John Scofield: Peaceful Pursuits

John Kelman By

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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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