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Sco' Better Blues: An Interview with John Scofield

By Brian L. Knight


For those who haven’t figured out yet, there is a humongous jazz-rock-funk explosion/revival occurring. Bands like Galactic, the Greyboy All-Stars, Medeski, Martin and Wood and Fat Mama are making the headlines by combining the musical worlds of Herbie Hancock, James Brown, the Meters and George Clinton.  As a result,  fans are flocking jazz clubs, outdoor festivals and nightclubs in hordes to sway to the improvised funk. While these bands are associated with a "revival", there is one musician who has been keeping the jazz-funk vibe alive and well long before the need of a "resurrection." This musician is guitarist John Scofield. Since his graduation from Berklee College of Music in the 1970s, Sco has been playing jazz-funk continuously as a sideman and a leader. During the 1970s, he teamed up with the fusion of George Duke-Billy Cobham band and in the 1980s; he provided the licks for Miles Davis. After his stint with Davis, Scofield recorded numerous albums with Enja, Grammavision and Blue Note and within the past three years, Scofield has been virtually rediscovered (although to many, he was never gone) with his two Verve albums A Go Go and Bump. The former album has Medeski, Martin & Wood as his backup band while the latter features members from Soul Coughing, Deep Banana Blackout as well as some of New York City’s finest jazz musicians. Both albums exemplify the grooves that Scofield has been proclaiming for the last 20 plus years. Although known for his fusion, Scofield has never been afraid to play straight ahead jazz – his upcoming album will expose the less funky side to the guitarist. The Vermont Review recently spoke to Scofield and this is what he had to say.

VR: Where am I calling right now?

JS: I live in Katonah, New York, which is in northern Westchester County. It is an hour north of New York City. We lived here for almost seven years and we lived for many years in Manhattan before that.

VR: You spent quite a bit of time in Boston before that?

JS: Yeah, I went to Berklee for a few years and then hung around for a couple years after that too.

VR: When you come to Boston to play live, does it feel like a homecoming?

JS: Kind of. I spent so much time living in Boston. I know how to drive around and stuff. Of course, I know a lot of people. It is near enough to New York, so over the years, it has been a second home. My sister lives in Lexington.

VR: On each instance that I have seen you in Boston, you have been with a different band.

JS: I get around.

VR: Is it difficult to go from one band to another?

JS: I embrace it. I feel lucky to do it, actually. I really love having a band and what happens when you have some music, play it for a while and keep it going. It has been a while since I have had the same group. I used to play with Bill Stewart and Larry Golding and before that, with Joe Lovano on saxophone. So we kind of had the same band there during the early 1990s. The last few years have been changing all the time. I am searching for the something new all the time.

VR: I see that Ben Perowsky and Avi Bortnick have been playing with the last couple times. Do enjoy working with those two?

JS: Well, I love those guys. It has been a really good band for me. I call it the "Bump Band" even though there are not the guys on the record. I made that the record and than found those guys to come out with me. Also Jesse Murphy on bass. That is a good example of what I am talking about. We have been playing together now for six months, pretty much straight. So we really learned to play together and develop as a group. Now, the next thing is to get new music and keep going with that.

VR: Another thing noticeable with your recent bands is the Avi Bortnick’s and Mark De Gli Antoni’s use of samplers.

JS: On the record, Mark was the only sample guy but Ben Perowsky also triggers samples. So does Avi Bortnick. So now we have two sample players – the drummer and the guitar player. That is a new area for me.

VR: Is something you are going to pursue a little more?

JS: I love it. It opens me up to that "other world" a little bit. (I am able) to fit my style in with that hip-hop and ambient stuff. Not so much as the music, but that technology.

VR: It seems that sampling is effective in creating textures.

JS: Yeah, exactly. It is certainly not new stuff. It has been around for years. It has really worked its way into mainstream music. Its like an instrument – a guitar can be good and it can be awful. It’s the same way.

VR: You have been plying your style of music for quite awhile and now it is becoming quite popular. Do you feel like you had it figured it all the time and everything is finally catching up to you?

JS: No. It’s not just me. It is a whole genre of funky jazz. I think with fusion in the 1980s, things got a little too slick. I always liked the "rootsier" stuff that was real R&B oriented –that kind of jazz-rock. Or Weather Report or something. The slick stuff was a little weird. This new generation of guys that are around 30 and the new bands that are coming up seem to be likeminded with me. The kind of jazz-rock that I like, they like too. All of sudden, I feel more justified. …Or vindicated…….I don’t know what the word is. And it is not so much "my music" – I am a part of that. The same people that influence me influenced those guys. As well as maybe I influenced these guys too because they have heard my records. It’s mainly that we all play in the same style, which is great. I am just lucky to have that turnaround happen while I was playing.

VR: That all has to do with the growth of jam bands as well.

JS: It is impossible to define what a jam band is because my jam band is very different from anybody else’s jam band. There is this audience that listens to…….basically improvised rock that also happens to go for my funkier type stuff. It is great because the barriers are down. The audience, which is not a jazz connoisseur audience, is there to groove and dance and be turned on by the music……and by the spontaneity of it. They are not there expecting to here Christina Aguilera's exact reproduction of her hit single. They are there to hear us come up with different. That whole thing is amazing for a non jazz audience. I love it.

VR: It must be giving jazz a great boost in terms of concert attendance, sales etc…

JS: I don’t really know………..for my record sales it has….. as for jazz itself, I think it will. It just means that jazz lives and there is a new generation that is into the concept. But with this whole genre of the jam band, it is different again. I think portion of them will become actual jazz fans.

VR: Jam bands will be able to use as a point of embarking. They will buy an earlier album of yours, which may lead them to getting into Joe Lovano or somebody.

JS: Yeah, they could get ahead into straight-ahead jazz.

VR: That is how I got into jazz. First came the fusion of the Mahavishnu Orchestra which led me into Miles Davis which led me into Herbie Hancock which led me into Wayne Shorter which led me into Art Blakey and so on. Now I am listening to Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet.

JS: Me to. I started getting into jazz in the late 1960s. It was already…..you know……Bitches Brew.

VR: Would you consider what you were doing with Miles Davis in the 1980s to be appreciated by a "jam band" fan?

JS: I don’t know. I think they would. I think jam band fans would really like Agartha, Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way.

VR: Speaking of Miles Davis, he was an individual who nurtured lost of young talent in his bands. I see that same quality in you as a bandleader. Is that something that Miles Davis may have passed down to you?

JS: Maybe so. You get to a certain age. There are so many great players who are younger than you…….why not? It s stupid to just play with people who are your age. As you grow older, there are people who are twenty years younger than you who are mature musicians. I am 48 so somebody who is 28 could be really great. You are really missing out on a lot if you don’t play with people who are younger than you. I guess there was a time when people that were twenty years younger than them didn’t play the same kind of music. That is not happening now.

VR: One other similarity I see with you and Miles Davis is an economy of notes……

JS: Miles was always one of the greatest at that. You know the old saying: ‘Brevity is the soul of wit.’ I think that really applies to jazz improvisation. First of all, I don’t have tons of technique. If I had tons of technique I would probably play differently. I do have technique, it is my own technique. Louis Armstrong was economical and I love his music as much as any playing in the world. So is BB King and Albert King. So is Lester Young, so is Miles. I really like Paul Desmond, the saxophonist. Kenny Dorham the trumpet player. Count Basie. Check out his piano playing, he has the most minimal stuff ever. I sure Miles was influenced by him.

VR: Do you treat your albums as an elaboration upon the previous one or do they stand alone?

JS: I think they are in a way. Just because they move in chronological sequence but I don’t try to do that. I don’t try to look at anything more than the one album at a time. I can’t. I don’t have any grand plan at all.

VR: So there is no extension from A Go Go to Bump?

JS: Well, there is but it is a natural one. I could have made a duo record with the Sufi drummers. I wanted to go in the same vein with those two albums. The next one will be completely different. I already made it. I made a straight ahead record – a real jazz record with Kenny Garrett on saxophone, Brad Melhdau on acoustic piano, Billy Higgins, a great drummer and Christian McBride on bass.

VR: I interpret A Go Go as a word associated with the golden age of rock & roll. Is Bump a reference to anything?

JS: The same thing. To rhythm and music. Moving and grooving to the music. I like that it is not too specific. It is just words like Blap – a rhythmic sound. A Go Go just cracks me up. That whole phrase from the 1960s. Than somebody told me that it is an African thing. I said " This is from France, right?" I remember that the clubs were "A Go Go". This was in Paris, real early in the 1960s. It reflected a dance thing. Than somebody said that they got it from Africa.

VR: I read that John Medeski that your love of music comes from a love of New Orleans music. Do you agree?

JS: Yeah. I don’t know if that is where my style comes from but that sort of funky groove form New Orleans is the greatest. I have always been a student of that. That level of groove is in the greatest jazz from New Orleans. Louis Armstrong being from the city and representative of the music. There is also that R&B stuff that is influenced by that town. I played some with John and this guy Zigaboo Modeliste from the Meters. I realized that "God, it is their neighborhood.". Where those guys from New Orleans grew up, called the Ninth Ward, was responsible for so much stuff. It is special thing.

VR: Do you spend a lot of time there?

JS: No, not that much. Just over the years I’ve played there and really liked musicians from there and in New York too, you know. My brother-in-law lives there and my mother’s from there, and we used to have family there and when I was a little kid we used to go there, but I never stayed for more than a few days.

VR: I’m going to name some people and I would just like to here what you have to say about them….James Blood Ulmer.

JS: Yeah he’s beautiful, I haven’t heard him a long time, and I really thought he did some interesting stuff with Ornette Coleman, but again I am not really familiar with his music.

VR: Charlie Christian?

JS: He’s a real source of inspiration to me and has been over the years. When you think about it, it’s like a technological thing too because here was this genius guitar player.  There had been others before him but no one was able to play with a big loud jazz group because they couldn’t plug in. So they invent the electric guitar and here comes this nineteen year old guy, Charlie Christian.  It all just happened the same year almost. I wonder if they had invented the electric guitar in 1929 what would have happened. Charlie Christian’s genius coincided with the electric guitar, and being an electric guitar player I just love listening to him play all that jazz on guitar on those couple of recordings. He had this inner fire, it was beautiful. Miles Davis told me he thought Charlie Christian was the main instigator of the whole be-bop thing that maybe Bird heard Charlie Christian in the early forties late thirties and was inspired by that.

VR: Dave Holland?

JS: Ah! Alright he’s the Charlie Christian of the bass. I’ve gotten to play with Dave some in recent years, and it has been so pleasant and wonderful. He’s the most consistent musician I think I have ever played with. I played this tour with Jack DeJohnette, Herbie Hancock and Mike Brecker. It was Herbie Hancock’s New Standards Tour with Dave.  I mean everyone was playing wild, and Dave just anchored the whole thing and it was unbelievable. Then there is the whole way he can play the acoustic bass with the fluidity and a completeness to his lines that I think in unprecedented actually.

VR: He’s great. I saw him up in Montreal a few weekends ago. It was fantastic. Kurt Rosenwinkel?

JS: He’s smoking! Now there is a new generation of jazz guitarists around that he is the vanguard of..... he’s one of the best at playing and he just keeps getting better and better each time I hear him. I was lucky because I got to hear him ten years ago and met him when he was living in Boston. He went to Berklee. I met him when he was a student, and he was great then….watch out for that one he might take all the gigs.

VR: Eric Krasno?

JS: He’s another one! Eric is coming more from the R&B thing, and I love his band Soulive. I’m a big fan of that band, and I’ve gotten to sit in with them a lot. And Eric has got it, he’s superbad. I love playing with him.

VR: Bill Frisell?

JS: He’s somebody who changed the way I play music and play the guitar. Getting to play with him and listening to him.  Getting to play the same music with him really influenced me a lot, and I’m glad I know him. He’s magic.

VR: I could do this all day, but I’ll give you one more. Mark Johnson?

JS: I got to play with him with Bill Frisell and Peter Erskine on drums. I’m proud to have known him and been in the same generation and scene with him. He’s another magician when it comes to playing improvised music.

VR: Changing gears here. You went to Berklee, which is more important to you education or experience?

JS: Well, they go hand in hand. Experience educates you. You have to put in the time. You have to put in the work however you educate yourself. You have to acquire knowledge and then put it into your fingers and into your music, and there are a lot of different ways to do it. Experience is essential to play. We don’t live in a microcosm.  You don’t live in a glass bubble, you have to get out there and play with people and experience what music is all about and the different way it can be played. You have to play with players that are better than you; that is essential to getting better.

VR: Where would you be happier playing in a small jazz club or an outdoor festival?

JS: Probably a small jazz club, but not all the time. I like both. The smaller settings are the optimum place to hear the music and to feel the music for us and for the listener, but I love the outdoor jazz festivals and would miss that experience.

VR: You are documented on record your tour in Europe with George Duke and Billy Cobham. Do you like playing in Europe?

JS: Oh yeah. When I made that record with Cobham and Duke, it was 1976. Since then, I every six months I will go to Europe and play for month. I feel like lived four years in Europe in my lifetime – not consecutively. I do not think there would be modern jazz as we know it without the European audience and the European jazz market. I feel lucky just getting to be in all those cultures.

VR: I know that with progressive rock that Italy has a wealth of fans. Is there any particular European country that has an equivalent fervent fan base for jazz?

JS: It is all Western European countries.

VR: What do you do when you are not playing music?

JS: I spend a lot of time with my family. Music is my main thing, that is for sure. I like people and shooting the shit. I like my life, my house, my family, and spending my time with them. No big hobbies.

Check out John Scofield at his website www.johnscofield.com