Uberjamming with John Scofield

Mike Brannon BY

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From the 1995-2003 archive: This article first appeared at All About Jazz in March 2002.

"Uberjam." Literally: "over all jam," translates to 'groove above all' on this true band effort, Scofield's latest recorded outing. You'll likely see this title described as anything from groove...techno...ambient...world...trance... to acid...and back again, but like MMW, it's unique in that, It's danceable "but holds up as jazz," as Sco puts it.

Recorded right after a 40 city tour, the band was more than ready to document what they'd been developing on the road (and are still). Augmenting the core group of drummer Adam Deitch, bassist Jesse Murphy and guitarist (plus loops, effects & samples) Avi Bortnick are B-3 phenom, John Medeski and multi-reedist, Karl Denson on various tracks.

"I have to say that of all the albums I've made, I think this is the one that Miles would've enjoyed the most. Miles' spirit is in this music. He was always looking to take jazz to a new place" Scofield surmises. And something he passed on.

Like only a very few, Sco's led the guitarists version of a charmed life. Having worked with a who's who of contemporary and classic jazz, including Miles, Mingus, McCoy, Metheny, Henderson, Liebman, Cobham, Corea, Hall, Stern, Frisell, Medeski and Abercrombie, and now a guitar icon himself, he celebrates with a true party album, for both head and feet.

And not to worry, the sense of humor of jazz' king of pun and the double entendre is still at work on the tune titles. The man with the corn who brought you "Groan Man," "Farmacology," "I'll Take Les," "The Guiness Spot," "Be Hear Now," "Nocturnal Mission" et al, adds to it, "Ideofunk" and "I Brake for Monster Booty." Amen.

Seriously, this is a fun and happening record, with a difference, and just a slice of what's evolving on the stages across America, with this band. Check into it.

All About Jazz: Jennifer said you were just on vacation...how was it?

John Scofield: Well, let's see...when was that, that was last week. I've been working. I went on the road for a week. I had a nice vacation before that.

AAJ: You were just in Japan and Italy (and guested on one of Pat Martino's gigs) earlier this year and going back on tour in the states now.

JS: Yeah. I'm just starting a tour that's my most extensive US tour I've ever done, as far as, like, back to back gigs. I think we have 70 gigs between now and June and two weeks in Europe on top of that, in May. So, we're doing a coast to coast bus tour like a real rock and roll band.

AAJ: (laughs). That's cool. Just like the old days.

JS: Yeah. (laughs).

AAJ: How's the tour going?

JS: Going great. We did really well, these last two New England gigs. We did two nights in Boston; Burlington, Vermont; Providence, Rhode Island; Hartford, Connecticut. Thursday in Philly, Friday in New York, you know, it just keeps going. It's been really great. I mean, we've had a lot of people coming.

AAJ: Any favorite venues or cities?

JS: Oh yeah—I guess, New York, I have to say is my favorite place to play—hometown gig and everything—and I just think it's just the greatest city and all. But, you know, I mean, I'm lucky: I get to go to San Fransisco and Rome and New Orleans or Montreal. You know, exotic places. So I'm really looking forward to this tour. We're hitting some cool spots. I've played so much in Europe that some of the places in America, like down south and in the west, the American west—which still blows me away 'cause I really haven't been out there that much. I spent years in a van driving around Europe, at this point, and haven't in the states, so I really enjoy touring in the US.

AAJ: Yeah, we hope to catch you in Austin at the Mercury Lounge, I think it is.

JS: Yeah. Austin is great. We played there a couple of times.

AAJ: Uberjam is kind of a real departure for you—aside from the groove thing—the world and techno elements being in there. Is this a kind of sound you've wanted to explore for some time—or it just happened?

JS: It just happens. Yeah, you know, over the last few years I've been aware of techno music and ambient music and electronica in a way that I wasn't 8 years ago. So it's been a slow interest for, me. I was always interested in what was going on there, because when I started playing in bands in the early '70s it was the beginning of this stuff. And then sampling technology came in and I've been watching from a distance. And then hip-hop and pop music and it fits in so well. I'm an electric musician myself so it really fits in. It comes out of a speaker so I can relate, you know what I mean (laughs)? It just seemed, just so natural to bring more of that in to this kind of music.

AAJ: Yeah. That's an interesting point. I mean, did you recently just kind of sense the improvisational possibilities or was that always apparent?

JS: Well the improvisational abilities are always there in any kind of music, to tell you the truth. You just blow. I think that it's become easier to use samples. And our band is different because we start a sample up and then we play along in real time. It's not a layered thing. Some guys come to a gig with computers and press some buttons and that's it. The samples are part of a much bigger thing of us playing our guitars and drums and whacking away, you know? So, the sample's not going to improvise by itself, but we improvise along with it and also, when it gets turned on and off by Avi Bortnick; which sample gets turned on; which effect he decides to use at that moment -he's throwing that stuff in at the spur of the moment, you know. So, it's great and I think, you know, Avi's gotten good at improvising with it; just technically, kind of using that instrument. You know, he's got this system of foot pedals (electronic effects units) and he plays guitar -at the same time -so he can like, step on a foot pedal that's controlling a sample and then throw it in and then speed it up or slow it down with another foot pedal, all while he's playing guitar. So, he's gotten that so together that it makes it possible for it to come into the music. The orchestration possibilities with samples is so interesting.

AAJ: Do you find that you're getting different types of audiences, more like what Medeski might be getting?

JS: Yeah. We're getting kids. College kids, primarily now and it's a cool thing. And they're dancing and every time I go out and play it becomes, more and more of this— this last leg—playing Boston, Providence, Burlington—it was very young, and more people. And people just part of the scene, not jazz aficionados, necessarily.

AAJ: Aside from Medeski how did you go about finding and choosing these guys and what does each bring to the album/group?

JS: Well, Karl Denson is a well known saxophonist and I just love his playing and I knew that he played this effect, similar to what Eddie Harris used—the Varitone—and he's a great flautist and he could overblow a la Rahsaan Roland Kirk and I just wanted to bring some of his sounds; little dashes of that into the record, so he's a special guest, too. The rest of the guys are in my touring band. We've been together for two years. >{? The drummer hasn't been there the whole time, but Jesse and Avi, the other two guys, have been. And we worked this stuff out on the road. We composed a lot of the music together. We're a working band, it's not just me, it's all of us. And what they bring to it; I've looked far and wide to find the right musicians and I think I have a really good match now. This drummer's incredible: Adam Deitch. He's a funky drummer with a jazz sensibility. He's 25. Both his mom and his dad were drummers and when I played with him I knew he had that sparky beat, that I love. And he was playing with the Average White Band. He can throw down that kinda funky stuff. But he's a jazz musician, too, so he's the greatest combination.

And I feel the same way about Jesse Murphy, the bassist. He has a really great artistic sensibility to the bass guitar and one element people don't know about him is that he's an incredible jazz musician on acoustic bass and has really never probably been heard in that. I guess he's young enough so he just hasn't been out there on the scene as much as some other guys but he's one of my favorite acoustic jazz players, period. Of course, in this group, he just plays electric bass with weird pedals and stuff. And he's no jazz dilettante playing bass. He lives that kind of Ska-funky bass thing, you know, he's really into it.

And Avi. I really looked long and hard to find the right other guitarist because the last thing that I wanted to do was have a group with two battling lead guitars, because that gets boring. So I wanted to find somebody who's a real rhythm guitarist and I played with a whole bunch of guys and mainly they were like me, you know, they were soloists, was their main interest and Avi -although he is a great soloist -is an expert rhythm player and that's what he likes to do, that's what he's into. And the whole sample element was something that he's grown into. He's just the right type of personality to do electronica. So, he's a sample, electro magician of the band. I wanted to have a two guitar band for years and my wife, Susan, she always kept saying, "Two guitars, that works with you." But I couldn't find the right guy. And then Charlie Hunter told me about Avi, and it's cool.

AAJ: I'm surprised you haven't done something with Charlie.

JS: Well, I dig Charlie a lot. We'll probably do something someday.

AAJ: That brings to mind the Bass Desires groups...you and Frisell get completely different textures.

JS: Right. And also Bill and I play so differently from each other that I think it works. You can have such different sounds on guitar, while two tenor saxophones: different thing. You know, guitar is really an orchestra, when it's two guitars. You can have acoustic guitar, you can have all various sounds on electric.

AAJ: You've got a really distinctive tone and approach to the guitar, too. Who were your main influences and how do you go about developing those elements?

JS: Well, let's see. Started out as a kid, like anybody, just listening to the music that was out there. When I was like 11 or 12 the Beatles had just come out. And then I looked at the records and saw that these songs were written by R&B guys and I listened to their records and that led me eventually to the Blues. And when I was 14 I was a Blues snob and I listened to BB King; that was it. I liked Howlin' Wolf, BB King, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Freddy King, Albert King. And then I got into Jazz and I've listened to everybody. You know, there are a lot of great guitarists that I admire but I wouldn't say they were influences. I think I've listened to everybody. But I guess my biggest influence, at one point, was Jim Hall. And I certainly admire Wes Montgomery and George Benson. I love their work. I couldn't copy them though, it was too hard. Same with Pat Martino. But also early I listened to Clapton and Hendrix but for me it was like trumpet and saxophone and listening to all the great musicians, and I still do. Still checking out people I just love to listen to people play jazz on different instruments and I draw from that, too.

AAJ: That was actually my next question: what are you listening to now?

JS: I listen to all kinds of stuff. I was just listening to George Benson, Breezin'. Man, he plays unbelievable on that album. Well, you know, it's a smooth jazz album, but his guitar playing is—he's unbelievable to me. He's one of my real idols. And the way he plays on that album really kills me. But as far as an influence, I can't do what he does, I don't understand what he does, technically, on the guitar. But it swings so hard.

AAJ: Yeah, I don't know how he gets those blurring arpeggios across the strings like that.

JS: Yeah. You must be a guitarist.

AAJ: Yeah, oh yeah.

JS: (laughs)

AAJ: Did the whole Berklee/Banacos thing.

JS: Oh wow. You and Mike Stern. That's some lines.

AAJ: Yeah. Did you ever hook up with Charlie?

JS: I've seen his stuff. I mean, this is like 1974. My girlfriend took lessons from him and I used to look at her books and I did learn from that and I think he's incredible. I'd like to. I know Mike has shown me some of his stuff and there's a lot there. The lines keep goin.' I like the way he organizes the stuff

AAJ: Yeah, he just beats things to death and gets everything you can get out of stuff. I'd be glad to send you stuff if you wanted.

JS: You know. I'd love to see it. You want to send me some stuff? And here's the thing. I'm going on the road Friday. If I could have it before I went on the road I could have something to look at. That would be wonderful.

AAJ: Sure.

JS: Anyway, I'm trying to think of my influences. I could talk about this all day—go ahead (laughs).

AAJ: I was going to say, going back a bit, what was your Berklee experience like?

JS: It was great. I came from a small town in Connecticut; went to Berklee; met all these Jazz musicians. It was 1970. It was still very Jazz oriented. And I was at the time in my life where I was ready to really start practicing. And be around serious Jazz players all the time. And then Gary Burton came to teach in my second year and I met him and I really lucked out. I lived with a bassist and a drummer. Chip Jackson (with Elvin Jones, Horace Silver) the bassist and Ted Seeds, a great drummer, who is still around down in Arkansas, but at that time was like the best drummer in school. And somehow I just moved in with these guys and then Gary said, "hey, there's a rhythm section I can jam with every day after school" while he was waiting for the traffic. 'Cause his last lesson would be over at five, but traffic would be bad until like 7 o'clock. And he was single at the time. He was just hangin.' So he came over and would play with us every day. For two hours we would jam with him. I learned to play from him bringing over his charts and talking about music and I was so lucky. So Berklee was great. I met Steve Swallow around that same time, who came to Berklee, just for a semester, to teach; when he realized that he hated teaching (laughs). We became buddies. He is and was a real mentor to me and best friend. Joe Lovano was in school. Pat Metheny came up (from Miami) as a guitar teacher, but he was like 18. It was amazing.

AAJ: I know it. That was an incredible time. And then you went off to Europe and were doing those trio albums, Who's Who and Bar Talk and that stuff?

JS: Yeah, yeah. Well, I was living in New York. A lot of that stuff was done for European labels or live in Europe. You know, I'd go over there and play a lot. And actually I left Boston when I got a gig with Billy Cobham—the Cobham/Duke band—which was a steady band. We were on the road for like two years straight.

AAJ: If I could ask you about some of your other projects, and just have you comment on them-working with Mingus -that experience.

JS: I just played one record date with Mingus. It was a couple days in the studio; some rehearsing. And people have asked me over and over again. I can hardly remember it but I just remember he was there. Dannie Richmond was there. George Adams was there. George Coleman was there.

AAJ: Damn.

JS: You know, the greats of Jazz were all there and I was trying to play along (laughs).

AAJ: So how'd you feel about that?

JS: I don't go back and listen to it, but Sadik Hakim, the great—actually, I don't know if he's great—he's a pianist that played with Bird, and stuff. He was hangin' out and he told me, "Man, Mingus digs you, Mingus digs you." That's about all (laughs). Mingus just was sorta nice to me but we didn't have a relationship.

AAJ: How about working with Joe Henderson on Quiet Now and So Near, So Far?

JS: That was a much closer thing. I was lucky to get to play with Joe. I was on a couple of his albums and we did quite a few gigs together and I love Joe. He was always one of my idols. I mean, I tried to play his lines, to learn his lines. I just loved his stuff, man. I'm a fan. And gettin' to play with him was great. I was lucky. I would play with him a week here and a festival there.

AAJ: How about doing Herbie's A New Standard"?

JS: Yeah. Another thing. You know, Herbie...God. A genius. And New Standards was an incredible band. I hope I get to do more with him, but I feel the same way as I do about getting to play with Joe and all these guys, and Herbie is such a wonderful guy and just such an inspiration.

AAJ: You almost make it sound as if you're not up there. I think a lot of people feel differently.

JS: Yeah, I know, but from my perspective, when I played with Joe Henderson or Herbie, I'm still the fan/kid (laughs).

AAJ: You played electric sitar on that record.

JS: Yeah. (laughs) I don't even remember doing that either. I mean I rented one when they said, "We need electric sitar" (laughs) and I just picked it up and...(makes sound).

AAJ: (laughs) Right.

JS: It was impossible to play, too. The action was really high.

MB-How about the Bass Desires projects?

JS: Yeah. Now you're talkin.' Those were my contemporaries.

AAJ: Those are some of my favorite records... Bass Desires and Second Sight.

JS: Yeah, you know, for me that stuff really worked, you know. Frisell is a giant and so is Marc Johnson and Peter Erskine. All of them. And I think playing with them and being part of that band was...I learned a lot and just loved it. Just loved those musicians.

AAJ: Do you think there's any chance that something like that might occur again?

JS: I'd like to do it. Maybe you can initiate it, go ahead and call 'em up. I'll be there (laughs).

AAJ: I talked to Bill last year.

JS: Oh yeah?

AAJ: But I didn't have that information, so...(laughs).

JS: Next time you talk to him see what he says (laughs)

AAJ: I certainly will. How about another favorite record: "I Can See Your House From Here" with Pat.

JS: Mmhm. Well you know, Pat, like Frisell; I knew him early but Pat I really knew early. When he was like 18 and I was 21 or something. Remember that song? (sings) "He was 18 and I was twenty one...papa woulda shot him if he knew what he'd done." Cher! Cher sang that. So, you know, Pat was somebody, the first time I heard him, I said, "Man, this guy has got it," you know, and he sounded great when he was a teenager and it was great to hook up with him and make a record and that, twenty years after, or whatever it was. But he's always been really supportive. He got out there and got real famous and I wasn't so famous and he would get press where he would talk about me and I will never forget how generous he was with that.

AAJ: That helps. How about A Go Go; those sessions?

JS: I just heard those guys (Medeski, Martin & Wood) and I was a fan. You know they had this groove and feeling to their fusion that was like my fusion, you know? The New Orleans, or whatever you wanna call it, funk to it. And I knew we could play. It got me real excited about playing that kind of music when I heard especially their record, oh what's it called, the one they made in Hawaii, Shackman. And I just heard it and I said this is really timely for me and not only that but it's keyboard, bass and drums. I could really fit in with them. I called them up and they said yes. I think that they're a visionary group and they've gotten some shit from some jazz traditionalists and some jazz musicians and some friends of mine (laughs). And I think that actually that they're some of the best improvisers. As a group, I think they are.

AAJ: I think they've got the longevity to keep coming up with new things.

JS: Yeah, and they've worked it out as a unit which is rare. They don't need anybody else. That what they do as a group is so special. And there are so many good groups around but groups, a lot of times, don't have a chance to live and these guys have done it.

AAJ: For sure. How about Stern's previous one, "Play," that you were on?

JS: Oh, I love Mike, too. I just think he's a phenomenal guitarist and I'm always anxious to hear what he's playing. It was just great to get with him.

AAJ: So you guys didn't do any live stuff?

JS: No, not yet. Maybe someday.

AAJ: How about the '80s records—your fusion group recordings: Electric Outlet, Blue Matter, Still Warm...

JS: Yeah. You know I think that that was an outgrowth of playing with Miles and really helped me to pursue the electric kind of funky jazz. On my own, I probably would've been playing standards and continuing in that course, but Miles and that music, his music, made me realize I really had that other stuff in me. And when I played with Gary Grainger at first, I said, "This guy's incredible." He's playing in R&B bands in the Maryland area and he said, "Hey, I got this friend of mine I grew up with who's the drummer in P-Funk." Let's try playing with him. And we played with Dennis Chambers and that combination and the way they played just changed me, you know, and it worked so well with what I did. I love those guys and it was a good group and I hope we get a chance to play sometime. But like all these things, I've been lucky. I've been a part of a lot of different groups.

AAJ: Had you heard of Dennis up to that point?

JS: Darryl Jones, bassist (with Miles), played me a tape of a P-Funk gig and said, "Listen to this guy. This drummer is amazing." So the word was out, you know, on Dennis. I by no means discovered him. He was in George Clinton's P-Funk.

AAJ: So I guess this all kind of leads to your experience with Miles. I know you've been asked that a million times. Any light you can shed on that experience? He heard you on another gig?

JS: He heard me playing with Dave Liebman, who is really another mentor to me that I don't talk about as much, and I'd like to talk about him more. I got to be in his band between '79 and '81. I played all the time in his band. We made a couple of albums and Dave was really what I needed at the time. I wanted to learn about Coltrane style tenor saxophone and that era and how that music was constructed. And Dave was the guy who showed me this. And he's an incredible musician and was very generous with me and really, I consider him one of my teachers. And I was playing when Miles came in. Dave had played with Miles so he introduced me to Miles and the rest is whatever it is. But Miles said one thing to me, I was just telling somebody else, and I realized he said this one really cool thing to me. He goes, "Music is always work." No, "Music is always hard," he said. He just said it's always hard and here was this guy who had done so many great things and he was back at point A trying to figure out what to do to make the music work with this band. And what he meant to me was not that it's always hard, that it's difficult, that it's not fun, or anything like that, but you know, you can't ever give up. You can't rest on your laurels. You always have to find something to make it be decent. It's always hard. It's never easy. It's not about being easy, you know.

AAJ: You've got to discover a new angle.

JS: You've got to. And that was really important to hear.

AAJ: Did he really kind of help you to feel confident about being a leader?

JS: Well, he just made me feel confident that I could play. That I could play at all. That I was saying something. And he made me feel really good about myself and it was really important because I held him in such high esteem....there are a lot of guys who didn't play with Miles and they're ok (laughs).

AAJ: (laughs) How did you develop you compositional styles and how do you go about writing new material?

JS: I develop it just by doing it. Don't forget: it's never easy. It's always work (laughs).

AAJ: I actually don't need to be reminded of that.

JS: Yeah, you know, you're a musician. And I basically compose any old way I can. I sit down with the guitar and just write with music paper. Sometimes I'll make a tape with a cassette. Sometimes I'll just use a 4-track. I have a little keyboard that has a sequencer in it that I can put sounds in and record stuff that way. But primarily it's just writing on the guitar with a notebook. I go back to the notebook and see melodies and rhythms and stuff that I've written years ago, occasionally, and use some from a couple of years ago and it comes out different, I guess.

AAJ: Why don't you let me know about upcoming projects and the rest of the tour and whatever's going on?

JS: We've got this huge tour with the Uberjam band and that's my main project is seeing where I can take the band and where the band takes me. And seeing how that music's going to develop. Also, I'm involved with a piece of music written by classical composer, Mark Anthony Turnage, from England who's a phenomenal, orchestral, modern music composer. He's like 40 years old and he's one of the best European new guys on that classical scene. And also, he loves Jazz. So he took a bunch of my tunes, my little heads from over the years and put then into an orchestral setting, and re-wrote them, I mean, you know, wrote additional parts to go with. And it's phenomenal. We just had a basic rehearsal and we're going to do that with the Frankfurt Symphony Orchestra in September with Peter Erskine and John Patitucci as the rhythm section. And so I'm really looking forward to that.

AAJ: Is this getting recorded?

JS: Well, we're going to record it for the radio and then we'll see, maybe we can make a CD out of it. I'd like to.

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