John Scofield: Peaceful Pursuits

John Kelman By

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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."



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