Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

John Scofield Talks His Solo Debut and More

For the first time ever, the guitarist has recorded an album completely by himself. It only took about 70 years and a global pandemic to get him there

JazzTimes may earn a small commission if you buy something using one of the retail links in our articles. JazzTimes does not accept money for any editorial recommendations. Read more about our policy here. Thanks for supporting JazzTimes.
John Scofield
Photo by Nick Suttle

Nearly two decades before COVID-19 was even a twinkle in a pangolin’s eye—if in fact those endearing critters had any coronavirus connection at all—John Scofield was already messing around with looping devices to, as he puts it, “extend the sound” of his guitar. Specifically, he was playing with an early example of such gadgets, the Boomerang Phrase Sampler Plus, beginning around 2001 while working with the band that made the following year’s Überjam (saxophonist/flutist Karl Denson, keyboardist John Medeski, guitarist Avi Bortnick, bassist Jesse Murphy, and drummer Adam Deitch). 

“I used it really for effects back then,” he recalls via Zoom from his home in Westchester County, about an hour north of New York City. “Not so much for looping, just for sonic stuff that I would throw in. Then I just had it for years and I’d play with it at home, so I got very comfortable with it.” 

So comfortable that, shortly before the ’rona went global, Scofield played a few one-man shows with the looper. The ability it gave him to put a riff or chord progression on infinite repeat and, effectively, accompany himself would soon prove important, and when the world went on lockdown in the spring of 2020, he turned to his trusty Boomerang. This sparked months of musical investigation and experiment, some of which can now be heard on the simply and aptly titled John Scofield (ECM), the vaunted guitarist’s first-ever solo record, some of which features looping and some of which is literally solo.

I’ll throw the journalistic objectivity out the window right now and tell you that I think it’s a marvelous album, a riot of brilliant ideas executed in a manner so direct and personal that you immediately know not just that it’s Sco but that it could be no one else. 

John Scofield also—like both the repertoire of the Yankee Go Home band with which its 70-year-old maker is touring the world this year and the interview presented below—is something of a trip down memory lane, reassessing old melodies, reframing past experiences, recounting favorite tales. Yet what Scofield finds in that rich history, both as a player and as a talker, always comes out fresh.

JT: I find it hard to believe that you’d never even considered making a solo album before 2020.

JOHN SCOFIELD: It probably never would have happened without the pandemic. I never considered myself a solo guitarist, not to the extent that I wanted to record solo. You know, I sort of thought about it, but the idea of going into a recording studio by myself, meeting the engineer and then sitting there trying to play something for six hours—it just sounded intimidating. With a group you get a momentum going, and I’m used to that. As far as jazz is concerned, I’m not a big solo guitar fan. It’s so hard to do, to play in the style of, like, blowing over the tune, which is basically what I do. And it’s another thing to play solo guitar like the great Ted Greene: He played fantastic, but it was mainly reharmonizing and doing stuff around the melodies, it wasn’t like improvising in that way.

But as soon as I started to do stuff with the looper, I realized I could do it. And because it’s one of the early loopers, the good thing—or the bad thing—about it is you cannot store loops. You can do one loop and then you got that one for your performance, but then the next time you want to make a loop, the first one goes away and you got a new one. So I think that helps me to keep it more in the moment.

It’s more like jazz.

Yeah, it’s jazzlike. Otherwise the temptation would be to make tracks to play along with, which is the way the world is now. And part of the reason I don’t like that stuff is that it’s un-jazzlike.

How did you go about recording the album?

I didn’t have a home studio, but I bought the Universal Audio OX, which is a machine that allows you to get the sound of your amp and then it does speaker and microphone modeling. That let me record at home, so then I just started recording. I thought, “Well, maybe there’ll be enough for a record.” And I recorded for a week. Every day I’d go record tunes that I knew already and that I liked. And then before I knew it, I had so many hours of music … and I couldn’t listen to it. I didn’t have the energy. So I had to wait a month to go back and actually see what I had there. Then I sent what seemed best to an engineer, Tyler McDiarmid, who tweaked the sound some.

So there’s a lot more where that came from if you wanted to continue going down the solo route.

Oh yeah, but I mean, ahh … I can’t go there. [Laughs]

Listening to this record—and I mean this as a high compliment—I laughed so many times. The wobbly tone of the solo on “Honest I Do”; the slides and bends and right-hand tapping for the melody of “It Could Happen to You”; the way you’ll dramatically change the articulation of a note by picking closer to the bridge … the best word I can think of to describe it is “zany.”

Well, I do take it as a compliment. But it’s not intended to be funny. [Adopts an aggrieved tone of voice] I’m dead fuckin’ serious! [Laughs] I should start wearing funny hats and do a comedy routine, but the only people who would laugh would be guitar players. 

I’m just using the things you can use on guitar, that I know about anyway, and some of those are certainly not orthodox jazz guitar sounds. But the thing about jazz is swinging, and that’s what most jazz guitar players can’t do. That’s what I’ve worked on. And I didn’t get it so much from listening to jazz guitar players. Of course I love Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall, the masters, and I bow down to them and wouldn’t be anything without them. But to tell you the truth, I listened to all the other instruments a lot more. And our generation, mine and yours, we came up at a time when all these techniques from blues and rock & roll were available, so I’ve always used that stuff. It’s a rare bird who picks up the guitar and starts with jazz. You start with “Louie Louie.” I certainly started as a rock & roll kid, and I see no reason not to use some of those techniques that are just guitar things you can do. The jazz element for me has always been trying to figure out a way to make it swing.

I also hear a love of the rough-hewn, almost as if you’re intentionally playing in a non-smooth way.

I don’t think I do that on purpose. I’m just not able to play any other way. A lot of people say, “Ah yeah, it’s rough.” Well, first of all, I realized that I have to take chances in order to make the music good, right? I’m never going to be a perfect guitar player—I trip over my own feet just walking around anyway—so it just comes out how it does. And one of the great things about jazz is that this music encourages you to be yourself, so I always figured, “Oh, it’s okay that I can’t pick every note like I’d like to be able to do.” But I don’t listen to something and say, “I love that ’cause it’s rough.” I hear people say that, but that’s not why I love soul music or R&B. It’s getting to some stuff on purpose that some people consider rough, you know? When you listen to a soul singer sing with a gravelly voice, that is rough compared to Pavarotti.

And even with Pavarotti, a lot of what makes his voice sound so appealing is that there’s some graininess there, and a definite element of risk—sometimes you don’t know if he’s actually going to hit that note.

Yeah. He’s a human being trying to do something, not a machine that’ll hit it right every time. 

John Scofield (Photo: Nick Suttle)
John Scofield (Photo: Nick Suttle)

I wouldn’t want to suggest that you consciously think about this, but there’s something I’ve kept coming back to over the years while listening to your music: It feels like you hear a lot more than you play.

Well, I hope so, because one of the big problems—and it’s been a problem for myself—is trying to play everything. Then it doesn’t come out in a conversational way. To me, improvisation has to be conversational with what’s going on around you, and with space. When I talk to you … I leave a space. And the space that I left was there for a reason. First of all, to take a breath. Also, it just makes the conversation better. But on the guitar, we have a tendency to play run-on sentences because we don’t have to breathe, and you just blblblblblblbl and keep going, “Oh god, I want to get it even better, even faster, even better, even faster,” you know? That doesn’t sound as good. In my analysis of all the great jazz players, I realized that space is the place and you have to put that in there. So then you’re not going to play everything. 

Sometimes it seems like you almost violently impose a pause. To me that’s one of the most compelling aspects of your style: You make yourself stop.  

The space allows us to regroup a little bit, which is really important. Otherwise it gets frantic, and I don’t want it to be frantic. So yeah, I do force myself to stop and it is violent, like: “Shut up!” [Laughs]

It conveys a feeling that things are bubbling underneath.

Well, let’s hope so. Let’s hope there’s something underneath. [Laughs]

You said earlier that you went back to songs you already knew well for the solo album. And in the album’s liner notes you mention the special meaning that some of these songs have for you. A great example is “There Will Never Be Another You,” which you heard Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker play while you were on stage with them at Carnegie Hall on November 24, 1974—their second and final reunion following the breakup of their early-’50s quartet. Now that’s a pretty historic occasion. How’d you get the gig in the first place?

That gig was recorded, of course, and the record [Carnegie Hall Concert, CTI, 1975] was the first record I was ever on. I’m not actually on “There Will Never Be Another You”—Chet did that by himself with a quartet—but I just loved Chet and that song. The way I got the gig was … well, I went to Berklee for two years, 1970 to 1972, and then I just stayed around Boston trying to learn how to play and hanging out on the local jazz scene. One of the guys I’d met at Berklee was Alan Dawson, the great drummer, and [vibraphonist] Dave Samuels and I had a special ensemble class in Alan’s office with Chip Jackson, the bass player. We played quartet with Alan every week for a semester. It was fantastic. 

A year and a half later, Gerry Mulligan comes to town, and it turns out he wanted to augment his quartet with vibes and guitar. So he asked his friend Alan Dawson, “Are there any good guys in town that I could get?” And he recommended Dave Samuels and me. So we did a week with Gerry at the Jazz Workshop in Boston. It was great, man. I was getting to play with a jazz giant. A month later or less, I got a phone call from the guy who was producing that concert, and he said, “Do you want to play with Gerry and Chet at Carnegie Hall?” What had happened was, they had the concert [booked] and Gerry was gonna appear with his band and Chet was gonna appear with his band. And [CTI label head] Creed Taylor said, “No, you’re going to have Bob James, Ron Carter, and Harvey Mason backing you and everybody else,” because they were the house rhythm section at CTI. But Gerry got me and Dave Samuels on it anyway. We were in his band. I didn’t even know we were in his band, but that was what Gerry wanted to be his new group. And so we got to be on the record, and what a thrill. I was nervous the whole time. I basically couldn’t hold onto my pick. I think I got kinda off from the rhythm section on “Bernie’s Tune.” But I don’t go back and listen to it.

A couple of years after that gig—in March 1977, to be more exact—you played on Charles Mingus’ Three or Four Shades of Blues, with two other guitarists, Larry Coryell and Philip Catherine. This isn’t something that you reference on the new record, but I thought I’d bring it up because we just celebrated Mingus’ centennial this past April. How did that whole experience come about?

Right after I made that record with Chet and Gerry, in January ’75, Billy Cobham invited me to join his band. I completely lucked out on that one because I wasn’t known in New York at all, but Billy had heard me on a demo that his friend [drummer] Horacee Arnold had made. I’d basically played on that demo for free along with [vibraphonist] David Friedman, and Billy heard it and I got the call to replace John Abercrombie in Cobham’s band. This was a non-stop big-time gig. Anyway, Billy recorded for Atlantic Records and one of the producers for Atlantic was a guy named Ilhan Mimaroglu—another person of Turkish descent, like the Ertegun brothers [Atlantic executives Ahmet and Nesuhi]. I didn’t even know this, but we played a gig in New York with Cobham and he heard me and he liked it. And Ilhan got me on three different records as a sideman that he produced for Atlantic. One of them was the Mingus record; the other two were with Jay McShann. I’m forever grateful to him for bringing me in because I got to be in those worlds a little bit, which was incredible.

Here’s my story about the Mingus date. I get the call: “Do you want to be on a Mingus record?” I said, “Let me think about this … Yes!” [Chuckles] So they said, “Okay, come to this rehearsal in Midtown, we’re going to have one rehearsal and the next day we go in the studio.” So I went to the rehearsal. Mingus wasn’t there. And although he doesn’t remember it, the bassist was Dave Holland, who somehow had gotten the call to sub for Mingus. The rehearsal was this star-studded huge band with Jimmy Knepper, Lee Konitz, George Adams, George Coleman, Dannie Richmond, and I was there with Coryell and Catherine—at least I knew them. Paul Jeffrey, the musical director, put out the chart in front of us, and it was one guitar part for all these long Mingus tunes. It was really hard, and we sort of split them up. Like “You learn bar one through 15, I’ll try bar 15 through 30.” And between the three of us, we came up with a way to play the songs, but this was a rehearsal where everybody sight-read the music, you know? So anyway, we each had our part and we took it home.

The next day, we showed up at Atlantic Studios, 1840 Broadway. All three of us just went in, plugged into studio amps, and sat there. The other musicians were coming. Mingus came at the last minute, walked over to the bass, and started counting off the first tune. We played all the music, one song after another, maybe a couple takes of each one, I’m not sure, but it took all afternoon, almost with no breaks, as far as I know. At the end, Mingus said, “Okay, let’s all go in the control room and listen to the songs.” I put my guitar in the case and then went over, and there was no room in the control room. There were like 10 musicians and the engineers and some hanger-onners too—I remember [pianist] Sadik Hakim was there. And I packed up my stuff and went home. I was on a Charles Mingus record and I never even talked to him. 

I should have sought him out after that, ’cause he was alive for another year or so. But that was the last record he ever played bass on. Jack Walrath, the trumpet player in the band, told me once, “Oh yeah, Mingus dug you.” At least he didn’t tell me Mingus hated me. But I was so lucky in those years to play with people like Mingus and Mulligan, who were still around and were looking for guitar players because fusion had come in and was a big deal. These guys didn’t necessarily need guitar in their bands, but they were interested in it and thought they’d try making their music a little different.

John Scofield with his longtime trio of Bill Stewart (drums) and Steve Swallow (bass). (Photo: Roberto Cifarelli)
John Scofield with his longtime trio of Bill Stewart (drums) and Steve Swallow (bass). (Photo: Roberto Cifarelli)

Let’s talk about your current band Yankee Go Home, with Jon Cowherd on piano, Vicente Archer on bass, and Josh Dion on drums. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the way I read the band name is that you’re the Yankee and you’re going “home” to the music that inspired you as a youngster.

Really? I never even thought of it like that. Well, thank you, that’s what it means! [Laughs] No, “Yankee go home” is a political phrase that’s been used to protest America’s involvement in Africa and South America and Europe, and we play so much in Europe that sometimes I wonder, you know, is this an American invasion? Because it really is American culture to a certain extent, whatever that is. Yankee Go Home started out with us playing songs from the baby-boomer teenage years in the ’60s and jazzing them up. But since then I wrote a bunch of original tunes that are in that idiom, definitely backbeat kind of tunes. So now we’re doing half originals. There’s one that steals a lick from the Monkees, and another one that’s like a Hall & Oates groove, so we go into “I Can’t Go for That” on it. Which is great, because I love Hall & Oates. You know, this was supposed to be a folk-rock project with Dylan and Neil Young and the Dead and all that, but at least we got one funky tune in there.

I saw a video on YouTube from a recent gig you played at Keystone Korner Baltimore, and your version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” was pretty remarkable. It brought out a south-of-the-border quality in that tune that I’d never detected before.

I suppose it does have a Latin jazz element that just happens. We never talked about that. But we open it up, and we don’t even stay on the changes. It’s just me improvising with Vicente. We start with the changes and then we let it go free, and those changes are loose enough so we can play something in that area that we’re just making up at the moment, and it’s been so much fun. 

So many of these songs are coming out of this collective memory of my generation and when I was a kid. I actually loved the Byrds’ version of “Mr. Tambourine Man.” But I never thought about, “Do I like these songs?” It’s not about liking them. It’s just that they exist in me in such a way that I can play them without ever having to relearn them or anything. And they mean so much to me. I’m not sure if nostalgia is a good thing for music or not, but I like stuff that I’ve internalized. When I play “There Will Never Be Another You,” that’s not something I knew when I was 12. You know? When I was 12 I wanted to go on a journey with the tambourine man. It was like the Pied Piper: “Get out of suburbia. You don’t have to have a real job like your dad. You can be a hippie and go on a lifelong adventure.” That’s what it seemed to me when I was a kid. 

Does playing live feel any different to you now from the way it did before the pandemic? Or is it just like getting back on a bike? 

It’s the same. Except people have masks on, and I hope they have masks on because traveling around is a little hairier now with COVID. But the actual gig, nah. It’s just great to be back. 

Chronology: Three Munich Nights with John Scofield Originally Published

Mac Randall

Mac Randall

Mac Randall has been the editor of JazzTimes since May 2018. Prior to that, he wrote regularly for the magazine. He has written about numerous genres of music for a wide variety of publications over the past 30 years, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New York Observer, Mojo, and Guitar Aficionado, and he has worked on the editorial staffs of Musician, LAUNCH (now Yahoo! Music), Guitar One, Teaching Music, Music Alive!, and In Tune Monthly. He is the author of two books, Exit Music: The Radiohead Story and 101 Great Playlists. He lives in New York City.