John Scofield: Eclecticism in Action

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I started out with the Beatles and I liked soul music and loved R&B. So I never looked down on the other stuff after I got into jazz...
On his website, jazz guitarist extraordinaire John Scofield has written a short piece that follows the official record company bios for his last two Verve recordings, EnRoute and Up All Night. It's called "How I Got From There to Here in 704 Easy Words. Scofield traces the arc of his career in the essay, from his days playing jazz-fusion with the likes of Billy Cobham and Miles Davis, to producing a string of powerful and stylistically eclectic recordings for the Gramavision, Blue Note and Verve labels over the past two decades. He talks about the varied influences that have helped point him in interesting musical directions—from Jim Hall and Pat Metheny to Albert King, Carlos Santana and Medeski, Martin & Wood. Here's how Scofield concludes the piece:

"In the last couple of years, I've heard some great young players that remind me often of what it is that I like so much about the music of sixties R&B. Now I'm able to take that music and mix it with jazz all over again. I'm having more fun playing now than I ever have and I feel like I can finally really learn to play the guitar. Now, after having the chance to play with many of my musical idols—I'm getting inspiration from younger musicians. I'm as excited about writing and playing music as I ever have been.

In the following interview, John Scofield looks back on some of his influences—and touches on the always-intriguing new musical directions that lie ahead for one of the jazz world's finest musicians.

All About Jazz: It seems like you're constantly involved with a lot of different musical projects. Can you give us a quick heads-up on what you're up to this year?

John Scofield: Well, I've got my trio that I'll be playing with—Steve Swallow on bass and Bill Stewart on drums. I've been doing that for the last year because we have the live album out—and because I really like it. In addition to the tour coming up in that brings us to the Midwest, we'll be doing a European trio tour this fall. I'm also going to Europe this summer with Bill Stewart—but Dennis Irwin is going to be on bass. And Chris Potter is going to join us on sax for a lot of those dates.

I'm also going to be doing something soon with an orchestral piece called Scorched. Mark-Anthony Turnage and I put it together. He's the orchestrator and co-composer. It's really based on pieces I wrote, but he turned them into a kind of Stravinsky thing for orchestra. We've already recorded it and it's out on Deutsche Grammophon. We're going to do some gigs in Europe starting next January with the Scottish National Orchestra.

AAJ: It seems like you're always working on a recording project as well. What's been going on in that area?

JS: I've also just finished making a record with different musicians. It's the music of Ray Charles (That's What I Say) with a lot of singers guesting on the session. Doctor John sings a tune; Mavis Staples sings a tune, John Mayer, Aaron Neville and others. We've got Larry Goldings on organ, Willie Weeks on bass and Warren Haynes played guitar as well. And we've got Fathead Newman from Ray's old band as part of the horn section. It's really an R&B—jazz album. That's going to be out in June. Then in September, I'm putting together a band to play that music. Naturally, I won't be able to get most of the musicians on the record, so I'll be using some young folk. I'm organizing that right now.

AAJ: You've always been known for your eclectic musical approach. You've worked with jazz legends like Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Jay McShann, Charles Mingus and Phil Woods. But you were also part of jazz fusion in Billy Cobham's band, you played with Miles Davis for three years in the early 1980s when he was pushing musical boundaries, and you've really developed a strong following on the jam band circuit playing with Medeski, Martin & Wood, and Warren Haynes' band, Gov't Mule. Have you always had such a wide-ranging approach to music?

JS: Well, I started out in music with rock and blues, really. I was a blues snob in high school. When I was 16, I was just trying to play like B.B. King and Otis Rush. B.B. and Howlin' Wolf were it for me. I was one of those obnoxious guys who put down everything else. I think I even had some sunglasses I tried to wear all the time back then. When I turned 17, I got into bebop and decided I wanted to be a jazz guitarist. I went out and bought a big jazz guitar and focused on bebop. But I started out with the Beatles and I liked soul music and loved R&B. So I never looked down on the other stuff after I got into jazz, and I kept following that music too.

AAJ: After high school, you went to Berklee College of Music in Boston. That's where you met saxophonist Joe Lovano, who you've had a strong musical relationship with ever since. And that's also the first time you met Steve Swallow, whom you've played with off and on ever since—and is part of your current trio. How did you two meet?

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?

JS: Well, in 1974 I was still going to Berklee and I was friends with Dave Samuels, the vibes player. And he was really good friends with Dave Friedman, a vibraphonist who was living in New York and had just recorded with Horacee Arnold on an album called Tales of the Exonerated Flea. He got Dave Samuels and I some club gigs with Horacee when the album came out because he had another job lined up. We were excited to play with somebody who had a record out, so we drove down to Boston to play with him. It turned out that Horacee was friends with Billy Cobham, and Billy produced a demo session for him, trying to get Horacee a better recording deal. That's when Cobham first heard me. And I guessed he liked it, because when John Abercrombie left Cobham's group a month later to join Jack DeJohnette, Cobham gave me the gig. I drove down from Boston for the first rehearsal in a big New York studio and the Brecker Brothers were in the horn section. Mike and Randy were completely my idols then. I'd heard them in clubs with Horace Silver and had all their records. Playing with them—and Cobham on drums—was incredible. It was really my big break. I had played some with Gerry Mulligan, but he wasn't working much at that time. Cobham was working ALL the time. So I was able to get an apartment in New York, tour Europe for the first time that spring and play big time gigs. It was the best. I still don't think I've recovered from that.

AAJ: And I would think that playing in that era when jazz fusion was really at its peak has something to do with your eclectic musical since that time.

JS: Yeah. I think one of the reasons I'm eclectic in my pproach is because I really liked that music that Cobham did. Probably not as much as I liked my Jackie McLean records back then—but I sure liked it! I think it really opened me up to a whole bunch of stuff. Had I just stayed with my preoccupation of trying to play bebop, I would never have gotten into a lot of the music I've explored since then.

AAJ: Listening to last year's live recording at the Blue Note in New York with your trio of Steve Swallow and Bill Stewart—then hearing you last summer at the Saint Louis Jazz Festival performing a lot of that same material, I was struck by how powerful and cohesive the band has become. It's got to be a real pleasure getting up on stage with those guys.

JS: I definitely want to keep this trio going. I'm not sure exactly what I'm going to record now that the Ray Charles thing is over, but I'd like to do some more with Steve and Bill. I just have to decide how to frame it.

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