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John Scofield: Will the Real John Scofield Please Stand Up?

John Scofield (photo: Jimmy Katz)
John Scofield (photo: Jimmy Katz)
John Scofield (photo: Jimmy Katz)

People mean well, but in their haste to ascribe predictable, quantifiable attributes to musicians, they inevitably succumb to the temptation to shoehorn them into neat little bags—all the more convenient to circumscribe, categorize and contract. When it comes to American music—jazz, if you like—one size does not fit all, and oftentimes a musician’s range of interest and evolving sense of self is too wide-ranging to fall into any one category. And so, we sometimes find ourselves debating how many angels can fit onto the head of a pin, instead of focusing on the attributes of each angel as an individual in his or her own right.

Guitarist John Scofield has made a career out of confounding such narrow expectations. From the very first time I heard him play with Gary Burton, Steve Swallow and Joe LaBarbera at a now defunct jazz venue in Brooklyn, circa 1977, right through his most recent releases—the after-hours blues and funk of A Go Go (with Medeski, Martin & Wood), the acid-jazz skank of Bump and his most boppish exposition to date, Works for Me—I’ve felt that John, like Bill Frisell, is a champion of an emerging modern style of electric jazz guitar and a more wide-ranging, inclusionary point of view that nevertheless maintains a rhythmic-melodic-harmonic attitude that is centered in the jazz tradition.

“Well, I think that ultimately jazz-rock has to be taken as its own entity,” Scofield concludes. “And you can’t really compare them, like, ‘Well, it’s almost as good as rock, but there’s no words’; or ‘It’s like bebop but it doesn’t swing as hard’; it is its own thing. And so the people who originally came out to hear Miles in the wake of Bitches Brew were rhythmically invigorated by that groove. The trance of that kind of music is very related to jazz, but ultimately represents a world unto itself and so while people were getting drawn into that whole funk-psychedelic thing, they were also getting Miles Davis playing the trumpet and being drawn in by his musical intelligence. And I always thought it would be nice if the really good fusion music that I liked, such as Weather Report and Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, would get its due, and these young musicians that I’m playing with now, and the younger audiences that come out to see us are listening to ‘Chameleon’ and On the Corner and rediscovering all this music that was so radical and inspiring to us 25, 30 years ago, but which to them is just some more hip older music.

“But somehow the rhythm and the vibe and the ambiance of it is very contemporary, and now a group like Medeski, Martin & Wood are taking the same ideas as Miles and others did around 1969, 1970 and bringing them further into fruition. And I think that commercial fusion might have gotten into the way of that somehow, so maybe it took a new generation to absorb all of that and put its own juice into it to get that thing going again, which is what’s happening now, which makes me very happy because I always thought that could happen and it’s good to be a part of that.

“And as you know, there’s a big audience for this music, which always makes a difference. I’ve just been playing all of these college gigs, and rock clubs in university towns. And kids that want to come out and listen to funky jazz or whatever you want to call it—my stuff—they listen to it on their own terms; they’re dancing to it, but they’re also really listening to what the people are playing and what the band is saying as a group. In other words, it’s not just background music for a frat party, although they’re also into the hedonistic dance-type thing, which is fun to participate in, although at times it becomes a little bit of ‘Render unto Caesar,’ man, it really does, I’ve got to admit it,” Scofield laughs. “And while it feels good to funk-out all night long and have that be a thing, you come up with the challenge of how to make that creative. How to not make that an endless string of vamp solos, which drives me crazy. I’d be fooling myself if I didn’t recognize that the funk-groove element was essential for this to go over, but we do all sorts of other kinds of groove things and swing, too.”

Which is precisely what Scofield has been doing over his entire career, no matter what side of the jazz or jazz-hyphen fence he has been plying his trade. Because from maiden voyages performing and recording with the likes of Gary Burton, Gerry Mulligan, Billy Cobham, George Duke, Dave Liebman and Charles Mingus, and his earliest collaborations with bass-guitar innovator Steve Swallow, through his commercial breakthrough as a member of both Miles Davis’ mid-’80s working band and Marc Johnson’s Bass Desires (with Bill Frisell and Peter Erskine) and a series of popular jazz-funk recordings for Gramavision that paved the way for his creative upheaval of the past decade on Blue Note and Verve, John Scofield has shown himself to be a harmonically resourceful composer and an adventurous soloist of a decidedly linear-chromatic bent—a jazzman by any other name.

As far back as 1980, on his composition “New Strings Attached” from the Arista/Novus trio recording Bar Talk (with Swallow and drummer Adam Nussbaum, since anthologized as part of the Who’s Who compilation), Scofield, the composer, was already showing a predilection for circular harmonic patterns and extended forms, his soloing a canny admixture of hornlike lines and pianistic punctuations, demonstrating as much passion for Chicago bluesman Otis Rush as for jazz-guitar icon Wes Montgomery. By contrast, on the composition “Chariots,” from his 1990 Blue Note recording Meant to Be (with his working group of Joe Lovano, Marc Johnson and Bill Stewart), Scofield skanks his way through some of the giddiest second lines this side of Mickey & Sylvia, in a blues solo even so gifted an improviser as Stevie Ray Vaughan would find daunting.

“Bayyyyyybeeeee,” Scofield sings, “loooooove is straaaaange. Mickey Baker, man. Yeah, that’s true: there’s a few different things in there, but it’s also ‘Chariots of Fire.’ That’s me: jack-of-all-trades, master of one. I love those ‘when worlds collide’ things when they’re natural. When they’re natural they’re beautiful. But I’m not such a fan of stuff where it’s like ‘We’re going to add African drums and techno-synth to Ravi Shankar and it’ll work because it’s all one world.’ Maybe it’ll work, who knows—but that’s intellectual first. But the fusions we’re talking about were just natural; you know, they were a musical thing and everybody dug it because it just happened and it worked musically. And that’s when real music happens. Otherwise it’s like putting the cart before the horse to try to make that stuff happen. It happens when it happens. And guys my age, like you, are influenced by what we grew up around, and we couldn’t get rid of that if we wanted to.

“As for your blues analogy, I mean, what is jazz-rock? It’s rock or funk as played by jazz musicians. It’s the difference between Steve Ray Vaughan and me. I mean, I would never call myself a blues guitarist—not in that sense. And I love blues, and it’s a big part of what I’ve tried to learn; I mean, it is completely natural for me to play that music on A Go Go. And I also love to play straightahead and modern jazz. So I don’t know—you figure it out. I’m sure I’m in some weird hybrid country, but I find that I practice jazz music all the time. Swinging is really important to me, and playing lines in the jazz tradition is something I’ve grown up with and continue to learn, so yeah, I’m a jazz guitarist. And blues, as we know, is something that’s incorporated into jazz music. Some of the rhythm and blues-type music we like that was incorporated on A Go Go is not necessarily P-Funk and it’s not James Brown, although it certainly wouldn’t exist without those rhythms and without those influences, but that music wouldn’t happen without bebop. Because believe me, the majority of what I am playing on A Go Go and Bump and Works for Me does not derive from B. B. King licks.

“I’ll make it even simpler: B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan—great, great players, but they’re not jazz musicians. It’s just the impact of all of that music and all that history. And as you start getting into that you try to learn your chords and harmony, and how to move stuff around. You try to get loose with chromaticism: the chromatic masking of the tonality is a beautiful thing. There was a whole lot of chromaticism in bebop and all those Charlie Parker lines. And all of that chromatic stuff kind of reached a peak in Miles, who to my mind was the master—the most snakelike chromatic player in the world. You learn different voicings and how you can voice notes up and down and play clusters and play large intervals. All of the colors that are available, that are part and parcel of the jazz vocabulary, they lead you into a different thing than just playing the blues—period. Not to put that down, I’m just into a different thing, and I’m able to use that other stuff, because I’ve been into it all my life. I mean, for me, sometimes when confronted with the ‘Who is John Scofield?’ question, I guess I probably like to oversimplify it by saying that ‘I like rock and jazz.’ And when I think about it, that’s really true. Because Jim Hall couldn’t like rock in the way that we like it, because it wasn’t there when he was coming up. We came up with The Beatles and The Stones and The Byrds and Dylan and Cream and Hendrix and all the related stuff, and we found out about Chuck Berry retroactively through them right about the same time. And the folk thing was bringing all of this ethnic music into play, and of course jazz was there—and it was all mixed up together. I did see the connection between A Love Supreme and trance, stoned-out hippie-rock and Hendrix at the Fillmore—there was some sort of connection: the blues, the modal thing, the rhythms; I could hear it. But at the same time I also got heavily into Charlie Parker: the romance of his sound and the complexity of his lines. I had learned some blues scales when I was 14, and I thought I had some soul [laughter] and that humbled me deeply—and it still does. So I just went for a bigger scope. As did most people our age.”

In a sense, Scofield’s approach reaches back to the very roots of what we now call jazz and rhythm and blues. Sure Scofield and I could listen to Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker stretch out on Cream’s “Crossroads” as teenagers and hear it as jazz. Or attend a Murray the K rock-and-roll show at the Brooklyn Paramount only to discover years later that the house band was chaired by swing-era drummer Panama Francis (of Savoy Sultans fame). Or apprehend a connection between Ray Charles and funky-organ trios and gospel music and blues and Eddie Harris and Les McCann and our favorite hard bop. Or make a leap of faith and see a connection between today’s swing revivalism, rockabilly, Bill Haley’s Comets and big-band boogie-woogie. Or we could revel in the recorded recollections of Coleman Hawkins as he talks about getting him an after-beat drummer to play the music new audiences want to hear, music so “new” he was performing it in the 1920s with Fletcher Henderson, when they called it by the name they attributed to arranger Don Redman: gutbucket. Or enjoy that transitional period during World War II when gasoline taxes, recording bans and onerous taxes on joints with dance floors forced parts of jazz to evolve as a concert music, while its other aspects—as epitomized by the likes of T-Bone Walker, Nat “King” Cole, Louis Jordan and Charles Brown—developed in a more “funktional” manner. Or go to Kansas City and dig the jump blues of Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Rushing and the Count Basie Band—there’s a fusion and a half right there. Or venture further down river, to the home of the original split the difference music: New Orleans.

“I mean, there it is,” Sco enthuses by way of righteous amen, “the most swinging funk and the funkiest jazz. Yeah, it’s all related, it’s all related. You know what happened, man, I had a revelation when I went to New Orleans around 1979, ’80. I always loved jazz with that New Orleans feeling, Vernell Fournier playing those rhythms in the context of Ahmad Jamal’s music—man! My mother’s from New Orleans, too, so I used to go there a little bit as a kid; not that she’s any big jazz fan, but she did go to high school with Louis Prima [laughter]. So they brought me down to play a little gig with this local rhythm section, drummer Johnny Vidacovich and bassist Jim Singleton, and man, those guys could just play any funk tune, any ‘Freedom Jazz Dance,’ any groove tune that you wanted to call, like ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’ or ‘Watermelon Man’ and put that funky New Orleans beat to it, and that was it for me because it was what I had always been looking for: funk that swung. And I always sort of went in that direction, and I’ll always remember Johnny Vidacovich walking around playing his snare drum with one hand like a banjo—he was just an entire street parade unto himself. So eventually I made this record called Flat Out, which featured Vidacovich on half of it, because I was really seeing the New Orleans feeling as an element I wanted to bring into my orbit. That is sort of the middle ground between the less overt backbeat funk and Bill Stewart is great at playing that way, too. I mean, there’s a groove he made on a record I did called Hand Jive on a tune called “Do Like Eddie” [featuring the late saxophonist Eddie Harris] and to me that is very New Orleans. It’s jazz over a montuno—and I don’t even know how to describe it, but I can feel it when people play it. Higgins is like that, too. And later I did another record for Blue Note called Groove Elation, which features Idris Muhammad, another total groove master and swinger from New Orleans.

“So yeah, I guess my approach is a little schizophrenic, but I think you can see how it’s all me. I mean, I never felt like I was one of those New York studio-guitar players who would pick up a folk guitar and play like James Taylor, play some pseudo-blues, pseudo-jazz and pseudo-everything and make jingles. I couldn’t do that—and I’m proud of the fact that I can’t do that. But I do feel like my style of playing crosses over to both the music on Bump and the music on Works for Me.”

They do indeed, and as constant a factor as Scofield’s writing and linear solos are, it’s nevertheless something of a stretch to try and discern any particular rhyme or reason to the progression of these two albums. “You know, they’re really different aren’t they,” Sco admits. “There’s no rhyme or reason and there’s certainly no master plan. I feel like, in a way, my work, my calling, is to play some sort of jazz-funk and make it good. And that’s what I’d like to do, intellectually, which may not have anything to do with what I actually do, because by the same token I tour every year with Steve Swallow and Bill Stewart, and that music is just as important to me, but as long as we’ve been playing together, we still haven’t had a chance to document it on record. And my long-term creative relationship with Joe Lovano is also very meaningful, and in the near future we’re due to work together in a cooperative group with Dave Holland and Al Foster.

“So what can I say—I think that music has to be instinctive. And when I subbed for John Abercrombie at the Knitting Factory the summer before last and played with Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins and I felt his vibe…Billy was so inspiring to play with that after listening to his music for so long, instinct is what told me to make [Works for Me]-instinct made me want to play acoustic jazz and perform it with Billy Higgins. And Billy is one of my idols. Part of Bill Stewart’s stuff is very much like Billy Higgins. So hearing some of those beats Bill played, and just getting to know him and listening to records with him and stuff, and seeing his respect for Billy Higgins, I learned about it anew in the ’90s. And I always wanted to record with him and this just seemed like the time to do a quintet record where there’s trumpet and saxophone, only it’s guitar and saxophone. And that’s the sound I was going for, inspired by all of those quintet records with Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter.”

With its mono drums hard right, mono piano hard left and bass in the middle, Works for Me (recorded by James Farber) bears more than a passing resemblance to those let-it-bleed Van Gelder jazz sessions of the mid-’60s. It’s certainly an odd quirk of fate that it wasn’t until he had left his old label for Verve that Scofield recorded his most certifiably Blue Note-styled hard-bop album. In a roundabout way, Works for Me only reinforces the inevitable funk-blues-Scofield connection, vis-à-vis its stylistic and sonic resemblance to some of those great mo’ grits-styled Grant Green recordings as well as archetypes of modern soul-jazz and instrumental funk as refined through the Blue Note prism on songs like “Sidewinder” and “Watermelon Man.”

“Maybe so,” Scofield allows. “It’s interesting that you would make those connections, because here’s this guy we all literally took for granted, like, ‘Grant’s great, but he plays simple,’ then you go back and just love it. Some of the tunes are jazz compositions I wrote several years ago, like ‘Mrs. Scofield’s Waltz.’ I had a whole bunch of, for the want of a better word, swinging jazz tunes, which I had been building up over time and which maybe didn’t fit some of the contexts I was working in at any given moment. So the first tune, ‘I’ll Catch You,’ is inspired by Billy’s playing with Lee Morgan on Search for a Free Land. And I really wanted to get some stuff in there that Billy could play. So the song goes back and forth between funk and jazz, vamp and release, one of our favorite forms. And Billy is something else. As hard a time as he’s had with his health, he gets on the drums and he’s just love incarnate. When his playing rises to match the intensity of the music, Billy never gets loud; he just kind of digs in and swings harder. I love the way he and Christian hook up on the shuffle ‘Heel to Toe.’ Christian is a young old musician. And Kenny [Garrett] is such an original voice. And Brad Mehldau, man has he got some shit. Check out my tune ‘Not You Again,’ which has the same changes as ‘There Will Never Be Another You’ and dig what he does on his solo; he goes to some other chords that are so out yet relate somehow and to me it’s, well, nothing is completely new, but it hit me as something really fresh and imaginative.”

For all the possibilities of recombinant musical genetics that Scofield has explored, there still exists a never-the-twain-shall-meet quality to his recorded output, as fine as it has been. Scofield’s sound and improvisational conception continue to evolve, as he develops more and more musical techniques on the guitar, particularly the manner in which he is able to flow between lines and chords without sounding clunky, and hook up on an even more dancing level with the drummer to breathe and swing. But the heady eclecticism that defines his guitar playing and his range as a composer also tends to mask him emotionally—to obscure who the real John Scofield actually is.

“My guitar playing, it’s essentially the same stuff I’ve been working on since I met you, and before that—just trying to play freely inside a form and have a form inside of freedom. I mean, my favorite free players have always been cats like Paul Bley and Ornette. Even though they’re not beboppers per se, they’re jazz musicians where part of their thing certainly derives from swing and tonality. Because it’s free music you can add this great array of colors, and I always liked that. But I always liked form, and actually some of the most exciting jazz I ever heard was when Herbie and Tony and Wayne were really into free music, and they went and played with Miles and he was talking about, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll show you some freedom—check this out.’ All grounded in that basic four-bar 4/4 gravity, which is based in nature. And I love the completeness of that, and then to superimpose all kinds of meters on top. I love all that stuff, and I’m always trying to find that kind of freedom in myself.”

One thing that frustrates me with funk-jazz is that I’ve never been able to figure out why you couldn’t take the power of the vamp and put something on it harmonically so that it has more of that expansive quality you get from bebop. Scofield agrees.

“Well, you’re talking to the right guy here. I’ve been trying to do that. But you know, when you hear some guys playing a bebop tune, and they go Afro-Cuban on it, you know how sometimes that doesn’t work? If you take bebop changes and you funk out on them, it loses something—to me. And one thing I’ve found with funk beats, is that if you put too many changes in, it can become academic and it loses the trance quality—for me. So I’ve been trying to find just enough harmonic variation, that’s a little bit subtler, to try and get some chordal movement in there. And you know, this is something I’m constantly tinkering with in my group, and quite honestly, I haven’t completely found the answer, so I’m always trying to figure out how to make jazz-rock work with my jazz sensibility. So, we’ll see…”

Growing up when Scofield did, he was inspired by some very different electric guitar archetypes than the previous generation of jazz guitarists.

“I had just started to listen to jazz and understand it more, and I’d been listening to modern musicians like Miles and Coltrane and McCoy and Herbie and it didn’t seem like there was any equivalent on guitar. And then I heard John McLaughlin, and he was playing what sounded to me, well, I wasn’t quite sure what it was, but it sure sounded modern. More modern than, say, bebop-influenced stuff. And I’d never heard anybody playing guitar like that; he took guitar to a new level technically. I think I first heard him on In a Silent Way, and that was very interesting, but then I heard Emergency! by Tony Williams’ Lifetime, and man, that was it. Then I heard them at Slugs’, and there were about 20 people there, and I remember there was a couple dating at the table next to me, and they were shocked and insulted. It was really loud—it was fantastic. I mean, it was so radical. Here was this guy playing guitar associated with the intensity of rock and roll, but with these sheets of sound like Coltrane, and it was a beautiful thing.

“At the same time, I always thought Jeff Beck was unbelievable. I saw him at the Fillmore, around 1968, I think. He’s always had it. I always thought he and Hendrix were the most creative rock guitarists. And later on I saw Jeff Beck with Jan Hammer when I played opposite them with the Cobham/Duke band. And I was a bebop snob who was playing with a jazz-fusion band, and listening to Jackie McLean all the time, and I heard Beck and he invited me to ride back to the hotel in his limo after the show—he was like a rock star—and I was drunk and I had an attitude and man, I was such a jerk, so I didn’t say anything. And I could’ve hung out with Jeff Beck and had some fun and exchanged ideas and maybe learned some things from him, but instead I just kind of shined him on, and I regret it to this day. He’s such an original cat, but I was 25 and in my jazz-snob period.”

Even with all his musical eclecticism, Scofield’s phrasing is as fluid and jazzlike as anyone’s on guitar.

“I’ve really worked hard on that. As you know, I’m a real sax, trumpet, piano fan, and I probably listen to those instruments as much if not more than I listen to jazz guitar, although don’t get me wrong, I love Jim [Hall] and Wes [Montgomery]; Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny and George Benson—all the great cats. You know, like Metheny and Frisell and [John] Abercrombie, we came up with blues and rock and whatever, so we utilized hammer-ons and pull-offs a lot, which is more like Jim Hall as opposed to picking every note, like a Pat Martino. So it allows you to get a more fluid sound, and I thought about left-hand fingerings a lot, and slurring and trying to get a more legato thing and a more fluid sound.”

And not necessarily playing a lot of notes.

“I always think of having a jazz style of playing as being a little bit like a magician. You try and maybe not let on to your weaknesses, and simply present music. People talk about how this guy has an unlimited amount of ideas, or this guy has so much of this or that—you develop your strengths. And because it’s jazz, everybody plays to each other’s strengths and not to their weaknesses. There’s so much in the hands that has nothing to do with speed. And that’s something that a lot of people don’t think about. You might hold up some chops demon as a paradigm of technique, right, but he doesn’t elicit the kind of beauty from the instrument that a Jim Hall or a Bill Frisell are capable of. It’s impossible to do what Bill does. You try doing that. Now that’s a technique. Bill finds stuff on the guitar, especially with open strings, and his sound, and just the beauty of his touch—I think that’s a guy who could play through any amp and sound good. And this to me is technique, too. Technique is not just alternate picking really fast on the guitar. Technique is a lot of other things—like getting a sound.”


“I’ve found that some of the amps that sound great are just not loud enough. And I don’t want to put the signal through the monitors if I can at all avoid it. Generally you can find the Mesa Boogie Mark III combos on the road 90% of the time, and that’s my favorite amp, because they have the EQ and I jack the shit out of that, say to roll off highs and add lows and mids, and that, with my guitar and my set-up really makes it—on Bump it’s the [Mesa] Boogie with all the pedals. But I’ve also had good luck on the road with Fender’s new Twin, not the re-issue. On Works for Me I used what is called a Victoria High Powered Twin, a 2-12″ with a tiny touch of [ProCo] Rat and a little bit of reverb…but not enough. And the Victoria doesn’t have the bottom of the Mark III, but it has a quality I like, and I used on the new record. I bought one of those tubed outboard Fender Reverb units to go with it, but I only used a bit of plate on Works for Me.”

JazzTimes: Your tone on Works for Me has a nasal kind of blues honk, without too much distortion.

“I’m constantly tweaking the amount of distortion on the Rat for different tunes. If we play a tune where I want more distortion, I do that, and for ballads and jazz-type tunes, I turn the distortion down to like one. What it does is it evens out the response of the guitar a little bit so that the top E string is a little fuller and not quite as brittle and the bottom E is not so tubby. But I have in the last year had a couple of non-Rat experiences, where it really felt good; one was with a Jim Kelly amp in Germany, and then there was a Vox AC30 in Detroit. So there’s definitely room for growth.”

JazzTimes: Still playing the same guitar?

“I play a 1981 AS-200 Ibanez, stock. But at the next NAMM show they’re going to be introducing a John Scofield model Ibanez, which is a reissue of that guitar, basically, with a few modifications. And that’s what I’ve played for years. I have the Rat distortion unit, a Boss 10-band parametric EQ foot pedal to put on tons of treble to scream; then I have my Boss Chorus turned up all the way so that it’s a quasi-Leslie effect. Then I have my Whammy pedal for a fake eastern kind of thing. As for strings, my set-up has evolved over the years. In the old days I used to use .010. But I’ve been working my way up—the heavier the string, the better the sound. Then you don’t have to worry about the sound, but you can’t bend quite as easily. I hate that tinny sound. I’ve played those Thomastiks, and they’re pretty great, but lately I’ve been using D’Addario strings, and they go .013, .016, .022 (unwound, so I can bend), .032, .042, .052. On my Ibanez, that feels good—it’s not too heavy for me, but then it’s a shorter scale neck than a Strat or an L-5.”


Read Nate Chinen’s profile of Hudson, the supergroup featuring Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield, John Medeski and Larry Grenadier.

Originally Published