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John Scofield: Peaceful Pursuits

John Kelman By

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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."
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