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Talkin' Blues with John Scofield


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John Scofield is one of the world's most influential and respected guitarists, a musician and composer who has worked with many of the greatest names in jazz: Chet Baker, Gary Burton, Billy Cobham, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan and scores of others. His 30 plus solo recordings have taken his fans on a remarkably wide-ranging musical journey—from straight ahead jazz, bebop, and fusion, to funky experimental outings with Medeski, Scofield, Martin, and Wood, and even gospel jazz fusion with his Piety Street Band. On his current album 54 (Emarcy, 2010), he is backed by a 50 plus piece orchestra, complete with strings, harps, brass, and woodwinds, and, as always, he somehow manages to play in a way that appeals to jazz aficionados and discerning guitarheads.

Fans of Soulive, Phil Lesh & Friends, Govt. Mule, and John Mayer are well aware that John Scofield is an exciting and soulful player, and this ability to be true to himself as a serious jazz artist, while also appealing to rock, R&B, and blues fans is what makes him so special. After watching him (@ Moogis.com) blow the roof off the Beacon when he sat in with the Allman Brothers Band on March 18, 2011, I thought it would be fascinating to talk to this jazz icon about coming of age in the '60s & '70s and get his take on the icons of blues rock. So this interview was conducted just a few days after that event.

All About Jazz: First, as a blues fan I want to tell you how much I love your album Piety Street (2009, Universal Music). It's one of those recordings where everything just seems to have fit together perfectly, from the material and musicians down to the great cover art. And the fact that you decided to do a gospel album in New Orleans and actually ended up in a studio on Piety Street, it just doesn't get any better than that.

John Scofield: Yeah, it was one of those things, almost like being helped from above.It was also so much fun doing that record. Of course I knew the studio was on Piety Street, but it really didn't register until I got down there.

AAJ: Jon Cleary was a great choice, it's uncanny that a guy from England sings and plays piano like someone who grew up in the 9th Ward, and if that weren't enough, he's a fine guitarist.

JS: Jon Cleary is just a major talent, and we did a year of touring after the album came out. It was wonderful working with him and he's just become a great friend. He's actually been into it for a long time, his story is rather interesting. His father and uncle were way into the music of New Orleans when he was a kid. So he grew up with New Orleans music playing around the house all the time, and his uncle was a musician. His sister was also really into it and had already moved down there, so when he was about age eighteen he was already playing and singing it, and at this point he's lived down there for a long time.

AAJ: You've also had John Boutté who famously sings the theme song for HBO's mini-series Treme. Have you had a chance to watch it, and are there any plans for you to appear in an episode?

JS: Yes, that's so great. We actually recorded Peity Street before that, and I was so happy to see that they used his music for the series. I actually watched one of the episodes with Jon Cleary in it, it's very good. They haven't asked me, but I'll be there if they want me.

AAJ: You seem to have retained a rock energy when you need it, but other than a bit of B.B. King I can't spot a particular influence from a blues or rock player. Were there any rock or blues player you listened to in your early years who had a lasting influence on you?

JS: So first, there is influence, and then there are also people whom you like and respect. I liked and respected all of the blues players, and they all kind of played a bit like B.B. King, Otis Rush, Albert King and Freddie King. And I loved those guys, and Hendrix and Clapton, and I was a teenager when that first came out.

I started playing guitar at the end of 1963 just before the Beatles came over. [Laughing] I think I had my guitar out holding it when I was watching the Beatles on television on the Ed Sullivan Show.

AAJ: After you got your first guitar, how long did it take until you were in a band?

JS: Probably while I was still 12, it was your typical teenage band and I probably kept at it until I was about 16, when I started to play jazz. We played little dances and teen clubs and that kind of thing. We weren't famous or anything, but we were having a blast.

AAJ: How about you as a child of the '50s, were you aware of the early rock and rollers prior to the British invasion?

JS: I had an older sister, so I remember the dawn of rock and roll. I remember my sister had those little 45 records, and I also remember when Elvis was on TV for the first time. I was really little and still living in Dayton, Ohio, before we moved East. So I was about four or five years old, it must have been on the old Steve Allen Show [July, 1956.]

And I remember my mother said before this, "Your aunt in Jackson, Mississippi heard Elvis sing." I had family down there, but as an adult I remember thinking that can't be true, because she said he sang gospel from the back of a flatbed truck. But later on I found out it was true. But experiencing rock and roll through my sister was a great thing, through her records I got to peep into the world of a teenager even though I was really little.

And you know that early rock and roll had so much of the New Orleans feel, to me that feeling is the greatest. And actually it is very akin to jazz.

AAJ: This makes me think of something, do you know Louie Shelton? He actually met and saw Elvis Presley when he performed at his high school.

JS: This is amazing, I know you did an article with him, and yes he came to one of my gigs in Australia and we met. We talked and he told me about his incredible life story—and that Elvis story is just unbelievable.

And I also know another guy who grew up down there and drives for this car service up here, and it was the same story, he knew Elvis and heard him at dances down there.

AAJ: Do you remember when you first discovered Jimi Hendrix?

JS: I remember it well, I was listening to a little transistor radio in my bedroom in the dark. Somebody played "Fire" and it just killed me, so I went out and bought that first record. I knew it was psychedelic rock, but I got the guitar playing. It wasn't blues, but it was somehow still the same thing.

I saw him live in New York at Hunter College in a concert with Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding.

AAJ: A lot of the early British groups get some well-deserved credit for helping American teenagers discover the blues. A few years back a Mike Bloomfield compilation came out that included some blues demos he made way back in 1964 when he was a very young guy. It's actually pretty astonishing what he was putting down. Do you remember when he registered on your radar?

JS: You know, I remember going to the record store when the first Paul Butterfield album was out, and I just bought it without hearing it, because it looked all serious, and that's when I was first getting into blues. I don't remember what year that was, [1965] but that's really when I started getting into blues, when that album was brand new.

I think the Mike Bloomfield story is really amazing, you know he went to the South Side of Chicago with his nanny, or was it the maid. He was from a wealthy family, and to think he got to hang out with Muddy Waters when he was a kid! So yeah, Bloomfield and Butterfield were at it before the British thing was happening. You know those white kids from Chicago, they got to hear the real shit.

AAJ: What did you think of his tone and his sound?

JS: You know what, I've got to go back and listen to that again, because I haven't listened to it since way back then. But I loved that record, but I haven't gone back to reassess him. You know it's different with Clapton because he's still around, and Hendrix is still everywhere, but I haven't heard Bloomfield in so long, so I've got to go back and check it out, but in the '60s I loved it.

AAJ: What were some of the other memorable rock concerts from your teenage years?

JS: You know, I heard Cream at their first appearance in New York at the Murry the K show. He had these variety shows—three shows a day with ten bands, and each band would play two tunes. It was a holdover from the R&B days, you know like he would have Little Anthony and the Imperials and Marvin Gay. But then he started to bring in English groups like the Who and Cream, and I remember the Cream played two tunes. So I was into Clapton when that stuff was coming out.

Led Zeppelin came along too late, so I never got to see them, I wish I had. But I remember hanging out at the Roxy in Los Angeles and John Bonham was there with his roadies. I was in Billy Cobham's band at the time, this was probably 1975 and they were still around, and I remember thinking it would be cool to hang out with John Bonham, but I didn't.

I remember seeing Jeff Beck at the Fillmore with Rod Stewart on vocals. That pretty much killed me, and of course his playing with the Yardbirds had blown me away. I heard as many bands as I could.

AAJ: Did you make it up to Woodstock?

JS: No, but I had a ticket. Friday was still a school day, and my plan was that my Dad would lend me the car to go on Saturday, but by then the turnpikes were all clogged and my Dad convinced me not to go.

But you know, one of the great things about those times were that the bands played smaller gigs too. Some of the greatest stuff I saw is from Connecticut, which is where I'm from, I was 50 miles from Manhattan, so we would take the train in to hear music.

But in the suburbs we would get bands, Cream and the Doors both played at high schools in my hometown. So I heard both of those bands in a high school auditorium! I also heard the Lovin' Spoonful which was a popular band, and I remember them.

One of the greatest experiences, and a life-changing experience for me, was when Sly and the Family Stone first came out with "Dance to the Music". They played at the Longshore country club in Norwalk, Connecticut. "Dance to the Music" was on the radio and their first album was out, but I hadn't heard it. So I went to this thing, and it was a ballroom with space for about 300 people. And at this country club they kicked ass in a way I'll never forget.

That blew me away, it was unbelievable, when they started, their first tune was "Stand, " you know that anticipation counting it off, 1,2,3,4 "stand"—and that just took me on a trip.

And around that same time the Young Rascals were big, they were actually a club band in New York, and they had been playing clubs down in Brooklyn just before their album came out. Somehow they played at my high school, right before their first single came out, "I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore." And that band was incredible, they were great, and talk about soul.

So they played at my high school and my friend was in the audio/visuals department and he taped it on a Wollensak reel-to-reel. I would go over to his house all the time and listen to that—I wish I had a copy of it now, it was the Rascals doing their club repertoire. It was a lot of the stuff that was on their first album like "Midnight Hour," "Mustang Sally" and all that stuff. And it was just kick-ass, and so funky.

AAJ: For sure, and I can see how they were a club band, because I remember they did some terrific covers of standards, like "How Can I Be Sure."

JS: Right, Right! And they did "More." Great stuff.

AAJ: If you think back to the jazz guitarists from your parents generation, it is nearly impossible to imagine them sitting in with a rock band, especially because they tended to play with very little treble and volume. You, on the other hand, have a tone and energy that allows you to not only play with the Allman Brothers Band, Soulive, or Government Mule, but you bring the house down when you do. With jazz players like you, and blues rock players like Derek Trucks and Jimmy Herring, do you think that labels and genres, like race, aren't as important to young people as they once were?

JS: I would hope so, I think I have a lot in common with Jimmy Herring and Derek Trucks, and I'm sure they see it that way too. First of all, those guys are really serious about blowing, and like jazz players they are serious about getting something happening in their solos, even though they aren't straight ahead jazz beboppers. So in that way, we do have a lot in common.

And what you said about the older generation, I think it's true that Herb Ellis, Jim Hall, and Wes Montgomery—well, in a way, you know there weren't groups like the Allman Brothers back then. But yes, they really were worlds apart. But my generation, we all started in the '60s with what has become this classic music—who knew it was going to stick around.

And blues seems to be part of the guitar in a way. Of course Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall played blues, but it was coming from a mellower place. I really started out with the B.B. King style blues, serious blues, you know, the let's-turn-our-amps-up-so-they-distort kind of blues. So that's always been something that's really been part of my thing, as a matter of fact I've had to tame that in order to play with acoustic instruments. I think in a way I'm somewhat of a rare bird, because now there are lots of young guitar players who've learned to play jazz without being into the blues. So they don't have that in their background.

And of course there are lots of blues rock guitar players who are playing Stevie Ray Vaughan style guitar and aren't into straight ahead jazz. But I really did start with that B.B. kind of thing, that was my favorite music when I started out, and that swing element of it led me to jazz. So when I got into jazz it all made sense, and I saw that it was all coming from the same kind of place.

AAJ: Watching you with the Allman Brothers at the Beacon made me think about the similarity between comedy and music—and I mean this is a good way. Both involve improvising and rely on things like timing, rhythm, dramatic pauses, changes in volume,—and of course the most important aspect of comedy, the power of the unexpected.

As you were soloing, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, and Oteil Burbridge were frequently breakingout in smiles because you were surprising them with how you approached something that's routine to them. A unique way of approaching something is the hallmark of a great comedian, do you see that as one of your strengths as a musician that you come at things from a different angle?

JS: You know I do think I come at things from a different angle, especially from guys who set out to play Southern blues rock. I never did that, it just so happens that the little blues shit that I learned as a kid, I've kept with me.

They're such nice guys, and Oteil, Warren and Derek have been supportive of me for years. I think what you said is probably true, you know those guys are playing night after night with the Allman Brothers Band, which, by the way, is a very good band. And the way they work together is really musical, and all of those guys are so good. But they play the same stuff, so throwing me in there mixes things up a bit.

But I think what you said about the surprise element in the music is really profound, it's those little surprises that keeps it fresh.

AAJ: Right, someone like Monk, his take on things was just so different, and that aspect of him was so special.

JS: Oh yeah, exactly. What a special, special musician. And yes he was playing jazz and the same kind of music everyone else was playing, but it was just so special. And we learned that lesson from Monk, that there's always another way.

AAJ: Warren sang and played slide on a track from your That's What I Say: John Scofield Plays the Music of Ray Charles (Verve, 2005) CD. I understand you've occasionally been treating your audiences to a bit of slide playing, did Warren turn you on to slide?

JS: [Laughing] It's been great for me to meet and listen to Warren and Derek over the last few years, because they've helped me to get back into my blues roots. I even bought a Warren Haynes Learn to Play Slide DVD. So I was doing it for a while, but I gave up because it's pretty hard to play slide. Actually here's what it was. I was listening to Derek and how great he is, and Warren too, and I was thinking, well maybe I can get back into string bending again, like Albert King. It's the same thing, you get a vocal quality like a slide when you bend the strings a certain way. So I kind of put down the slide and started to reevaluate string bending a la Albert King. I've really been taking a look back at blues guitar, and Warren and Derek have been a big part of that.

AAJ: You always seem up for a challenge, any chance we'll ever get to hear you do a funky swamp music project with some slide guitar, where maybe you team up with some of these guys?

JS: Hmmm, I hadn't thought of it, but man that sounds pretty good. I'd like to do it. That's a good idea and I think it would work.

AAJ: You must have been about 18 years old and probably concentrating on jazz when the Allman Brothers' At Fillmore East (Capicorn, 1971) came out.

JS: Right, when that came out I had just kind of gotten out of my blues phase, and I was really getting into jazz [laughing] and had become a jazz snob. So I wasn't that into it back then, but it wasn't that I didn't like it, because I remember hearing those twin guitar leads and thinking, "that's pretty cool." And I had dug Duane's playing from an Aretha Franklin record that came out a few years earlier.

But by the time the Allman Brothers really made it, I was trying to learn jazz and really concentrating on doing that 24 hours a day. The '70s was a time when I was really listening to Bebop and trying to learn how to play, but professionally I was getting gigs that kind of put me in the fusion things because that's what was happening.

I started playing with Billy Cobham in 1975, and played with his band non-stop in 1975 and 1976. So I had to figure out how to play so it would work with that kind of music, and I also wanted to learn how to play standards and swing and all that. In a way, playing with Billy Cobham brought me back to my blues roots, so if I hadn't worked with him I might have gone into straight ahead jazz playing. So I've always kind of held on to blues roots as I developed, and I'm glad I did.

AAJ: That probably makes you more versatile?

JS: I'm probably not too versatile. There's the danger of being a jack of all trades and a master of none, so I hope nobody thinks I'm like that.

AAJ: I meant it in the sense that what you do works on many levels, you know, for jazz and blues rock, and that's what separates you from the generation before you. Younger blues rock fans appreciate your playing because they are into high energy solos that are hot, well thought out, and take them to new places.

JS: Right, and the other thing about the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead is that they had this commitment to take the music to a special place, and it was a bit of a stoned-out ideal. It didn't always work out with the Dead, but conceptually it wasn't that from away from Miles' Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970.) For me, the difference, and what made Miles and Weather Report so special, is that they were of course great jazz masters who embraced fusion.

But I've got to say, when I was playing with the Allman Brothers this time, the way the drums worked together —they were really listening to what we were playing. It wasn't a mindless hippie jam, they were creating climaxes and dynamics. But you know, the Allman Brothers and the Dead were the first bands in rock to do that.

AAJ: The Cream got into extended jams, but it was a bit ego driven, not the group dynamic with a purpose that the Allman Brothers and the Dead had.

JS: The Cream did get into jams, but yes, the difference is the group sound, and that's the great part about jazz of any era. It's always coming from a group place, so noodling, regardless of virtuosity, is never going to make it on its own.

AAJ: Makes me think of the great dynamic of Cannonball and Nate Adderley's group with Joe Zawinul and Yusef Lateef. And by the way, Yusef Lateef is another guy like Monk who comes at things from such an interesting angle.

JS: Yeah, wow, that band, what a sound! And talk about a blues player, that's Yusef.

AAJ: A lot of baby-boomers grew up thinking Chuck Berry invented rock guitar, and then all the sudden you stumble upon a YouTube clip of T-Bone Walker or Sister Rosetta Tharpe and you realize Chuck Berry was passing on a long tradition to a new generation. You've worked with John Mayer, it's cool to see him following in Chuck Berry's footsteps and passing on a bit of that tradition to a mass audience who otherwise might not be receptive to it.

Yeah, and you know John Mayer is a serious blues player, and he's very very good. I was lucky to get him on my record, and it wasn't even my idea. It was Steve Jordan's idea who was the producer, and then he became Mayer's producer. So I lucked out and John was wonderful.

You know it's been fun to talk about blues rock, because the genres are so separated now, with people identifying themselves as jazz players, or blues players, but that was the nice thing about the '60s, it was all coming from a similar place. And of course before that, it was all really kind of black music, even like the Nat Cole Trio, his guitarist, Oscar Moore, was Johnny Moore's brother, who led a blues group. But they weren't really that different.

AAJ: I wonder if gospel isn't the root of it all. Remember the B.B. King album, the one with Bobby Blue Bland, and they yell out, "Let's go to church with it!" and they all fall into a driving gospel rhythm.

JS: Yeah, that's the thing, we don't really know. I bet gospel was probably around before the twelve bar blues progression, I imagine black church music was one of the first things to happen.

AAJ: Okay John, I've already kept you too long, but I really appreciate your time and it's been a lot of fun.

JS: Thanks Alan, I've enjoyed it too. I'm in Germany a lot, so keep an eye out and I'll see you the next time I'm over there.

Photo Credit: Steve Sussman

This article originally appeared at Jazzamatazz.


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