During his extensive musical travels, guitarist John Scofield has jammed with
Chet Baker, Bob James, Pat Metheny, Miles Davis, Billy Cobham, Bela Fleck and
numerous other players. He continually explores the outer edges of contemporary
jazz, calling upon elements of fusion, rock and blues. Armed with his trusty Ibanez,
Scofield adds a pleasing amount of wah-wah and distortion to seal the deal.
In addition to his jazz soundscapes, Scofield has become a
leading pioneer of a new alternative groove genre. Recent funky releases
like Bump and A Go Go have cemented his role as a sonic trend-setter.
Digital Interviews: Who were some of the early influences -- performers
that made you want to play the guitar?
John Scofield: Well, I started playing when I was eleven. I think
it was music that I heard on the radio, and on television. I would see a
guitar on Ozzie & Harriet, which had Ricky Nelson, and remember that.
I was very young. Just all pop music, you know. The Beatles came out, and
I liked them a lot, and thatís when I started to play guitar. Folk music
was big, very popular in the mid-60s. Then I got into B.B. King and blues,
and that whole blues guitar thing, when I was 14, 15. Got real into it,
became a blues purist, and then I got into jazz shortly thereafter.
DI: Did your time at the Berklee School cement your love for jazz?
JS: I loved jazz before I went there. Thatís why I went there, because I
was so into jazz, and Berklee was the place at that time. You could go, and you
didnít have to study other stuff. You could just do jazz. That was a wonderful
place, because everybody who went there -- most of the people, anyway -- were
real serious. Pat Metheny was there, and Joe Lavano, and a bunch of others.
It really did give me my start. Gary Burton was teaching there, and that was great.
DI: You played at Carnegie Hall with Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan?
JS: That was the first record I ever made, called Reunion. I'd been playing
in Gerry Mulligan's group. We had a gig at Carnegie Hall and they recorded it.
It was a big deal -- the first record that Iíd ever been on.
DI: How instrumental has bassist Steve Swallow been to your career?
JS: Heís my mentor. When I was going to Berklee, he came up to teach.
We started to play together, and I learned so much from him. I had a trio
later on, in the '80s, that he played in, and we both played in Gary Burton's
group before that. I've got a really close friendship with him. He taught me
so much about music.
DI: What did your time in the Cobham-Duke band do for your "chops?"
JS: That was a whole different thing -- a fusion band. This was 1975.
Before, I had been playing with Gerry Mulligan, which was straight-ahead jazz.
Then I got to play with Cobham-Duke, and that was a big, big change, but
I really liked it. It was in rock halls, and the audience was going crazy
in a different way. It was very contemporary, really great musicians. That
was the first band I got to really go on the road with. We went on the road
steady for two years to Europe, as well as all over the States.
DI: And what was it like playing with Charles Mingus?
JS: Great. I didn't play with him that much. I was just on one album.
He invited me to play on his album 3 Or 4 Shades Of Blues. I was scared, because
I was in awe of him and a big fan of his. I went to the session, and the music
was very difficult, but it worked out okay. It was nice that I got toÖbecause
he died shortly thereafter. It was the last record he played bass on. He had
another record that came out after that, but he wasn't playing on it.
DI: You played with Miles Davis in the Ď80s. Tell us about that experience.
JS: It was a great gig for me in a lot of ways. First of all, getting to
play with my favorite musician. I learned so much from him. Then to really check
him out, and see where he was coming from, and get a vote of approval from him
was very important for me. It gave me a lot of confidence. He was so much his
own man; wanted to do his own music and didn't follow trends so much, but followed
his own trends. Very opinionated, sure about what he liked, and other people's
playing, and really had a musical outlook. Music was his life. It was great.
DI: When you played with Pat Metheny in 1993, you really didn't even own an
JS: Not an acoustic. I had to use his, because electric had been my thing.
DI: Did you start straight off on electric?
JS: The first guitar I had was acoustic, but real bad, with the strings
an inch off the neck. It was a Stella, or something. The first guitar I got
that was playable was an electric.
DI: Did you alter your sound to play an acoustic instrument?
JS: I play it kind of the way I do an electric. When you play an electric
guitar, itís still an acoustic instrument. It's the string and a body. You have
to plug it in to get the sound, but the thing thatís generating it is the string
and the sound of the wooden guitar that I play. That's an acoustic instrument, too.
DI: Was your subsequent release, Quiet, your acoustic experiment, or are we
going to see more of that?
JS: You'll see some more. I've been using acoustic guitar since then,
and since the tour with Pat. Live and on tour and different pieces. I think I'll be
playing more. I still think electric's my main voice, but I like acoustic. Especially
nylon-string acoustic -- a different tambour and feel that I really like. It's very seductive.
DI: You got an honorary doctorate from Berklee, and you've taught master classes.
What drives you to give back like that?
JS: I always taught. I taught guitar lessons when I was in high school,
so I've always been involved in that. Honestly, originally it was to make money,
you know. There weren't enough gigs playing the guitar, but I would always give guitar
lessons, so I didn't have to get a day gig. [laughs] Now I do master classes. I don't
really have a curriculum that I teach, but I do master classes when I can. I really
enjoy it. Hanging out with musicians -- we're all on the same quest. It's a lot of fun
for me to discuss music with younger musicians, and older musicians. I like the people
aspect of it, too.
DI: While you're still playing with some of the more traditional jazz players,
you've really become a founding father of a different kind of playing. You recorded
the A Go Go album with Martin, Medeski and Wood, and some critics say that's your
best album. How did that come about?
JS: It came about because I really liked the band. They play a kind of "jazz-rock,"
for lack of a better word. It's really more like funk and New Orleans stuff, combined
with free jazz aspects. Their music fits with something I do a lot. That's happening
with this jam band phenomenon. College-age audiences, it's great. The guys I'm playing
with now are all late 20s, early 30s, and the funky jazz they like fits right in
with what I do. It's just this weird place in time, where I can play with some guys
that are in their 20s and it feels really right. It's funky. Weíre playing funky.
It's this weird phenomenon that people 20 years younger than me have listened to
the same old records that I was listening to when I grew up. [laughs] And it's coming
out a different way. It's not that it's completely retro. Bands like Medeski,
Martin and Wood are putting a new spin on it. It's great.
DI: How did your collaboration with Soulive come about?
JS: I played with them -- a couple of festival-type situations -- and we met each
other. They asked me to join them on a couple of tunes in the studio. I'm a fan of their
band. They're a great group.
DI: You've played with Bela Fleck, and you were on the bill at the Gathering of the
Vibes, and you sat in with Gov't Mule. Does that mean that a certain side of your career
JS: Not at all. I made a record just a few weeks ago with Billy Higgins,
one of the great older jazz drummers of the real bebop era, Brad Mehldau, a great,
young acoustic piano player, Kenny Garrett on saxophone, and Christian McBride on bass.
They're very much in the bebop tradition. That's something I still really am hooked up
with. There's a few styles going on that I like to perform in.
DI: Has that album been named yet?
JS: No. My wife always thinks of good names.
DI: Letís talk about the Bump album. Who are you playing with? What bands are they in?
JS: It's guys from the band Deep Banana Blackout, which is this funky dance
groove band that I love, and Mark De Gli Antoni from Soul Coughing, and a great bass
player and drummer, too, on other tracks from a group called Sex Mob from New York.
Just some great, great musicians. The whole album is about funk, groove -- whatever
it's called, I donít know. [laughs]
DI: Your music seems to always be growing, perhaps a little more "jammy," less rigid.
JS: For me, the whole point of the music is to get it to sound relaxed, even
when it's intense. You don't want it to be boring. That's the line you don't want to
cross. It's this improvisation, and to get it to come out naturally is really the goal.
DI: Youíve said that you know what you don't want to do more than what you
do want to do.
JS: I always thought Miles was like that. You just get the stuff happening and
then, "Oh, let's don't do that." What you end up doing is the stuff that works.
That's just another sign that it's hard to put it into words, that the stuff that's
happening is happening, and the stuff that's not happening you don't do. [laughs]
DI: In addition to the traditional album, what else are you looking forward to doing?
JS: I'd like to really work on this group that I have, with me on guitar, Avi
Bortnick on rhythm guitar -- so there's two guitars. Avi plays sampler, drummer Ben
Perowsky plays samples, too -- so there's a lot of electronica going on. A great bass
player named Jesse Murphy. Just see what that group can evolve into over the next
year or so, and then record that.
DI: Are you still getting that excitement on stage?
JS: Very much so. It's a never-ending quest and adventure playing music. The
more improvised it is, the better. It's different every night. It's just so much fun.