‘Everybody Has To Be Pretty Brave’: John Scofield and the Anatomy of an Uberjam
A Master has returned.
Okay, the designee of that remark, guitarist John Scofield, might take issue with the statement on two levels. First off, he would likely suggest that in fact, he remains an active pupil not a preceptor, continuing to hone his craft and discover new ways to challenge himself and add vigor to his music. Ahh, but isn’t that the mark of a true master? More significantly, he might well comment that he never left. He continued to perform with the current quartet, even while touring on the heels his of his all-star jazz project Works For Me (and on top of that, I’m sure he’d add that it’s about creating good music, regardless of how one might receive it or categorize it).
All this may be true. It is also accurate to say that with Uberjam John Scofield has moved on to the next stage of his groove exploration, building on some of the ideas that were presented most recently on A Go Go and Bump. One manifestation of his larger intent is that unlike those releases, Uberjam is not credited solely to the guitarist but to the John Scofield Band. To this end, unlike those earlier offerings, Sco shares some songwriting duties with his group. The results build on his earlier ideas but expand on them, adding new textures and subtler collective expressions. It’s a fine disc.
This month the John Scofield Band begin an exhaustive national tour that crisscrosses the country with nary a day of rest. Show info and more can be found at johnscofield.com.
DB- Let’s start off by talking about your current band. What led you to work with a second guitarist in the group?
JS- I’ve been trying to figure out a way to do it for years. I’ve always liked the two-guitar combination. I made a record with Pat Metheny [I Can See Your House From Here] and a couple of records with Bill Frisell [Grace Under Pressure, and Second Sight with Marc Johnson’s Bass Desires] years ago and I loved the way they came out. The things about playing night after night in a two-guitar band is if they’re both hot dogs like myself who want to blow solos all night, then it can get boring. In a band like the Allman Brothers there’s singing so they break it up.
I was looking for a rhythm player initially because on Bump I played a bunch of rhythm guitar parts on the record, and then I wanted to go on the road playing that music. So I was looking for a rhythm guitar player and I tried playing with a whole bunch of guys. But most of them were like me, soloist-type guys who played rhythm but begrudgingly. Then I met Avi [Bortnick] a master rhythm guitar player. Charlie Hunter told me about him. I also have to say that Susan, my wife, for years has been telling me, “Two guitars work for you, why don’t you have that?” because she’s like me, coming from the Beatles era. But as a jazz guy I kept telling her it doesn’t work when you have guitar solos all night. [Laughs] But she’s right again, it does work, you just have to get the right guy.
He does this kind of funk rhythm that I can’t do. I wish I could do it, this snapping rhythm guitar. Hiram Bullock could also do it real well but I can’t do it. Avi’s also a good single note lead player but I think that he’s so into what he’s doing in the band that it doesn’t bother him that he doesn’t get to do it. Along with the rhythm stuff he’s also really into the sampling. He’s the guy who triggers the sampling in the band.
DB- You’ve been touring with Avi for a couple of years now. To what extent has he influenced your own performance style or approach?
JS- I’m starting to play more texturally and maybe it has something to do with him. I think I can also play better rhythm guitar from hearing him do it every night. It was clear from the start that he wasn’t going to take single-note long lead solos but we came up with a way for him to have solo features where he does rhythm guitar solos and it’s the feature thing, which is cool.
I think in the general scheme of things to make jazz-rock work, jazz-rock-fusion, whatever you call this whole thing in 2002, where we’re a jazz group playing funk, to make that work it has to be something more than a string of solos over a vamp. I think a string of solos over a vamp gets boring. So for me the interesting things in jazz- rock in 2002 have been the textural. Avi’s rhythm guitar solos are a textural thing and the samples are textural. I’m the only guy blowing lines and I think it needs to be like that. It’s why MMW is one of my favorite groups.
So that’s what’s Avi’s into and it’s great. He’s a real voice in the band without being a hotdog guitar hero. As musicians we influence each other, so sonically, on guitar, I know he’s affected me.
DB- I’d like to hear your perspective on how your approach has evolved let’s say from A Go Go to Bump on through Uberjam, we’ll put aside Works For Me for a minute.
JS- It is evolving because I have been working to make this music evolve. It’s about coming up with a way to make great music that has the same quality as other kinds of jazz. But it’s a different problem because you’ve got to have composition and groove and there are so many technological things that are advancing this music because of samples. My quest is to make a broader spectrum of sound and have a lot of different musical aspects to it. It’s interesting to come up with ways to do it in the jazz-rock way and I really feel like I’m getting closer to it.
But at the same time of course you don’t want to lose the spontaneity, you’ve got to bring that freedom to it. We’re going to have free parts of the night so that we can come up with unexpected stuff. You can’t lose that, it’s one of the things that I think fusion lost in its heyday. When I had my group that did Blue Matter and Pick Hits in the 80’s, it was a great band and it was really fun working out the arrangements and writing the tunes. But once we worked out the routine on each song it would be dead after a while because it couldn’t go anywhere. One of the great thing about jazz improvisation is you can play those standards every night and they come out different. I think we’ve got to find a way to make jazz rock like that too.
DB- How do you engage that?
JS- The way that I’ve been doing that is not to have it be strings of solos, to have more compositional elements. The other way is to play free, to allow freedom to be in there, to just say here we go and let it go wherever the hell it’s going to go. That means everybody has to be pretty brave in the whole band and we’re starting to get to where we can do that more.
DB- How would you contrast that approach with that of fusion during its heyday as you mentioned?
JS- I think fusion got too worked out. Bands just played the charts and didn’t experiment on stage. There’s a way, I think, to have music that’s partly written and partly experimental so you’re going between written parts and real improvisation. That’s what I’m aiming for but I haven't gotten there yet, not just complete jam jacking off but with enough compositional aspects. It’s really complicated, I think about this shit all the time (laughs)
DB- To accomplish that goal, to what extent do you need to work with the same core players?
JS- It’s definitely got to be a band that plays together all the time or you can’t do it. When you get together with other guys it can be a great one-time thing but generally I think people go for the familiar. If it’s a big-time jam session, you say, what are we going to play, let’s do the same old thing but the same old thing will be good because it’s this interesting combination of people. Now that’s true, it can be good but in order press the boundaries and go somewhere new, you’ve got to have a working band.
DB- Given that ethos, what approach did you take with your last album, Works For Me, recorded at one of those all-star jam sessions you described?
JS- That was a one-time only, let’s get together and play. I remember when I was writing the tunes I thought, “This has to be a certain thing that will come together right away.” I love that too but what I’m really working on right now is the problem of expanding the music and finding new music.
DB- In terms of songwriting, when you know you have something like the Works For Me sessions coming up do you focus exclusively on music for that project or do you just pull songs out of the effluvium and worry about what you’ll do with them later?
JS- I have bunch of songs at this point because I’ve been this doing so long that I have songs that never were quite finished or were good but didn’t quite fit with the project I was doing at the time. It seems like when I sit down to write music say for the current band, I’ll immediately write a ballad waltz that doesn’t have anything to do with the Uberjam band. I can’t help it, it just comes out. So I have a lot of stuff sitting around and some of that I brought back out to do with the band for Works For Me and for some of the stuff I just thought about those people. But one of the things in writing music is it’s more than just the song. It’s how is this going to fit in with what we do when we improvise and can we improvise on it. It’s a whole other thing to think about. Sometimes I’ll come up with these songs and they’ll be great but they don’t set up any improvising. So they can end up being little short pieces on a record but they don’t get that thing happening when we can really roar on it.
DB- One difference between Uberjam and your last few releases is that there are a number of songs on this album that are credited to the entire band.
JS- What I’ve found, especially for this kind of funky trance-like music, is that it’s better when everybody writes it together rather than me coming in with all the preconceived ideas.
DB- Can you talk a bit about the process?
JS- The way it works is we’re there with our instruments and someone introduces the starting point for a jam. There’s a tradition for r&b or rock bands of everybody getting together and just trying stuff. It’s a different tradition than jazz music although you can find that in jazz too. I think that approach somehow makes it all more alive than the other concept of the maestro who comes in and tells everyone what to play. That’s from classical music with written charts and everything.
So sometimes Avi just starts a sample or somebody starts a beat or sometimes I have an idea of a phrase. Then we try different stuff. Everybody tries different starting points and that inspires somebody to say, “I’ve got a bridge” or “I’ve got a chord” or “Let’s try it this way” and then we start throwing stuff in the pot until we come up with the uberjam. The reason that tune is called “Uberjam” is because it’s got ten different people’s beats in little sections, one of them being Richard Rogers’ “Blue Moon.”
DB- How did “Blue Moon” became part of that song?
JS- Marlon Browden, a drummer we know, had this bass and drum beat. It had some really interesting polyrhythms and I showed that to the guys. Then Avi had a rhythm guitar part with it and I had another melody and Jesse the bass player changed the bass part around. Then one night I started to play “Blue Moon” over this one section and it turned out to really work and I started doing it every time. Then on the album I said, “Wait a minute , I have to give him credit, because Richard Rogers wrote it, not me.” Avi called that song the “Uberjam” because of all the different elements in it.
DB- “Big Rocky Candy Mountain” makes an appearance as well.
JS- Again, I just started playing it, just like “Blue Moon.” That ended up being at the end of “Acidhead” because we were trying to come up with melodies and that was from a jam session and it just really fit somehow. It’s a song that I’ve always loved. I know it from childhood from a Burl Ives recording I had it on a little yellow golden record. When I heard it on the O Brother soundtrack I was amazed at how nasty it was because I was familiar with the children’s version.
DB- Me too. The O Brother version was a revelation. Incidentally, how do you name your songs?
JS- My dear wife again is a genius at naming songs. I come up with a song, I write it and they I say to her, “This reminds me of a gospel-type groove” and she’ll say “High and Mighty” which is an example of one she did title years ago. I title a few of them but she’s genius at it. Usually I think of what they evoke and then share that with her in my retarded musician’s English. Then she’ll say, “Oh, what you might mean is..” And she’s great with plays on words. I’ll say this feels like autumn and she’ll say something that’s actually funny.
DB- Jumping back to “Blue Moon” or “Big Rocky Candy Mountain,” to me this raises a larger question about the standards and traditions of jazz. To what extent do you think history and context are essential for a listener to enjoy jazz and to what extent do you think it’s a visceral experience?
JS- I think it is definitely true that the more knowledge you have, the more experience you have, you can understand and appreciate things in a different way. I remember listening to some jazz music out of context and thinking I didn’t get it but now that’s changed. But, and I’m going to contradict myself right away, I also remember hearing an Ornette Coleman record and thinking that the melodies were so beautiful and I didn’t know it was supposed to be free jazz that was impenetrable to the normal jazz listener. So on one hand I’ve got to say context does help because the more you know about music the more you can appreciate it because you understand why they’re doing something or you think you do anyway. On the other hand I do believe in the direct communication of music. No matter what it is, somebody can go in and hear some great music, not know anything about the idiom and love it because it happened to me and I can remember it happening to me.
DB- When you’re playing are you conscious of that dichotomy?
JS- I am because I know that a lot of people don’t get it when they hear us playing. It’s different than going to hear Weezer and relating to the words, and a lot of people are like, “Why bother with this stuff?” But on the other hand there are those people who are searching for an alternative to MTV who will listen and be moved by an expression that’s not literal. Those people are out there and I was one of them. I think it’s a context too to be looking for an alternative, to say, “I know what I don’t want which is to be given the same pop music that is corporate and is being rammed down everyone’s throat for business reasons.” Although I’m just presenting one view- actually I like some of that stuff because art is art wherever you get it, that’s the creative spirit. Also, I think that maybe the reason why I liked Ornette Coleman when I was 13 even though I didn’t know anything about this music or why I was kind of intrigued by it anyway was that I knew it was an alternative to regular music and that intrigued me.
DB- I read where you said you felt that of your recent releases you feel Miles would have liked this one the most. From what perspective do you say that?
JS- Well first all, maybe Miles wouldn’t have liked it. I don’t know he was pretty outspoken.[laughs] I just think it’s my best funky record. I like A Go Go a lot too but I think that with this record using samples and electronic music and having a funky band, I keep coming back to Miles and what he liked. I think he would have dug this because he was involved in that stuff too, twenty years ago
DB- Speaking of Miles, I’m curious to hear what you feel you’ve learned about being a band leader from Miles or Gary Burton?
JS- Actually Gary Burton and Miles are the two big guys for me. Some people don’t know about Gary Burton but he was a teacher at Berkeley when I was a student. I saw him putting together bands for ten years before I ever started playing with Miles and he remains an inspiration. I’ll tell you though, one of the most important things you learn is you’re not them. You have to find out your own way to deal with people. In other words, Miles could get away with a lot of bullshit that I can’t get away with [laughs].
DB- Final question. I know you flew out west and spent some time with Phil Lesh. What do you think will come of that?
JS- I went out there and jammed with him and had a wonderful two-day experience. We had a lot of fun playing and then he asked if I was available for some dates and I had some other gigs. So I’m still waiting for him to call me for some other stuff.