John Scofield: Peaceful Pursuits

John Kelman By

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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."



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