

Joe Henderson
So Near, So Far (Musings For Miles)
(Verve)
1993

Joe Henderson had undergone an artistic and commercial revival in the 1980s, riding the crest of the neo-classical jazz revival, with consecutive albums shifting over six figures. This 1993 tribute to Miles Davis, with whom Henderson played briefly in 1967, sees the Ohio-born saxophonist leading an all-star quartet of Al Foster on drums, bassist Dave Holland and our man Scofield. It is a first-rate straight-ahead bash, with great playing from all concerned. Scofield is in blistering form on the burner "Joshua," displays tremendous delicacy in both comping and lead roles on a bewitching reading of "Flamenco Sketches," and bluesy fluidity on "Teo." A great album from Henderson and one of Scofield's most satisfying sideman sessions.

Herbie Hancock
The New Standard
(Verve)
1996

For his thirty-fifth studio album, and in time-honored jazz tradition, Herbie Hancock turned to pop music for inspiration. The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Nirvana, Peter Gabriel, and Steely Dan all ring Hancock's bell. Joining Scofield in the band are Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, Michael Brecker and Don Alias. Scofield gets plenty of room to stretch out, notably on a fiery version of Don Henley's "New York Minute," which also features great solos from Hancock and Brecker. Notable too, Scofield and Brecker's back-and-forth exchange on "Love Is Stronger Than Pride," and the individual and collective fire on a wicked version of the English traditional ballad "Scarborough Fair" A consistently strong, swinging album, full of gutsy playing.

Gov't Mule
Sco-Mule
(Evil Teen Records)
2015

Recorded over two nights in Atlanta, Georgia, 1999, Sco-Mule finds Scofield pulling out all the stops with Gov't Mule. Lengthy jams on compositions by Scofield, Wayne Shorter, James Brown and the Mule's Allen Woody and Warren Haynes, blur the edges of blues, rock, funk and jazz—so right up Scofield's street, in fact. Every track boasts passionate solos from any combination of Scofield, Haynes and keyboard player Dr. Dan Matrazzo, to the extent that picking out highlights seems almost superfluous. "Doing It To Death" feels as much like a nod to Stevie Ray Vaughan as it does to James Brown, while the spirit of The Allman Brothers Band, inevitably, looms large. Guest guitarists Jimmy Herring and Mike Barnes thicken the stew on a couple of tracks, and a whopping two-and-a-half hours winds up with a barnstorming, twenty-three-minute version of Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue," with drummer Matt Abs and Woody's grooving rhythms driving a series of exhilarating solos. Terrific stuff.

Photo credit: C. Andrew Hovan

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