For years, John Scofield has earned the reputation as one of the principal innovators of modern jazz guitar. With nearly three dozen albums to his credit, not to mention stints as sideman with such jazz luminaries as Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, and the Cobham/Duke duo, Scofield is a unique artist whose distinct guitar sound and compositional skills remain highly in demand across a wide array of musical circles.
In recent years, Scofield has occasionally stepped out of the world of jazz, taking his improvisational skills and jumping into the fray with acts like Gov’t Mule and Phil Lesh and Friends. When reminiscing of time spent with those two bands, Scofield speaks with much admiration.
“I am blown away by Phil Lesh,” he says. “He is so interested in the aesthetic of on-the-spot improvisation. He is the only rock star that I ever met that is willing to let the music go all kinds of places, even at a stadium gig. I think that’s what attracted me to his stuff with the Grateful Dead; he has a real commitment to allowing the music to just jam and go into a completely different place.”
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become like that too. I guess I’m getting looser as I age, because I like when it’s different every night. I’ve never been particularly a Dead Head, because I was so into jazz, but I love that and I’ve really gotten to appreciate some of the Grateful Dead tunes as compositions as well. So, it was fun playing with Phil. It was really different for me, and I enjoyed it every time.”
Scofield also speaks warmly of the time he spent playing with Gov’t Mule, including the Grammy-nominated instrumental recording of “Sco-Mule,” and the shows in which he guest starred along with fellow guitar whiz Jimmy Herring.
“Jimmy and I never played together in Phil and Friends,” he recalls. “We both played in that band along with Warren Haynes. But, when we did those shows with Mule, man, I was blown away by Jimmy. He is one of the most amazing technical players I’ve ever seen. As a guitarist, I am still amazed at what he can do with his instrument.”
When the subject of Jimmy Herring arose, it seemed a natural segue to his current release, This Meets That, specifically the track dubbed “Pretty Out.”
“That’s a tune I wrote along time ago,” Scofield recalls. “I recorded that like 15 years ago, but this version is very different with the horns and the way we approached it. It’s a pretty melody, I believe, but it’s ‘out’ – we play completely free, with no tempo and no key signature. I’m proud that we can do that together as trio, and that we follow each other around and go places, and the way Bill (Stewart) plays such abstract drumming.
“I am glad to hear people dig it, because that’s probably the song some people will say, ‘well, that’s weird.’”
The trio, which Scofield refers to as his “A-Team,” also includes bassist Steve Shallow, whom Scofield first met in 1973. “Steve has been such a huge part of my development,” he says. “Now we are aged contemporaries, but when it started, he was the established great and I was the kid.”
Like his storied career, This Meets That features a wide array of musical elements, mixing Scofield’s renowned jazz with inklings with healthy dose of rock, and even a spice of country.
“I’ve never recorded a country tune before,” Scofield says. “But ‘Behind Closed Doors,’ the Charlie Rich tune, is on the album, along with rock tunes that I grew up with that are part of natural subconscious memories for all of us, ‘House of Rising Sun’ and ‘Satisfaction.’ That’s where I started out with a guitar in the 60s, so I thought it would be fun to really interpret them (on this album).
“It’s not a crossover album at all; it is real jazz music, but as a jazz musician, you are always looking for material. It’s like some kid when he first plays the guitar, and that is what he learns. When those came out as pop hits in the 60s I was a little kid, about 12, and that’s when I learned them on the guitar and even then I thought it would be fun to play them in ‘jazz version.’ All the music that you learned and listened to is there in your ‘databank’ so to speak, and these songs came out (of me) now, but in a very different way then in 1965.
“The inspiration (for ‘Satisfaction’) was Bill (Stewart), who’s really not into playing fusion drums. It stared with this old 60s rock beat we were playing one day at a sound check, just for fun. I started playing ‘Satisfaction’ and it just worked in this real natural way, so that song came out of a jam.”
While cover songs are often fun, the meat of This Meets That are the original tracks, songs written to showcase the immensely diverse skills of three of luminaries of modern jazz. As Scofield says, “It’s called This Meets That because there are a lot of different elements in there. When I write these tunes I always flush them out in my head as far as the parts. I expand them in my head and then I end up playing them trio. Using horns was a chance to actually use a larger ensemble for some of the record, (even though it) is really about our trio and the music we make.
“I think a lot of the best music (takes time to) grow on you. You can come close at home, but a group matures together as people play material, they do well together. So even if I am writing for a band, if it’s people I know, or have played with a lot, which is true in this case, I can hear them playing and then sometimes we just jam to work the rest out.
“‘Strangeness in the Night,’ for example, is two songs stuck together, and it’s very strange. The first part is strange and spooky, and then it goes into a jazz thing. I think we swing pretty hared on that one and I am pretty proud of it.
“On ‘The Low Road,’ we tuned the bass and guitar both with the low note down to a C-Sharp, to get this big sound and it’s jazz, but it’s also got a kind of intensity associated with a rock beat. I love the way Bill played hat beat. That’s a set up for a certain kind of feel. It’s much related to Miles’ music in the 80s, when I was a part of his band.”
While Scofield, now 55, is quite humble in honoring his contemporary peers, he never forgets his roots, the music he grew up on, and those who came and paved the way for generations to come.
“I got my first guitar in 1963 when I was 11 years old,” he recalls. “The Beatles came on TV two months later and I was hooked. I got really serious about music and it seemed like jazz hit me, just the idea that jazz worked for a higher pinnacle. I took guitar lessons from a guy that was in to the black blues in the 60s, and I realized that jazz guitar was backward and not even related to the blues, but I immediately connected the dots.”
Years later, as word began to spread about the kid named Scofield and his unique interpretation of modern jazz, none other than the legendary Miles Davis came calling, asking Scofield to join his band. Miles had just recently released his seminal album Bitches Brew, featuring, amongst many others, Scofield’s old Berkeley friend Dave Holland.
“There was no one else like Miles. He was the epitome of cool; one cool cat. Being in his band was an amazing experience.”
Three decades later, Scofield remains as in demand as ever. His most successful solo album to date, Out Louder, was released in 2006, with Medeski, Martin & Wood serving as his back up band.
In the future, look for Scofield to continue releasing prolific albums, and to continue to tour. This fall, his trio will set up residency at both the Blue Note in New York and Yoshi’s in Oakland, along with tours of Europe and Asia. Wherever he may be, and whomever he may be playing with, when John Scofield fires up his guitar, you can always count on extraordinary performance by one of modern music’s true consummate professionals.