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John Scofield: Jazz Inspires You To Try Something Different


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In a career that has spanned over several decades with releases that have encompassed various types of musical styles and sounds, guitarist John Scofield has always managed to emphasize the importance of melody by building fragments of hummable tunes around musically abstract compositions. His record Country for Old Men (Impulse!, 2016)—the title is a play on the Coen brothers film No Country for Old Men—is comprised of classic country songs, where he pays tribute to songwriters including George Jones, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton and Bob Wills, among others.

It's the first all-covers album since That's What I Say: John Scofield Plays The Music Of Ray Charles (Verve, 2005) when mined the Ray Charles' songbook with a plethora of guests. Backed by his band only, Scofield uses these songs as a starting point and finds new and different elements from the original melodies. As a result, he creates something that at the same time is familiar and entirely foreign. Last year, he won the Grammy for jazz instrumental album with his release Past Presentand this year with Country for Old Men he is nominated in two categories for Best Jazz Instrumental Album and Improvised Jazz Solo. In this interview, Scofield discussed the making of this record as well as the inspiration and the selection of tunes thus providing a brief glimpse into his creative process behind it.

All About Jazz: Over the course of your career, you have covered several stylistic territories both in your own work and your choice of covers. At what point did you decide to pursue the freedom to infuse so many influences in your work?

John Scofield: I've never felt that my projects were all that that varied. I started off with blues and rock and then got into jazz so I was never a jazz purist. I started out really trying to play blues guitar which is a different technique, and that gets a different sound out of the electric guitar than a normal jazz guitar. I never really embraced the arch top guitar sound fully. Also because I started out in the '60s, I was always interested in blues and R&B and even country, so none of those styles seem like a far stretch for me. Also, I always realized that it is a jazz tradition to try to do something different and add a little something to the music, and not exactly re-create older styles.

AAJ: What was it about the country songs on Country for Old Men that made you decide that you wanted to record them with this band?

JC: First of all, I love all the songs and enjoy just playing the melodies on my guitar and I thought that they worked as songs for me. But beyond that, they're being great songs I needed for the pieces to work as vehicles for jazz improvisation so we could really do our thing. In most cases, this meant "swinging them" because the old country songs are basic "two beat" songs and it's easy to turn them into jazz. I also changed the chords somewhat so that we could use more bebop vocabulary on them. In the case of " I'm so Lonesome I Could Cry," we actually reduced it to only one chord, but it's an augmented chord which sets up a very strange tonality that very few people have used except John Coltrane.

AAJ:What criteria does a song have to meet in order to make you want to cover it?

JC: Like I mentioned previously, I really have to love the song first. That makes all the difference and everybody in the group has to be comfortable with that piece. If somebody completely hates it then it probably will never work. The improvisation always reflects the actual song so if the song doesn't move you I think the performance won't be as good. I think that this recording works in part because, we all really related to the basic songs.

AAJ: How does the ethic of an improvising jazz musician work in the face of songs that remain the very models of song classicism?

JC: You know these are classic three chord simple songs, very much a kind of folk music. A lot of jazz comes from the same kind of tunes, an easy chord progression that jazz musicians elaborated on. If you look at the traditional songs from New Orleans or other places, those songs started out as simple pieces and gradually evolved with the addition of more modern harmonies added to the old pieces. Look at how the 12 bar blues evolved. It was actually pretty easy to do this with the old country tunes.

AAJ: Sometimes musicians can be pretty conservative and sometimes the choice of songs and innovations can be met with a lot of resistance. How do you find a courage to pursue your own voice in what sometimes can be seen as a potentially hostile climate?

JC: I've always recognized that the jazz tradition calls for us to add a little something to the music, not much, but just not re-create our favorite sounds from previous years. I'm kind of a jazz purist myself in that I hold the music from the '40s, '50s and '60s in the highest regard but I also realize it's a dead-end street if you try to play "exactly" like Miles or Trane did in the 60s or Charlie Parker before that, playing the same tunes, etc. That being said I'm only interested in music that reflects tradition.

AAJ:You've worked with Steve Swallow, Bill Stewart and Larry Goldings for many years. What makes your chemistry special?

JC: They are some of the best players on the planet first of all. Secondly, we've played together so much that I think everybody is really at ease and we try to take the music as far as we can because we have this history of success at stretching out tunes. I also think that Bill, Steve and Larry were perfect for this project because although they're not country musicians they were familiar with country music and didn't think it was beneath them. I also think that we've actually grown together over the years and share a lot of the same vocabulary.

AAJ: What terrain do you feel is still unexplored for you as a musician?

JC: Oh, there's a lot of musical terrain out there, and some of it I probably have no right to mess with. Mainly, I think about trying to improve as a musician. I'm not sure what my next project is going to be as there are a few ways it could go.

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