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John Scofield: Peaceful Pursuits

John Kelman By

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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."

Producing

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)

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