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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.
JS: 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.
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.