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John Scofield: Peaceful Pursuits

John Kelman By

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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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