John Scofield’s Electronic Groove Jazz
John Scofield is one of a few musicians currently touring that has multigenerational appeal. While his thirty-year career has included collaborations with legends such as Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, Sco remains focused on the task at hand. He is also one of a handful of guitarists that has an instantly recognizable tone which is unmistakably his own. Although he’s now in his early fifties, his unique brand of "electronic groove jazz," as he calls it, has caught on with a younger generation of jamband fans in recent years. His latest album, Up All Night, combines his traditional jazz background with the feisty funk rhythms of Adam Deitch, the solid foundation of Andy Hess and the futuristic guitar loops of Avi Bortnick.
Jambands.com reached John via cell phone, as he was wandering the hallways of his hotel. The discussion – like his mid-afternoon walk – took various twists and turns, delving into the details of his current album, his plans for the fall and the psychology of jamming. "We're thinking spontaneous thoughts and expressing them," he said at one point, using the interview itself as an example of the way improvisation works.
JW: Let’s start off with the transition from 2002’s Uberjam to Up All Night. How has the band’s sound evolved from one album to the next?
JS: We played a year's worth of concerts and really thought about the music. Evolve is the right word, rather than going for anything too specific. I think one of the nice things is that we got looser, so we were able to do more jamming than playing, on very loosely structured things. So, Up All Night has more stuff that’s like that. Adding the horns also made it different than Uberjam. That's something that I've wanted to do to sort of extend the sound.
JW: You used the word "loose." Certainly when it comes to composition, looseness might be a bad thing, but improvisationally, it’s really what you’re striving for.
JS: Yeah, because I think the really interesting stuff happens when you don't plan it out. So it's got to be loose in order for cool things to happen, where we're listening to each other and we sort of capture a feeling as a group and it moves in a certain area. I mean, the first song on the album, "Philiopiety," is a good example of that. It really just kind of happened in the studio, differently from any other time we've played it. We had a really loose structure for that song and the way we played it on the record was way different from the way we did it in rehearsal.
JW: And much of the album was recorded the same way?
JS: Yeah. It was all recorded in real time. We overdubbed the horns though. So, we recorded the band with all the samples and everything all at once. Then I wrote the horn parts to fit what we had already done.
JW: So was any of the stuff on the album sort of loosely written ahead of time or was most of it improvisation?
JS: Yeah, a lot of it was loosely written, about half of it. Then the other stuff was just jams, like "Philiopiety" and "I'm Listening," they were completely free. I think all the other ones were actually worked out, in sections: A, B, C and D.
JW: What is the song writing process like? Do you write out all the parts or is it more of an outline where the individual players fill in their own harmonic ideas?
JS: Actually we wrote a lot of the songs together at soundcheck. They came from jams. We would just jam and maybe we'd find a new bass line and the drummer would come up with his thing. We would tape them on a little tape recorder at the soundcheck, and that's the nice thing about having a band that works together all the time. After we collected all these different recordings, our soundman, Pat Murray put together a CD of all the different jams. It was like a month's worth of recordings. So we took those and took the best parts and then recreated them in the studio.
JW: You have a pretty extensive touring history. How has technology changed your approach to performing? I know Avi [Bortnick] uses a lot of sampling and your tone has come a long way with both digital and analog sampling.
JS: I have two different kinds of guitar samplers. Even though anyone can buy them, it winds up coming out your own way. A sound will ring a certain bell for a musician and he'll use it in a certain way. One of the fun things about playing electronic groove jazz is that all these new digital or analog devices work really well in these idioms, you know? I've just been having a lot of fun expanding my own tones on my instruments. Now, we also have a kind of unique way of using samples for the band in what Avi's doing. He's triggering different loops, but mostly percussion loops, that we play along with. Adam Deitch, our drummer, uses headphones and we play along with these loops and we've gotten pretty good at doing that. Avi has a great pedal system, so he can play guitar and start and stop his samples. If we screw up and aren't playing along exactly with it, he'll start it again on the downbeat. This is technology that is really fairly recent. I think it really expands the orchestration possibilities of any band and it's been so much fun using it. It's sort of given me a new lease on electric jazz to be able to use samples like this.
JW: Some people may be familiar with the story of how you discovered Deitch. He was playing with Lettuce at Wetlands at the time?
JS: Yeah. Well, I knew the guys in Soulive and Eric [Krasno] told me about Adam before I played with him, but then Lettuce invited me to play with them at Wetlands. I had gone through a bunch of drummers and I actually had another guy who was gonna play drums with my band, but then I heard Adam and I said, "This is it. This guy's got what I'm looking for." So I hired him.
JW: There’s certainly a difference in age, what’s the relationship like?
JS: He's just a good drummer and a really great musician. It doesn't matter what age you are. If you got it, you got it. I love his touch. I love his feel. He's a real funk drummer. He loves the old school funk stuff, which is really related to jazz. He's got a very jazz-like approach and he's just got that funky groove.
JW: Rounding out the rhythm section is bassist Andy Hess, who will be departing this fall.
JS: Yeah, Andy is similar to Adam in that he really loves the old school funk stuff. He really lives for that type of stuff. I think he really keeps that tradition going. He's not a note-y player, but that's really a desire on his part because he loves the architecture of music and the position of the bass to hold down the bass and play beautiful, simple parts rather that note-y, virtuoso shit, you know? I really appreciate that in him. He's a great musician.
JW: So Mark Kelley will be joining the band and he’s also pretty young, from the Berklee School of Music, like Adam. What can you tell me about his playing?
JS: He's just a buddy of Adam's that I've been hearing about. He's gonna do the tour with us in September and we'll see what happens with that. I actually don't have a lot of work for this band after that because I'm going to do a bunch of trio stuff with Steve Swallow and Bill Stewart starting in October. We'll be playing through December and making a live record at the Blue Note in New York. These are two musicians that I've played with a whole lot over the years. Steve is one of the great electric bass players of all time and I feel the same way about Bill Stewart as a drummer. That project is going to be more straight-ahead jazz, for lack of a better term. So this band, the Uberjam Band or whatever you want to call it, is going to be on hold. We're gonna do the stuff with Mark in September and then I'm gonna form the Uberjam Band again at the beginning of next year and see what happens.
JW: So what’s usually billed as The John Scofield Band, you refer to as the Uberjam Band?
JS: Yeah, I've been calling it that.
JW: So will the other project be called The John Scofield Trio?
JS: Well I've been calling it The John Scofield Real Jazz Trio, but I don't know if I'm gonna stick with that [laughs]. It just roughly describes it so everybody knows what's going on.
JW: I wanted to get back to what you were saying about Andy’s bass playing and how he’s not too note-y. One criticism of music school is that sometimes you learn too much theory and it sort of takes away the organic creative process.
JS: I don't necessarily agree with that. I don't think learning too much takes away from the organic process. I think that that can imply a little bit of fear of studying music and really working at it. I think in the case of musicians that don't necessarily play a whole lot, they choose to play music a certain way because they prefer it. It's not like "I'm gonna stay ignorant so I can play this way." But at the same time, I know what you mean. I think people that choose to play a zillion notes, that's the kind of music they like. If you're a bass player and you understand the architecture of music, you may choose to play simply and that allows the music to breathe in a certain way.
JW: Ideally, you would want to have as much theory as you can, but sometimes ironically what moves you the most is something as simple as a two-note bass line. Even though you have the knowledge of a zillion notes, the two notes may work better.
JS: Yeah, there ya go. And harmonic knowledge doesn't mean playing a lot of notes. It just means that you know changes and chords and rhythm.
JW: On a metaphysical level, have you learned what causes great improvisation or is it just something that happens?
JS: Hey man, if anyone could put their finger on it, then everybody would be doing it [laughs]. I mean for me, half the time it doesn't happen. The nice thing is that the other half the time it does. If I just hang around I'll have a good night, ya know?
JW: So do you have any kind of pep talk with your band before you go on stage? Is there any discussion of your musical approach on a given night or do you just go out and play?
JS: Oh, we talk about it forever, but I don't know if it does any good.
JW: What are the discussions like?
JS: Well we talk about music just like you and I are right now. I think anybody that plays a lot realizes that all you can do is be ready for it to happen and then sometimes it doesn't happen the way you want it to. Then you have to go with the flow and there are all kinds of things that go on that are not exactly the way you were hoping it would be, but if you go with the flow, something new can happen and that makes it better. I try to not over-prepare in any certain way because it always comes out differently. What I do is I practice the guitar and work on my playing and my improvising. If you're playing the instrument, then when you're up there and the music starts you just do as good a job as you can. Then it's over so quick, you can't really control it. Otherwise you'd be playing the same thing all the time.
JW: It’s like having a vast vocabulary for spontaneous conversation.
JS: Well that's exactly what it is. You and I are talking right now and we're improvising. We're thinking spontaneous thoughts and expressing them.
JW: Speaking of improvisation, talk a little bit about the jamband scene. You come from a jazz background and now the younger generation in this genre has embraced your music. You’re playing the Jammys and all the jamband festivals. It’s given you a whole new demographic.
JS: Yeah that's been fun, playing for new people. I love it. I'm still trying to figure out exactly what a jamband is.
JW: You and me both.
JS: [laughs] It's very loosely defined, which I like. It reminds me of when I first started to hear music in the late 60s, when I was buying albums and going out to shows. The Fillmore East in New York would have Miles Davis and The Grateful Dead and Jeff Beck and B.B. King in one night, ya know? It was very much like what the jamband scene is. It's a very eclectic mix. It seems like everybody's in there to play. There's a certain image thing and all that, like any music scene. There's this image of whatever kind of free spirit the jamband community thinks is admirable, ya know? But the thing that I like about the jamband scene is there's a lot of value on improvisation and good playing. It's about playing your instrument.