Guitarist John Scofield is an unassuming chap, seemingly at ease with himself and most things around him. He's ever congenial. Clever and well-grounded. Catch him wearing spectacles, and his look is professorial.
But don't, for a minute, think Scofield isn't serious about music. The status he's achieved in the music world was accomplished with hard work, listening to the people and sounds around him, absorbing many influences, then putting it forththrough his instrument and through compositionin a way that is honest and forthright. He appeals to musicians and music aficionados. And he's done it in a consistent fashion over the years.
It's hard to find people who don't dig Scofield, even if they aren't into the guitar.
The litany of people with whom Sco, to which he is often referred, has been associated with is a clear indication of his worth as a musician: Miles Davis, Billy Cobham, Joe Henderson, Jack DeJohnette, Tony Williams, Jim Hall, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Dave Holland and more. He's been on important albums and created them. This Meets That (Emarcy, 2007) is one of his finest. In it, Scofield, along with longtime compatriots Steve Swallow (bass) and Bill Stewart (drums), touch on a variety of influences and manage to put forth music that is loose and sometimes groove-based, with a jam-like ambiance, yet is cohesive, swinging and cerebraloften all at once. With horn arraignments, no less.
"It came out all of the things that I do, on one CD, but not all mixed upone kind of music for the first time, in a way, says Scofield.
He's looking forward to working that music as the group tours. But he's already looking ahead.
"I would like to make a blues record, whatever that means, he says, speculating about later in 2008. "I'm feeling that. A blues/gospel record, taking that music and seeing where we can go with it.
He states it matter-of-factly, almost as if maybe he will and maybe he won't. But you can probably count on it. And look for him to tear it up. Scofield was brought up on that music. "The real blues and gospel guys swing like crazy in their own way. It remains to be seen how we can do it.
In the meantime, the coming year will see his trio and horns playing This Meets That material. The year could also include more dates with Trio Beyond, the magnificent group that pairs him with DeJohnette and Larry Goldings on organ, and perhaps more things with Medeski, Martin and Wood.
But the focus for now is the new recording, which has gained critical acclaim and rightly so. It has a great sound, the product of outstanding musicians who have played together over the years, forming a personal style, a familial vocabulary.
"I love these guys, says Scofield of the trio that has played together off and on since the 1990s. (The trio released EnRoute on Verve in 2004). "Each one of them is a special individual musician. Their sound is so individual. Steve, there's nobody like him in the world. Sometimes Steve can't make a gig and my wife will say, 'Can't you get another electric bassist to do it?' I say, 'Yeah, but there is no other electric bassist that I've heard of that can approach that.' It's his own world. I've played with Bill Stewart since 1979. I've played with a lot of the greatest jazz drummers and he's right at that level. I don't think anyone is playing better jazz music on the drums than Bill Stewart.
"It kind of evolved, says Sco of This Meets That. "I've been doing other projects that were really electric projects. Groove-only projects. The trio always kept playing through the '90s, even though we weren't recording. From the mid-'90s until now, we've kind of developed a repertoire, some of which is on this record. Our version of groove tunes. It's loose and jazzy in a way that electric funk-based jazz is not. I'm really proud that we came up with a way to incorporate that shit into our jazz thing.
"The horn thing is a nice icing on the cake.
The arrangements, and most of the tunes on the new recording, are Scofield's, except for "Behind Closed Doors, an old country tune; "I Can't Get No Satisfaction, of Rolling Stones fame; and a rocking warhorse, "House of the Rising Sun. Much of the material developed as part of the trio's repertoire over the last five years, with the guitarist penning "The Low Road, "Strangeness in the Night and "Down D more recently.
"The Low Road starts out like it might come from the psychedelic era, with Scofield's guitar crying, but it quickly settles into a sweet groove where the guitar plays jazz, swing and beyond over a liquid beat provided by his mates. The form is open and yet the three are so tight. It's a tune that might become a popular one for other bands to pick up and stretch out on. Scofield glides effortlessly over the music and the horns after they slide in. Its subtle toe-tapping changes are delectable. "Strangeness in the Night also has the feel that you might hear if picked up by others looking for a modern funkiness, with time-tested swing. Good time music, but heady nonetheless. His reworkings of the cover tunes are all worthy, creating a new groove and a new interest. On "Trio Blues you can see the guys in a club, on the stand, swinging and playing off each other. Ballsy. The disk is entirely digestible.
It's a superb trio disk, encapsulating the different feels the group can achieve in a manner that is personal and versatile. Yet there's so much more to what Scofield does and what he's willing to try, based on his upbringingborn in Ohio, raised in Connecticut and listening to music of the 1960s, when jazz was hard to find, but blues-based rock was plentiful. It left him with an open mind for music. Scofield's in a place now, as far as his stature, that when sees a direction that interests him, he can take it. And he's in a place as a musician that whatever that decision is, it will sound good and be valid.
"I don't choose. It's what sort of happens. Things fall into place for one project or another, he says matter-of-factly. "I mix it up. After I've done a funky kind of record with the Uberjam Bandthat's what we did a couple years ago. That was my band and we did a couple CDs. Then I feel like I want to do some more stuff with the trio, whatever that music is. Or Trio Beyond. And then the MMW thing just comes up. One project, for lack of a better word, is more straight-ahead, and another one, for lack of a better word again, is funkier. It goes back and forth. It's just that you're looking for something a little bit different than what you did the last time. I just keep going these different ways. I don't have a master plan at all.
As a young man checking out guitar players, Scofield gravitated to horn-like players like Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino and George Benson. But there was also the blues, the music that helped launch Scofield on his musical journey. "To this day I love all the classic guys, B.B. King, Freddie King and Albert King. I think that that tradition of guitar playing, which spawned rock and roll guitar playingthose guys really did it so well and it rubbed off on me. It still does.
Jazz wasn't easily found in the 1960s, but Scofield was serious about music. Schlepping around in local rock bands wasn't enough. Older musicians he played with were listening to other stuff, creative music with solos that let the artists cut loose and passed this knowledge on to the younger musician. "Check out this Tal Farlow record, kid, says Scofield, recalling those days. "Even though they were playing in these clubs, mostly this R&B shit in the '60s, they were aspiring to Tal Farlow, Wes Montgomery and Barney Kessel, this whole other world. And it was through kind of guitar stuff in Connecticut, through the bar band scenes, that I started to learn about jazz.
"And I think guitar players still learn about it that way. So it wasn't any jazz in high school kind of thing. It was more of, dare I say, the streets, even though it wasn't the streets. Just because I was so into music. The Filmore would have Miles Davis and Santana, and BB King and Albert King. So there was a way to access bluegrass, jazz and mainstream rock, all from the same place. So you would hear Miles at the Fillmore and realize his history, if you were really curious.
Playing in high school and with the bar bands, Scofield realized he wanted to be a professional musician. He heard about Berklee College of Music in Boston through the band scene, and made the jump in 1970, after high school. There he met people like Joe Lovano, Pat Metheny, Kenny Werner, Steve Swallow, Billy Drewes and Jamey Hadad. Gary Burton was a teacher and mentor.
"I started doing all the different gigs that I could. I got to play with Gary [Burton] a little bit after I had been up in Boston a couple years. A great drummer named Joe Hunt, who teaches there, we had a group, with Dave Samuels on vibraphone. I played with some of the older guys too. Some of the guys that played in Buddy's and Woody's [Rich and Herman] bands, the kind of Herb Pomeroy set. These were older guys who were real beboppers. We played club dates, but played bebop tunes.
At Berklee, his focus was more on learning how to play changes and play traditional jazz and tunes. It was working, and so was Scofield, at venues in the Boston area. Then he was recommended, by noted Beantown area drummer Alan Dawson, to Gerry Mulligan. "He had decided to extend his band to include guitar and vibes, then a regular piano trio, Scofield recounts. "I played about a week at the Jazz Workshop in Boston, and then there were no gigs for like a month or so. Then he called me up and said, 'Make this next gig,' which was at Carnegie Hall. It was a live recording session in concert, which was on CTI. That was my first record. I only stayed with Mulligan a couple months because I got the call from Billy Cobham. His band at that time was the Brecker Brothers and John Abercrombie. I replaced John Abercrombie on guitar. But it was a big touring band and I couldn't keep playing with Gerry, because Billy Cobham's band worked non-stop. It was famous, like a rock band. I went on tour with the Cobham band for two years and then it became the Cobham-Duke band, with George Duke.
Playing with Cobham allowed the now-seasoned guitarist to move to New York in January of 1975. "So I was on the scene in the second half of the '70s in New York, playing with everybody and trying to get established on the local scene. I joined Dave Leibman's band, which was a great group at the end of the '70s.
Then came the brush with Miles, that would make a stamp on Scofield, as it has with so many other musicians over decades. He was playing with Liebman one night at 7th Avenue South, "in about 1981, I guess. Miles came in the club. Dave introduced me. About a year after that Miles called and I joined his band.
That was in 1982, when the band already had guitarist Mike Stern. Stern left after about six months and Scofield's fiery guitar blazed over the funk-influenced rhythms and even future sounds that were part of the Miles Davis band of the day. It was a heavy musical experience and a career boost even beyond the Cobham band.
"It's really interesting to meet your idol, because I was really into Miles' music at that time. I decided I wanted to play melodically and also play hip lines and all that. I really used him as a basis for the absolute epitome exemplar of that type of thing. And then, meeting this guy in his late fifties or early sixties, at the time, who has already done all that and doesn't want to think about it at all.
It was after Miles' famed exile period when his health and life in general had deteriorated. But in 1980, he decided to come back and was enlisting the services of young musicians to try and make a musical statement befitting the times, refusing a return to bebop.
"He had a new outlet and he wanted to be a pop star and he was, which people don't understand. It wasn't that he was a pop star, he just wanted to be a star and take advantage of his celebritywhich he did. He was huge in a way that nobody is today, with his charismatic thing. But it was all about the music. The cool thing about him was he was this real handsome, outspoken, charismatic trendsetter who also backed it up 100 percent with the music. He wanted to hang out and talk to us about the music all the time.
"As a student of jazz it was fascinating to get his perspective on all the previous jazz that had gone before. And here was this guy with this high set of standards for what made good music. It was so much about what he liked, a lot from the bebop and swing era. So here we are playing Cyndi Lauper tunes, and he was bringing his swing and his criterion to that music. He played his ass off every night, even when his horn wasn't together. I think he had some physical problems, and we didn't play gigs sometimes for long periods of time. But he still played his ass off, even when his chops were down. It was all about the music.
The experience of playing with an icon who refused to address that with which he had earned icon status made a mark on Scofield. Davis was fearless in his musical choices, confident in his tastes, and knew he had good musicians trying to create every night, even ifat the timemany music critics didn't think so.
"He was a purist as far as creativity happening and whether something was fresh. He didn't want to hear any bebop. He just had come from that and he would get bugged at us [if he heard bebop]. I don't feel like that. I love to hear and play lines from bebop. But it was because he had played with Bird and Bud Powell when it was so fresh. So he was always looking for something that would give him the same feeling that he got from that music. But it couldn't be that music again, you know what I mean?
His presence in that band gave Scofield and the others a certain stamp, "just the fact that all of a sudden everyone knew who you were in a different way. Because I've made records and had gigs in New York with Swallow and Adam Nussbaum. We had a trio. All of sudden, after I played with Miles, everyone knew who you were. After leaving Miles in 1985, Scofield started his own band, "and I was able to, business-wise, because Miles had put me in the spotlight by putting me in his band. It was such that everybody knew who you were after you played with him. So from then on I formed my own groups.
Scofield's groups have played quality over the years. He's recorded over thirty albums as a leader, including collaborations. There's something to find in them all, which include the likes of That's What I Say - John Scofield Plays the Music of Ray Charles (Verve, 2005), Works For Me (Verve, 2001), Groove Elation (Blue Note, 1995), or I Can See Your House From Here (Blue Note, 1994), with Pat Metheny. Right through to today, his playing remains sharp, aggressive, thoughtful, and searching. He seems to be touring constantly and still finds time to take on students as an adjunct professor oat New York University.
"You keep looking for something to keep it interesting. It's not that I get bored, but there's some instinctive thing that happens when you can feel, 'Wow, this is cool and we can play this song, this instrumentation, this group of people.' So I am always looking for that, says Scofield. He doesn't get worried if he might face criticism for playing groove music, or funk or anything in between.
"It turns out all of us like jazz for a lot of social reasons too. It's like the 'real deal' as opposed to the world of commerce. So I think when people hear me playing stuff that is really related to rock and roll and hip hop, because they've chosen to become 'jazz people,' a light goes off and people say, 'Wait a minutethat's not the kind of music I like. It's setting me up to be this kind of person. That's not my personality.' It's a kind of pompous thing. You could just say that you don't like that kind of music, that's one thing. I think a lot of it is some kind of social thing. You can't please everybody all the time, that's for sure.
With more bands on the scene incorporating influences from all over the globe, and from all styles of music, Scofield sees it as a good thing for contemporary music, including jazz. Eyes and ears may be opening up to more things, with fewer turned up noses than in the past.
"I think, in a way, it is easier with the young generation. The jazz purists of all generationsand I'm one of them, believe it or notthe younger people don't even know what you're talking about when somebody says Weather Report sucks and Miles is only good until 1970. They can't really understand and I think that's a much healthier attitude. Because I think Weather Report is really great and I think [Miles'] Live at the Fillmore East (Columbia, 1970) is really great. So that old battle is moot to them, in that way.
The confused, and sometimes unfriendly, state of the music industry also doesn't seem a cause for concern. It is what it is, and the guitarist's focus stays on the music and his career.
"I don't even think about the industry ... I really have no idea, it's so all over the place. I think one good thing is that live concerts and clubs seem to be thriving. There's still a scene in Europe, too. We've always made our money on gigs, right? No jazz musicians ever said, 'Well, I'll just sit back and let the royalties accrue,' he says with a laugh. "As far as the CD scene, it's pretty bleak, but I think maybe it's just changing, and new opportunities for the music to get out there and for musicians to profit from that will come. I just don't think it's quite there yet.
"I don't think anybody knows how this is going, he says of the shift away from the traditional recording industry and the influence of the Internet and new media. "Everybody's trying to figure out what this all is. I've been going to YouTube for six months and watching all this great shit. Then it dawned on me that this is six months of not paying copyright royalties to the composer. I've been obsessed with watching old Gerry Mulligan clips or whatever. It's not on the radio and not on a TV show where they're showing this, where they would have to pay royalties. I really never thought about it. And then I wondered if there is anybody else out there like me.
"You see shit on YouTube from guys' phones. Then I saw this TV show of a gig I did at the North Sea Jazz Festival that somebody put on. It was Dutch television, so it was a nicely produced thing. Then they kept showing these people in the audience holding up their cell phones and recording this. So he doesn't fight city hall, at present, and allows recording.
How those things will sort themselves out, even music industry insiders don't know. It's a crazy time filled with a lot of uncertainty, but a feeling seems to prevail that it will be worked out and artists will get their due in one form or another. Hopeful optimism.
More foremost to Scofield is his instrument, his music, his bands. He wants to continue to grow and fights the complacency that comes with being human. He's content that his bands and his music are popular, and his playing is recognized. But that isn't the end. More to do. More to learn.
"Quite honestly, a lot of what people play when they're really trying to play this shit, when they're really trying to play 'the music,' this thing that's been set up in their minds about what great jazz is, it can chain you to a formula. And I'm in there too, man. I'm trying to fight it too. If I'm doing well, hopefully it's because it sounds good.
John Scofield, This Meets That (Emarcy, 2007)
Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood, Out Louder (Indirecto, 2006)
Trio Beyond, Saudades (ECM, 2006)
John Scofield, That's What I Say: John Scofield Plays The Music of Ray Charles (Verve, 2005)
Marc Johnson, Shades of Jade (ECM, 2005)
John Scofield, EnRoute (Verve, 2004)
John Scofield, Uberjam (Verve, 2002)
John Scofield/MMW, A Go Go (Verve, 1998)
Gary Burton & Friends, Departure (Concord, 1997)
John Scofield, Quiet (Verve, 1996)
Herbie Hancock, The New Standard (Verve, 1995)
John Scofield, Hand Jive (Blue Note, 1994)
John Scofield, 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, 1984)
Miles Davis, Star People (Columbia, 1983)
John Scofield, Shinola (Enja, 1981)
Dave Liebman Quintet, If They Only Knew (Timeless, 1981)
John Scofield, Who's Who (Novus, 1979)
John Scofield, Rough House (Enja, 1978)
John Scofield, Live (Enja, 1977)
Billy Cobham, Shabazz (Atlantic, 1974)
Top Photo: Courtesy of John Scofield
Middle Photo: C. Andrew Hovan Bottom Photo: Fernando Cerecedo