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John Scofield: Peaceful Pursuits

John Kelman By

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Sometimes a recording comes together easily, with a minimum of muss or fuss. Other times, life seems to conspire against it, but that doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't get done, or that it suffers as a result. Sometimes, in fact, it can make the end result even better. For John Scofield— one-third of a power trifecta of guitarists, also including Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell), who emerged in the mid-1970s to become some of their generation's most influential and highly regarded jazz artists—the road to his latest release, the aptly titled A Moment's Peace (EmArcy, 2011), was riddled with complications. But the end result is a set that stands out among the plethora of ballads albums flooding the market these days, with its unique combination of standards, less-traveled covers and Scofield originals delivered with more gentleness than is, perhaps, expected from a guitarist capable of searing paint off a wall.

Still, despite its largely relaxed nature and slower tempos, A Moment's Peace manages to come to a near boil at times— no surprise, given the powerful group that ultimately converged for a couple days in January, 2011, at Sear Sound in New York City: keyboardist Larry Goldings (making A Moment's Peace a recording reunion of sorts, having last worked on Trio Beyond's Saudades [ECM, 2006], in 2004); ubiquitous and ever-adaptable bassist Scott Colley; and Brian Blade, a drummer who, like Scofield, is perhaps better known for his unbridled power and sheer improvisational energy than the soft approach and subtle nuances he demonstrates here.

Chapter Index

  1. The Road to A Moment's Peace
  2. Song Choices
  3. Coming to Jazz via Blues ... and The Beatles
  4. Miles Davis ... and Gil Evans
  5. No Longer a Jazz Snob: Electric Outlet
  6. Moving Forward
  7. Producing
  8. A Changing Landscape
  9. Always Looking Ahead
The Road to A Moment's Peace

"This one had some bumps along the way," Scofield explains. "I started off wanting to do a record with [Norwegian keyboardist] Bugge Wesseltoft, and so I was thinking what kind of record could we do together. I thought of making a really lyrical record. I'm a fan of his solo piano stuff and the duo records he did with [Norwegian singer] Sidsel Endresen: Duplex Ride (Curling Legs, 1998), Nightsong (Curling Legs, 1999), and Out Here. In There (Jazzland, 2002), which I really, really love. And I was thinking that, rather than the groove stuff that he does, which I love too, it would be nice to do a really quiet record. Then it turned out that he couldn't tour this summer, after the record was released—because at that point the record was supposed to be released everywhere in the spring. So he couldn't do it, and that's on hold, but it's a project I still want to do sometime; I really want to do something with Bugge at some point.

"Then, I thought, I'd been playing with [pianist] Mulgrew Miller a lot," Scofield continues, "and he's so great, so I thought it would be great to use him, and make it more of a jazz ballads record. But then Mulgrew had a stroke last October—a mini-stroke, not a full stroke, a mini-stroke. He is now fully recovered, but he couldn't really do the recording in January, when I wanted to do it. So I called an old partner and really active musical associate of mine, Larry Goldings. We've played together for many years, and played a bunch together at some duo concerts in Italy the Christmas before last, so I asked him.

"Then the project started to change in my head too, because when you bring in Larry, there's a lot of stuff that he and I do together, and stuff that he does and really excels at, that I wanted to feature—and that also included playing the organ. Brian Blade on drums had always been the guy I'd wanted to play with, and Scott Colley on bass; they were always the rhythm section. But I think, in a way, having Larry was just perfect for the record; he brings so much to it."

The closest thing Scofield has done to A Moment's Peace was Quiet, his first recording for Verve in 1996, after a seven-year run on the equally prestigious Blue Note label. But while Quiet was, with Scofield limiting himself to acoustic guitar, an album of gentle beauty, it was by no means a ballads record. In addition to being a mix of originals and covers, A Moment's Peace, on the other hand, is one—though with Scofield back on his main electric axe, there are places where the temperature can't help but rise.

With the playing on A Moment's Peace never anything less than stellar, its relaxed vibe is also reflected in the way it was recorded. "We had a one-day rehearsal," says Scofield. "I thought about what tunes to do on this record for months, but as soon as I knew it was going to be Goldings—which was probably two months before we recorded—I honed the song list and sent the guys the lead sheets, and we talked about it a bit. I sent out a couple of recordings of the songs, but it was only the original stuff that I wrote—a live recording of me playing them with my trio with [bassist] Steve Swallow and [drummer] Bill Stewart. Everybody flew in to New York—Larry lives in Los Angeles, and Brian's in Louisiana [though Colley is a New Yorker]—and we had one rehearsal for four or five hours, just to play through the tunes, and then we went into the studio the next day and recorded.

"We did it in two day long days and then mixed for a couple days," Scofield continues. "I think that a lot of the success for a jazz recording has to do with how well it's recorded; that's the final touch. I'm really happy with [engineer] James Farber's work. He decided on the studio to use, Sear Sound—they have old analog equipment—and it was James who decided how to place everybody in the room. With his choice of microphones and all kinds of really subtle things I don't really understand, he really captured it."

"We had to put the Leslie speaker [for the organ] in a booth, so when we recorded with the Leslie, we had to use headphones," Scofield concludes, "but we were all in a room together. But one guy was in one corner and another guy in another. The bass and drums were not isolated in different booths; my guitar amp was in a booth, but the doors were open—they're floor-to-ceiling doors—so we were all in the same room. We still used headphones, though I think Scott and Brian were able to play with one headphone on and one off, which really helped them to maintain this kind of rhythm-section thing. And Farber thinks there's nothing wrong with a little leakage [between the instrumental tracks], unless you want to change stuff and do overdubs—and I do too; it fattens things up a bit.


Song Choices

While plenty of jazz artists have covered The Beatles, Scofield's inclusion of "I Will," from the Fab Four's The Beatles (White Album) (Apple, 1968) is both an inspired choice and a look at a far less traveled Lennon/McCartney song. "I'd just turned 12, and I got my first guitar the previous fall, when The Beatles came on The Ed Sullivan Show in the U.S., in February of '64. So I'd had a guitar for like four months—but I did know three chords, or something like that, and was way into it. The Beatles are how I learned about harmony and songs originally. I fell in love with that music, and I feel lucky that I'm of the age where I hit puberty and The Beatles came on TV, like the same day," Scofield recalls, chuckling. "Their songs were on the radio, and they swept the nation: The Mersey Beat, the British Invasion—it was all you could hear anywhere. I had all the records, and it was everywhere. So this is how I learned about music when I was 12, from The Beatles' records, and it kept going for four years; every few months there'd be this incredible new song out there as a 45, and then on an album. So it's our music, and I just loved every one of their songs. In retrospect, it turns out they were this incredible gold mine of music—I mean, what a great way to learn about music, through their catalog.



"My wife, Susan, is just about the same age as I am," Scofield continues, "and she also had the same experience with Beatles songs that I did. She knows their book even more than I do, and she recommended 'I Will.' It was five years ago, and she said, 'Man, you should play "I Will." That could work.' I listened to it and wrote down the music—because I liked the song too, so I had a lead sheet of it—and this is where it gets really freaky. I was trying to think of some other song to bring to A Moment's Peace that was somewhat contemporary, and I was listening to Radiohead songs and some singer/songwriters—I had my daughter helping me—and I couldn't find anything that I really wanted to play, that I just really loved. I was going to the rehearsal for the record, and a bunch of written charts fell on the floor in my studio, and 'I Will' was one of them, from five years before, and it really came to me like: 'Oh, shit, I should play this!'"

When Scofield refers to his wife, it's a unique husband-and-wife team. "Susan and I have been together for 35 years," Scofield explains."She's been my business partner since I started having my own bands around '85. She's responsible for any cool song or album titles that I have, and I must say that those titles are among the best in jazz. She's got great ears, and is my best fan and critic. She blew my mind early in our relationship, when she corrected me on the melody to 'Round Midnight'—she had it right and I was wrong.

"Good jazz managers are very rare, and she is one of the best. Many have asked her to represent them, but she declines. She runs our biz with great acumen. I might be that guy you remember who sounded pretty good 20 years ago but haven't heard of since, if not for Susan. And, most importantly she raised our wonderful kids (Jean, 30, advertising music producer, and Evan, 24, author and poet) while I was on tour breaking strings."

Another unusual song choice on A Moment's Peace is "Lawns," a rarely recorded song from a jazz composer whose material has been heavily covered. The song first appeared on pianist/composer Carla Bley's Sextet (WATT, 1987), but on A Moment's Peace it's played as a down-tempo swing tune. "I said to [bassist] Steve Swallow—who is my mentor and good friend [and Bley's longtime partner]—'Maybe Carla has something that I could play on this record,'" says Scofield. "So she sent me a bunch of lead sheets, and it was great; I still have this package of 25 songs, starting from the '60s right up until now. All I said was, 'I'm making a ballads record, so I want slow songs.' I have Sextet on vinyl, but I didn't even listen to it; I just looked through the pieces she sent, at the written music, and I came up with 'Lawns.' I just started to play it, and there may have been some dim recollection of hearing Carla's band do it, but not really, and I kind felt that it could really work as a swing tune.

"It just moved me," Scofield continues. "One thing is I could just sit down and play it; it was simple enough that I could get right into it, into the melody. But the song is incredible—I see it as a rock ballad, or a rock anthem, like [Derek and The Dominos'] 'Layla,' or [Stevie Wonder's] 'Isn't She Lovely.' Even though it wasn't a hit, it is anthemic. I just sat down and started to play it, and I couldn't stop."

Another of A Moment's Peace's highlights is Scofield's take on Abbey Lincoln's popular song "Throw It Away," first recorded in the 1980s. "I heard that one when I was riding the exercise bike and listening to the cable TV jazz channel," Scofield explains. "They played it, and I thought, 'That's something I could play.' It's just a beautiful song, and the lyrics kill me—the story about how you have to throw it away; that's an answer in life: let shit go. And I loved it. I'm an Abbey Lincoln fan; she's so special—talk about having your own sound. And she wrote a great one! Man, what a song."
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