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."

Coming to Jazz via Blues ... and The Beatles

Developing a recognizable voice, a distinctive sound, is a subject that Scofield addresses directly—and simply. "I heard [bassist] Charlie Haden say—and this is really an oversimplification—that everybody has their own voice in music: it's just there. It's like having a voice when you talk; when you hear someone on the phone, you know it's them from just one word. It's like that playing your instrument; I think we just have to accept it. We're all music fans and we want to sound like our idols, and sometimes we get confused when we're trying to copy them. On one hand, you learn music by copying—I think it's the way you learn. But at the end of the day, after you do all this copying, you go to play, you go to improvise, and it's not gonna come out like your idol, it's gonna come out like you.

"I accepted that early on," Scofield continues. "I understood that, and it was the thing that attracted me to jazz—it was this incredibly personal art form, and the greats of jazz were great because they were individuals. It allowed for imperfection—all these great people, like Thelonious Monk, or maybe even Bob Dylan or Trudy Desmond could have idiosyncrasies that were great and endearing and wonderful, and so I accepted all that. And then the other thing, I guess, for me and certainly for Frisell and other guys our age, was that we started out as rock players, as kids, on guitar. And that kind of vocabulary and feel was just ingrained. We became jazz guys later and learned about that on top of it. It was a time in the music when it just seemed like a good idea to use those rock things in jazz. I was mainly into horn players in jazz, but when you think of the expressiveness of blues guitar and Jimi Hendrix, that is, in a way, closer to the saxophone than orthodox jazz guitar. It just seemed obvious that you should use that stuff.

"When I was 12, it was The Beatles," Scofield concludes, "but at that same time, folk music had become incredibly popular, and that sort of thing went along with guitar. There were shows on TV like Hootenanny, and folk music was a big deal, and it crossed over [into rock], so that was part of it too, and I liked that. But I'm talking about when I was 12; I mean, I wasn't a hip kid—at that point I wasn't looking for alternative culture. It was mainstream stuff, and it was great, really beautiful music. And through The Beatles and folk music, I got aware of blues and black music. I'd always loved the pop music that was black, and I remember loving Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson on TV, as a little kid, so I was always aware of this soul music thing that was part of that era. A little later, in my teens— maybe 13, 14—I became a blues purist rather quickly, and that's when I got into blues and R&B. When The Cream and Hendrix and Jeff Beck came out, I was really into them, but I was also a blues snob, and I would tell my friends that Muddy Waters was better. It was really an obnoxious position, but it sort of went along with being 16."

Perhaps not surprisingly, Scofield went from being a blues snob to being a jazz snob once he enrolled in Boston's Berklee College of Music, but before that he still had a road to travel. "A funny thing happened to me—or perhaps it was pretty natural," Scofield begins. "I had been a blues purist, and into rock. I was actually into music from before The Beatles. I listened to the radio, and I loved all those songs—Ricky Nelson, doo-wop music, Elvis [Presley], The Four Seasons, and all the weird stuff that was coming out of New York—though I just kinda liked them in a kid way. I was a music maniac, and I played in a band. From 12 until 16, I played in high school bands, and we played all the top-40 stuff. And then the Cream and Hendrix and the whole San Francisco thing came in, but I was more into Cream and Hendrix, and I'd always been a soul music devotee, up until 1970. Woodstock was in 1969, and I had a ticket to go, but I had an after-school job, and couldn't go until Saturday. On the Friday, the New York Turnpike was closed down, and my father said, 'Do you really want to go to a thing you can't even get into?' So I didn't go, like a dummy."

"But I'd been to the Fillmore East—I'd heard the [Grateful] Dead, and I loved Jeff Beck; Hendrix I loved—I heard him a lot; Cream I loved, with [Eric] Clapton," continues Scofield. "But, man, I was mainly into going to hear B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, all that stuff; I was such a blues snob. But about 1968, I started to think that I wanted to get into jazz. And it was during this time, 1968-'69, slowly on my own, through this guitar teacher in my town, [that I was] trying to learn how to play jazz music. And I was falling in love with the music too, so by the time 1970 came around, when I went to Berklee in the fall of 1970, I became a complete jazz snob and didn't listen to pop music for four years. I was too busy listening to Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, and I devoted myself to learning music, and learning jazz specifically.

"I went for two-and-a-half years," concludes Scofield. "I started in September, 1970. I was in Boston, and there was this whole scene there, with the New England Conservatory and Berklee, and all the musicians that were there. I started to play gigs on the local scene, and stayed there until January of '75, when I moved to New York City."

Scofield caught an early break, playing with baritone sax legend Gerry Mulligan. Few emerging guitarists get one of their first recording dates at the legendary Carnegie Hall in New York, in a group that, co-led by Mulligan and trumpeter Chet Baker, also featured bassist Ron Carter, pianist Bob James and drummer Harvey Mason. It was through his work in New York that he hooked up with Japanese trumpeter Terumasa Hino, which led to a tour of Japan and not one, but two recordings as a leader in 1977: the Japan-only release East Meets West (Blackhawk, 1977), and Live (Enja, 1977)—a tremendous quartet date with pianist Richie Beirach, bassist George Mraz and drummer Joe La Barbera. It was these recordings that put Scofield on the map. "The one from Japan was first," Scofield explains, "and it wasn't called East Meets West when it was on the Japanese label; it was just called John Scofield.

"We recorded it in the summer of '77, and the Live record was recorded in November," Scofield continues. "It became East Meets West when it was reissued a few years later by Blackhawk; they bought it and felt it needed a name. It was with Hino and his brother, Motohiko, on drums. What happened was I moved to New York in '75 to join Billy Cobham's band, but I was gonna move down there anyway; I had recorded with Mulligan in the fall of '74. I met Mulligan, and he used me on some gigs and got me on that live record [Carnegie Hall Concert (CTI, 1976)], which was a big thing; it was a big Creed Taylor production. [Vibraphonist] Dave Samuels and I had been playing with Gerry, and he wanted to use his own group at Carnegie Hall, but Creed wouldn't let him—he made him use Ron Carter, Bob James and Harvey Mason as the rhythm section.

"So I did that in November, '74, and then I moved to New York," continues Scofield. "I was gonna move there anyway, but Cobham called me. I'd met him, and he hired me to be in his band, which was this incredible thing because it was the top band in the land—the Brecker Brothers [trumpeter Randy Brecker and saxophonist Michael Brecker] were in the band at that time. Anyway, I moved to New York in '75, and played in Cobham's band from '75 to the end of '76 nonstop; that's what we did. And after that, I thought, 'I'm just gonna hang out in New York and learn how to play jazz,' and then Hino discovered me in a club. He came down to Sweet Basil in '77 and said, 'I want you to come to Japan with me, and I want you to record.'

"At that point, Hino was living in New York, but he was this big name in Japan—almost like a matinee idol," Scofield concludes. "He was like the Miles Davis of Japan, but he had his own thing. He was—and is—a master jazz musician. So he invited me into the studio to make this record called May Dance (JVC, 1977), and Tony Williams and Ron Carter were the rhythm section—it was the first time I'd played with them, and I was shitting in my pants [laughs]. Then we went on tour of Japan—we did a whole month in Japan, which is a small country, but we played like 25 concerts all over the country. It was fantastic. Japan is so important to jazz, and there was such an interest in jazz there in 1975—more there than in America. During that trip, I was offered the chance to make my own record, so the personnel on that record [John Scofield] was the Terumasa Hino Quartet that was touring. And then we [Scofield and Hino] joined Dave Liebman's band the next year, or maybe it was '79—we started with Dave about a year before the first record came out [Doin' It Again (Timeless, 1980)]."

Scofield's career was on a serious upward trajectory. He followed up Live with Rough House (Enja, 1978), a barnstormer of a record that also featured pianist Hal Galper, with whom the guitarist would also record Ivory Forest (Enja) the following year. He also participated in the star-studded Passion (Capitol, 1979)—also featuring Beirach, drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist Eddie Gomez and percussionist Nana Vasconcelos—led by Polish violinist Zbigniew Seifert, another star on the rise who, sadly, passed away later that year at the too-young age of 32 with a promise never fully realized.

Scofield moved to the fledgling Arista/Novus label for Who's Who the next year—his first recording to hint at the fusion jazz he was to pursue soon after, and Bar Talk (1980)—the first to team the guitarist with bassist/friend/mentor Steve Swallow and drummer Adam Nussbaum. It was with this trio that Scofield continued to explore on Out Like a Light and Shinola, both back on Enja, in 1981. While it might appear, from looking at his early records, that Scofield was focusing on more linear playing on Live through Who's Who, and on honing his skill as a chordal player on the trio records, there was no other reason for it than context. "On those early records, I was playing with piano," Scofield explains, "and when you have the harmonic weight of a piano, to me, it just sounds kinda wrong for the guitarist to throw in a bunch of chords, because it can clash with the piano. Plus, I'm a horn fan, and so I thought, 'Wow, I could be the horn player playing on top of the piano,' so I was playing all single lines. The other records, the trio with Swallow, really required chordal playing."

Miles Davis ... and Gil Evans

While Scofield's career was certainly off to a great start, a single event gave it its biggest liftoff yet: in 1983, the guitarist was asked to join Miles Davis' band. Guitarist Mike Stern had been working with the iconic trumpeter since he "came back" in 1981, after a five- year forced retirement, with the admittedly spotty Man With The Horn (Columbia). Scofield's first record with Davis, 1983's Star People (Columbia), was a two-guitar affair (and a much better record). But Stern left soon after, leaving Scofield as the sole guitarist for another two years, during which time he recorded two more studio albums with Davis, both on Columbia: 1983's Decoy and 1985's You're Under Arrest. While Scofield's searing combination of overdriven grit, blues connotations and soaring bebop lines continued to evolve, his tenure with the trumpeter revived his interest in music beyond the jazz purview. Most importantly, however, Scofield would become the only band member to contribute compositionally to the group, with the exception of keyboardist Robert Irving III. "I'm not even sure why it happened," Scofield begins, "but when I joined Miles, he was working with [composer/arranger] Gil Evans. Gil lived in my apartment building, on west 7th—I knew Gil before I played with Miles, and he was this towering jazz giant that was living there. I didn't know him well, but he lived down the hall, and I had access to him, got to know him some.

"I played some gigs with Gil's band; he was starting to do gigs at Sweet Basil around that time," Scofield continues, "and he was bugging Miles, because Miles was trying to come up with new music to play with his band. This was still when Mike Stern was in the band, before I joined, and he said, 'Miles, just improvise into a cassette player, then give it to me, and I will take your lines and they can be the heads of the songs.' So that's what Miles did; he had a cassette player that he could just turn off or on when he felt like it, when he heard some stuff on his trumpet. Gil made these lines into pieces, and they were so cool.

"So when I joined the band, Miles already had all this music. There were 10 pieces that Gil had gotten from this one cassette tape that Miles had given him, and Gil distilled these things into these 10 pieces," Scofield explains. "So Miles and Gil were in this process, and he [Davis] got me into the band because he wanted to have a second guitarist. He invited me up to his place the first time, after I'd played a couple gigs with him. And he said, 'OK, you improvise along with these chords,' and Gil had this set of chords. And so it was Gil and Miles, both on a Fender Rhodes; Miles was playing the chords and Gil was playing the bass line, and I was improvising over the top. We played for 15 minutes over this chord progression, and that became a tune called 'It Gets Better.' And I think it was really that they wanted to use me in the same way that Miles and Gil had been working on Miles' compositions—they just added me to it. had been working on Miles' compositions—they just added me to it.

"Then we went in the studio, and it was only like a couple weeks later, and there's this written music that we were playing. And Gil was there—he brought in the charts—and he said, 'You know that thing you improvised on over Miles' stuff back at his apartment?' And he pointed to the melody, and Miles said, 'Don't tell him that, Gil, he'll get a big head.' So we cut 'It Gets Better,' and I got co-writing credit on that one, because Gil busted Miles. Miles would have probably let it slide and credited it as all his tune or to Miles and Gil."

As things turned out, not only did Evans not receive co-composing credit for "It Gets Better," neither did Scofield, though he was given co-composer credit for the following track on Star People, "Speak/That's What Happened," and the trumpeter gave Scofield even greater recognition on Decoy, where he received co-writing credit on "That's Right," "What It Is" and a revisited "That's What Happened"—the album's entire second side—and sole compositional credit for the title track to Davis' Columbia follow-up, 1985's You're Under Arrest. "Gil should have gotten credit for 'It Gets Better,'" Scofield asserts, "and the stuff we did on Decoy was like that, too. Gil came up with the bass line for 'It Gets Better,' but it's a weird progression—a 12-bar blues that omits the first four bars. Miles, he was a genius, man, he'd just look at something and change it in the most basic way, but it would work, and you'd be going, 'Man, that's so simple, why didn't I think of that?' Well, that's the hallmark of genius—he's the guy who thought of it."

Still, there was likely a very strong reason why Davis didn't credit Evans—and why Evans didn't balk; for personal reasons, Evans had been having difficulties writing, so Davis lent him a tremendously generous helping hand. "Miles gave Gil an apartment on the Upper West Side, put keyboards in there and said, 'OK, Gil, now you can write.' So Gil kinda had two apartments, with one to work in, and I think, maybe, that Gil didn't say anything about the co-writing because of that."

By the time of the recording sessions for You're Under Arrest, Scofield had been on a writing spree. "I'd written a bunch of tunes for Miles," Scofield explains, "and I thought maybe he could record them. So I made a demo, where [drummer] Peter Erskine was playing, and Darryl Jones, the bassist from Miles' band, and [pianist] Don Grolnick. I played the demo for Miles, and he liked one of the tunes. He said, 'I'm gonna record the other tunes, too, sometime,' but the only one we ever did was 'You're Under Arrest.' That was Miles' title—he came up with the title—that whole thing was his concept for the record, using my tune."

No Longer a Jazz Snob: Electric Outlet

But all that material didn't go to waste. While Scofield took a break from recording his own records at the start of his tenure with Davis, he did release one record, Electric Outlet, in 1984, under contract with his new label, Gramavision. The impact of his time with Davis can be felt from the opening track—the swinging but absolutely electrified and electrifying "Just My Luck." Scofield explains, "When I came back to my own records, I was electric, man, all the way."

It was an unusual record, also featuring drummer Steve Jordan and, on some tracks, keyboardist Pete Levin, trombonist Ray Anderson and saxophonist David Sanborn—in addition to expanding his sonic palette with a variety of effects devices, Scofield also played bass. "At that point, people were starting to make their own records," Scofield says. "In the early '80s, with 24-track tape recorders and the ability to overdub, nobody had home studios at the time—that was long before DIY happened—but the four-track Tascam cassette player had just come out. I had one, and was making all these demos on my own, with an early drum machine.

"One of the great things about playing with Miles was that he took me out of my orthodox, mainstream bebop world," Scofield enthuses. "Miles was all about the cool, electric pop/rock music that was happening at the time—he was really coming from there, and so I was listening to a lot of non-jazz records. I was listening to MTV; MTV had just come out, and it was this cool thing where you had access, like a radio, to all this popular music. Certainly The Police were in there, Tina Turner's big comeback record; this was stuff that Miles was into, too. Miles was also into Madonna, but I couldn't get with her [laughs] for some reason. But my wife and I, when MTV came out, we hooked up some good speakers to the TV and thought, 'This is cool.' Of course, you've gotta put this in perspective, but I learned a lot about the current stuff that was happening through MTV. But I also remember the early '80s for blues/rock like the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray Vaughan—this was the stuff I was digging, because it had such great guitar playing, and the blues was having a resurgence."

Electric Outlet not only grooved harder than anything Scofield had yet released, it signaled increasing sophistication in Scofield as a writer, with tracks like "Pick Hits" not exactly dispensing with conventional form, but instead turning it inside out. "Weather Report had, at that point, been around for a long time, though that was sort of the end of the group, right around that same time. There'd been lot of that kinda stuff in straight-ahead jazz, with different people saying, 'We'll have no head,' or, 'We'll have the head at the end.' Miles had done stuff like that in the '60s too, but Weather Report was using that kind of sophistication in a jazz-rock way, and they were a big inspiration."

Still, being on the road with Davis, there was little opportunity for Scofield to do any serious gigging under his own name. "I had a few gigs when I made Electric Outlet, Scofield says, "but mainly I played with Miles, so I didn't have tours of my own. I'd make the record and play just a few gigs. I remember [in support of Electric Outlet's follow-up, 1986's Still Warm (Gramavision)] playing at Seventh Avenue South [in New York], the Brecker Brothers' club, and with Don Grolnick. I think we had Erskine on drums, because [album drummer] Omar Hakim was off with Weather Report at that point, before he joined Sting. Darryl [Jones] played bass some, but I didn't have a real band until [bassist] Gary Grainger and [drummer] Dennis Chambers."

Scofield recruited Chambers and Grainger, along with keyboardist Mitchel Forman, for the successful and hugely influential Blue Matter (Gramavision, 1987), an album of such funkified virtuosity that it took the guitarist's career to the next level and established Chambers—a drummer who'd first cut his teeth in Parliament and Funkadelic—as an in-demand and ultimately ubiquitous session player.

While Blue Matter and its follow-up, Loud Jazz (Gramavision, 1988) had plenty of space for extended soloing, they were also defined by writing that, despite being instrumental, was absolutely song-form based. "I've always been into songs," says Scofield, "and if you listen to a lot of R&B, the little modulations that would be on those tunes. But I had been into that from Motown and Stax in the '60s, when I was a kid, so I never stopped appreciating it, even after I became a bebopper."

Scofield looks back on his '80s music— and his time spent with Davis—fondly. "It looks funny to us now, because of the fashion and some of the synth sounds," says Scofield. "And Miles was actually bigger than a rock star; that's my theory—that rock stars kowtowed to Miles. A rock star's just a rock star; this was Miles Davis, man, the giant of modern music who was playing the rock star role. When Miles played, people like Jack Nicholson and Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger would kowtow to him. He was the number-one guy, period, culturally, in music. I remember the Montreux gigs [soon to be released on DVD] as being especially good for us. Miles at that point—sometimes he wouldn't play; he had a social life that was happening, going to rock star parties and stuff, and I don't think he played that much. But when we went out on tour, he really got his chops up. And for Montreux, we'd been playing a couple weeks."

Moving Forward

In the years that followed, Scofield released milestone after milestone, with a few specific markers that continued to assert him as a guitarist capable of stretching into any context from the post-modern bop of Time on My Hands (1990)—his first record for Blue Note, and the first to introduce another longstanding collaborator and accomplished leader in his own right, saxophonist Joe Lovano—to the grooving jam-band aesthetic of A Go Go (Verve, 1997), his first collaboration with Medeski Martin & Wood. Scofield's ever-expanding purview has seen him engage in friendly guitar face-offs with Bill Frisell on Grace Under Pressure (Blue Note, 1992), and with Pat Metheny on I Can See Your House From Here (Blue Note, 1994). He's collaborated with soul-jazz icons including saxophonist Eddie Harris on Hand Jive (Blue Note, 1993) and drummer Idris Muhammad on Groove Elation! (Blue Note, 1995); formed his own jam band for two records on Verve (2002's Überjam and 2003's Up All Night); paid tribute to pianist/singer Ray Charles on That's What I Say: John Scofield Plays The Music Of Ray Charles, and to New Orleans-tinged gospel on Piety Street (EmArcy, 2009); and continued his longtime trio with Swallow and Stewart on the live En Route (Verve, 2004) and in the expanded lineup of This Meets That (EmArcy, 2007).

From the outside looking in, it appears that Scofield alternates between records with greater crossover appeal, and more straightforward jazz records, as a means of appeasing the record labels and fans of his more accessible projects; it might even be suspected that crossover records like That's What I Say and Piety Street were record-company concoctions, but nothing could be further from the truth. "All of them have been my ideas," says Scofield, emphatically. "Sure, Verve liked my crossover records because they sold better, so I had to kind of fight to do the ones that were more jazz oriented. But for me, it's like I'm in this weird position, because I do go from one thing to another, and now I really am hooked on it because one project informs the other; I learn from playing in an acoustic quartet, but I bring some loud, rocking stuff to it, and vice versa. I love that Piety Street band, and I love getting the chance to play that music."

In the past few years, Scofield has also worked in larger contexts, specifically with composer/conductor Mark-Anthony Turnage on Scorched (Deutsche Grammophon, 2005), where a series of mostly familiar Scofield compositions were blended with Turnage's writing for symphony orchestra to great effect. "Unbelievable, this guy Mark-Anthony Turnage," Scofield enthuses. "He's so heavy, a real heavyweight in a way that none of us jazz guys are—and that's not to take away from us jazz guys. But he's a real new music composer, completely schooled, and has his own style that's taking off from Bartók and Stravinsky, the real heavyweights, but he also likes jazz-rock, God bless him, and this thing he did with me, I think it really worked."

Scofield has also reunited, even more recently, with composer/arranger Vince Mendoza for 54 (EmArcy, 2010), with the Netherlands' acclaimed Metropole Orkest. "I was on Vince's first couple records [Start Here (World Pacific, 1990) and Instructions Inside (EMI- Manhattan, 1991)], and he liked where I was coming from," Scofield says, "because he was younger than me and had heard my stuff. And we just really hit it off. Again, it's another one of those things—the first time I played with Steve Swallow, the first time I played with Bill Stewart and Joe Lovano, the first time I played with Dennis Chambers—you don't have to say anything; we're like-minded spirits. It's the same with Vince; it just works.

"His music is so detailed," Scofield continues. First of all, it's different playing with an orchestra like the Metropole or a big band, or anything where there are a lot of parts written out. You've got to fit in with that. With Vince and Mark-Anthony, it's really fun and natural, because the ways they hear music are akin to the way I hear music. It doesn't feel like a stretch to me, it feels like, 'Wow, I get to play over this perfect thing,' but it's a perfect thing I'm not destroying, because what I think of fits in naturally with it; you just weave in there."


Over the years, Scofield has also worked with a great many producers, ranging from musician friends including Steve Jordan, Peter Erskine, the late Don Grolnick and Steve Swallow (who's produced or co-produced more of the guitarist's records than anyone else), to full-time producers like Lee Townsend. Increasingly, however, Scofield has assumed the role of producer or co-producer himself; on A Moment's Peace, he's sole producer. "I think it's a mystery how it works between the artists and producer in music," Scofield says. "It's probably similar in film: you have this guy who is 'the producer,' and he has a role to make sure the record gets done as well as it can possibly be done. But it varies from situation to situation. In my case, it's always been that I've got this idea for a record—I'm a control freak, and I've written a million tunes and want it to be a certain way. And then I realize it's gonna be better if I have a trusted friend to help, and that's what Steve was. And I did it with Don and Peter, and Lee Townsend—who's a real producer; he came in and produced a couple of the ones on Verve. Since then, I've been mostly doing it on my own."

Of course, some recordings might need a second ear more than others; a live recording, for example, is less likely to require additional intervention beyond issues of mixing and track sequencing, though neither of these is insignificant when it comes to making a release the best it can be. "Another opinion really helps in every situation for me," says Scofield. "But if it's the wrong guy and you don't like his opinion, it becomes a war, and then that's not good. So it just depends on who it is. It's hard for any artist to give up control, but we benefit from giving it up, because the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts.

"This is true with jazz too, when you're improvising," Scofield continues, "because you give it up to the other musicians. If the guys can really play, you don't have to tell them a thing—they will just play well, and it'll be better than what you thought. So I see this as a fight within myself to give up control. Steve Swallow wanted to be a producer at the time [of Electric Outlet]; he and Carla were making their records, and he was producing them for her, and he was really interested in the recording process and mixing on those records for Gramavision, where we mixed for five or six days. We mixed for forever—almost like a pop record—because the guy who owned the record label had a studio, so we got a good rate."

Of course, back in the '80s, at the time of Scofield's recordings for Gramavision, the technology wasn't as sophisticated as it is today, which also made the mixing of a record a considerably longer process. There was no automation in the mixing board, which meant that mixing a song that often had 12, 18 or 24 tracks required a lot of hands to make sure that changes in the mix, at a certain point in a tune, could even be accomplished. "There were often three of us with our hands on the board," Scofield says, laughing, "and occasionally we had to find someone else to make one move; it was weird."

Swallow has, to date, produced or co-produced seven of Scofield's records, and the acclaimed composer of classic standards including "Falling Grace" and "Hullo, Bolinas" always brings plenty to the table. "Steve was all the way across the board from the very beginning," Scofield recalls. "I would write these tunes—Steve had been my compositional guru from the beginning, because when I met Steve, this was the guy who'd written 'Falling Grace' and 'Eiderdown'—these great tunes—and I was thinking, 'I want to write a tune like that someday.'

"The very first tune I wrote I showed to Steve, and he helped me," Scofield continues. "I was really into writing and into the electric concept, because I'd played with Miles, and it was very simple for me. I was thinking, 'This is the future; this is jazz now.' I mean, Wynton Marsalis was around, but I wasn't even paying attention to that. I was just thinking, 'We're going to make this electric funk jazz, and this is the new music.' Plus we had a huge audience—it was great—and Swallow was completely with me. Even though his own music was completely different, he was OK with it; he always said, 'OK, go for it.' And this is not negating any other kind of music, but we were seeing this is as a new direction—or a different direction, anyway. So Swallow really helped me, conceptually, to do my own thing, was totally into it, and gave me the green light. He was really my older brother, you know? He was mainly into the arrangements, tightening up my arrangements sometimes. He helped getting them onto tape and sequencing them, making it a record—and I still believe in recordings as whole albums. They were my tunes, my playing, my concept, but he was involved from the very beginning, and they wouldn't have been the same without him.

"The guy who was a real producer was Lee Townsend, with Bump (Verve, 2000) and A Go Go, and Groove Elation! before that," Scofield explains. "I think he's a great producer, and I've gotta say that with A Go Go, Lee really reined in that music forcefully, but in a good way. With Medeski, Martin & Wood, they're like a free-jazz group—and I say that in a really good sense—and without Lee, we would have had a long, free-jazz thing. But Lee was really into my tunes. He said, 'Tighten it up,' and I think the album really benefited from it as a piece of work—and it was also more successful because of that suggestion. It wasn't like I hadn't thought to do it, that I hadn't had a sense that it was the way to go, but Lee really confirmed that sense. I was really into composing songs for that record— though by the time we did Out Louder (Indirecto, 2006) [Scofield's follow-up record, this time under the name Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood], it was supposed to be a freer thing. But I was really into composing for A Go Go, and Lee just said, 'OK, man, let's feature the tunes.'

"Lee really helped those two records; I think the tunes on A Go Go are stronger than those on Bump [which also featured a larger cast of characters than its predecessor], and the group was so tight, so into it. I actually just played with them [Medeski, Martin & Wood], and we've got a live record coming out, a double CD, which includes one 25-minute tune, by the way—talk about stretching out [laughs]. It's from 2006-'07, when we toured after the release of Out Louder, and it's some pretty hot shit, man."

A Changing Landscape

The dissolution of the major labels over the past decade—and a musical and industry landscape that's changed almost beyond recognition from when Scofield first emerged—has often meant significant changes to how records are made. There are some who view this as a positive—without the involvement of major labels, artists are certainly unencumbered and able to make more decisions about their music and how it gets out to the world. Equally, however, the proliferation of home studios and DIY—as well as the various contributing factors that have relegated CDs to, in some cases, nothing more than an expensive business card—has its own set of cons alongside any perceived pros.

Since Scofield's relationship with Verve ended with That's What I Say: John Scofield Plays the Music of Ray Charles in 2003, the guitarist has been releasing on the EmArcy label, and it's a different kind of relationship. "I produce the records," explains Scofield, "and there's a guy, Wulf Muller, who says, 'I think this is a good idea, or not a good idea'; he might even say 'Nay' to something, but he hasn't yet. When I started out, you could get a budget from a record company and—especially when I went with the majors, with Blue Note and Verve, which are independent jazz labels that were bought up by the majors—I got big budgets. I got to try things and do things that I definitely wouldn't have been able to afford myself. So I'm thinking, I hope that young people go out and spend the same amount of money to make a record that the majors allowed us to do, because I think when someone signs your band and says, 'Here's an amount of money; go make the greatest record you can,' then you do it.

"But at the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy," Scofield says, "when it's 'I want to make my own record and put it up on my website,' are they gonna have the same incentive and backing to make really great music? Are they gonna even be able to quit their day gig? That's the change that worries me: are the musicians of now and the next generation gonna have the backing to be able to put themselves fully into creating music? Of course, the drawback is that [when you record for a major label] the big suits own you, and that's a drag. They don't own you anymore, but who cares, if you don't make great music and nobody hears it?"

There was a time when musicians worked in a group, and that was their main (and sometimes only) context. When Pat Metheny was releasing non-Pat Metheny Group projects in the late 1970s, they absolutely were side projects—usually one-offs—that he worked on during the two months when the band was off, after touring relentlessly for 10. Now, in order to make ends meet, most artists—Medeski, Martin & Wood being a rare exception—have to spread themselves so thinly that it's questionable whether or not they get the chance to truly hone any single project and realize its fullest potential. Still, there are pluses. "Well, that is a problem of today," Scofield admits. "I think, sometimes, with myself that it may be a problem. The market that I'm in—and I'm playing jazz festivals in the same cities every year—they want new stuff.

"On one hand, I think that there are things that don't get fully developed," Scofield continues, "because I don't get to keep them going as long as I'd like, but I like to think of them as things I can revisit. My trio, with Steve Swallow and Bill Stewart, is something I've revisited over the years. Now that Piety Street is 'over,' I'd like to give it some more legs and see what we could come up with next time around. But I think it's true that if you do too many projects, they don't really get fleshed out enough.

"Still, the good thing about the different projects is that each one informs the others," Scofield concludes. "There's so much I've learned from playing different music other than straight-ahead jazz—that, for whatever reason, I've gotten into, sometimes without initially wanting to, like when fusion was first starting out and guitar players were hired to play with the old jazz guys because they were guitar players. But if I'd just followed my own druthers, I'd have been just a straight-ahead bebop player, and I've gotten so much out of all this other stuff. On the other hand, if I didn't have jazz as the big background—just for learning about things like major seventh chords, II-V-I and swinging—I'd be missing out on so much. I can't even think of one thing without the other anymore; it all exists in this modern music world for me—as it should."

Always Looking Ahead

Meanwhile, with A Moment's Peace now out in the world, and Scofield wrapping up a tour in support of the record with Bill Stewart, newcomer Michel Eckroth on piano and Ben Street on bass—the same group that Scofield calls The New Jazz Quartet, which released New Morning: The Paris Concert (Inakustik) DVD in 2010—the guitarist is already looking ahead. Scofield has firm plans that include touring with yet another new group that includes Überjam Band bassist Andy Hess, Piety Street touring drummer Terrence Higgins and pianist/vocalist Nigel Hall, a player new to Scofield's always expanding pool of musical collaborators. "I'm doing a thing with Nigel, Andy and Terrence in Europe—as always, it's Europe," Scofield explains. "It's R&B-based jazz. Nigel is this incredible singer and pianist, and while it's limiting him to say this, he's kinda like Donny Hathaway meets James Brown, in a 28 year-old. He does a lot of stuff with Soulive, so we're just gonna get together and do these gigs in Europe. We've not even had the time to get together and rehearse a lot, because he joined [guitarist] Warren Haynes' band, and they're on tour all the time, but I'm gonna see where this goes.

Scofield is also thinking even further ahead beyond this new group, dreaming about projects that may not yet have definite shape, but continue to posit him as an open-minded artist who may have begun life as a blues snob and then become a jazz snob, but who, as he gets older, clearly views music as one big continuum. "There's so much stuff I'd like to do. I'd like to make a record—and this is setting up false categories that I don't believe in—of country-ish music, and you know who plays 'for real' country, believe it or not? Mulgrew [Miller].

I'd also like to do a blues record. I did a project with [guitarist] Robben Ford and a rhythm section, and we played all blues. I'd love to do a blues project and figure out a way that made sense—not just me trying to be B.B. King, because I think one of the interesting things is me being B.B. King in my own music, but not trying to be B.B. in the blues. I've also done some solo guitar shows, which I think are terrifying and not so successful all the time, but there's a lot there, and someday, maybe I could explore that.

"I would also like to play some completely free, completely unrehearsed stuff with the right people sometime," Scofield concludes. "And with Medeski, Martin & Wood; I just played with them for the first time in two years or so two nights ago, and I just love those guys so much; they've got such a special thing happening. I'd like to write some more music for us to play, because we've been playing kinda free lately. And, of course, I want to do more with my trio with Steve and Bill; I want to keep that going. This whole thing—getting paid for doing what I love—it knocks me out that I've been able to pull it off for my whole life."

Scofield may consider himself fortunate to be spending his life in the pursuit of creative music—and he's right to do so—but with an already significant body of work that continues to grow with every passing year, an ear always open to new musical opportunities and possibilities, and a touring schedule which keeps him accessible to his growing legion of fans and aspiring guitarists influenced by his unmistakable voice, there's little doubt that he's not the only one who gets to feel the benefit.

Selected Discography

John Scofield, A Moment's Peace (EmArcy, 2011)
John Scofield/Vince Mendoza, 54 (EmArcy, 2010)
John Scofield, Piety Street (EmArcy, 2009)
John Scofield, This Meets That (EmArcy, 2009)
Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood, Out Louder (Indirecto, 2007)
Trio Beyond, Saudades, ECM (ECM, 2006)
John Scofield Trio, EnRoute (Verve, 2004)
John Scofield/Mark-Anthony Turnage, Scorched (Deutsche Grammophon, 2003)
John Scofield, Überjam (Verve, 2002)
John Scofield, Works for Me (Verve, 2000)
John Scofield, A Go Go (Verve, 1998)
Herbie Hancock, The New Standard (Verve, 1997)
John Scofield, Quiet (Verve, 1997)
John Scofield, Groove Elation! (Blue Note, 1995)
John Scofield/Pat Metheny, I Can See Your House From Here (Blue Note, 1994)
Joe Henderson, So Near, So Far (Verve, 1992)
John Scofield, Grace Under Pressure (Blue Note, 1992)
John Scofield Quartet, Meant to Be (Blue Note, 1991)
John Scofield, Time on My Hands (Blue Note, 1990)
John Scofield, Loud Jazz (Gramavision, 1988)
John Scofield, Blue Matter (Gramavision, 1987)
Marc Johnson, Bass Desires (ECM, 1986)
Miles Davis, Decoy (Columbia, 1983)
John Scofield, Electric Outlet (Gramavision, 1984)
John Scofield Trio, Out Like a Light (Enja, 1981)
John Scofield, Rough House (Enja, 1978)
John Scofield, Live (Enja, 1977)

Photo Credits
Page 1: Nick Suttle, Courtesy of John Scofield
Page 2: Rafa Marquez
Page 3: Arkady MItnik
Pages 4, 6: John Kelman
Page 5: Dave Kaufman



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