John Scofield: Journey to the Middle of the Night
Jambands.com caught up with legendary jazz guitarist John Scofield during his current Medeski, Scofield, Martin and Wood tour that will segue into fall dates supporting his recent solo release This Meets That. The album is an excellent collection of originals and well-chosen covers, which are showcased with his veteran collaboration trioSteve Swallow on bass and Bill Stewart on drumsplus a four-part horn section. Besides his MSMW escapades, we spoke about the recent death of jazz giant Joe Zawinul, Scofield’s experiences playing with Miles Davis, Phil Lesh, Larry Campbell, Bill Frisell and Mavis Staples and his great love and respect for the music made during the middle of the night.
RR: We lost another great one, Joe Zawinul the other day. Would you like to comment on his passing?
JS: I’m one of his children, in a way. When I was in the George Duke band, we toured with him with Weather Report a whole bunch in 1975, 1976. I got to know Joe a little bit, then. For my generation, he was really our idol. I was really familiar with all of his music from before that from Cannonball Adderly’s days to the stuff he did with Miles Davis and all of the Weather Report stuff. I’m sad to see that he’s gone but he still remains a role model for all of us. It is interesting. He always did his own thing, had his own kind of music even though in more recent years, the jazz world overlooked him. He was always doing his shit and he kept moving on. These collaborations with these African musicians were incredible that he did towards the end of his life. I think he was a giant.
RR: Let’s talk about the years you played with Miles Davis. You recorded and toured with him in the early to mid-1980s. How was that experience?
JS: I was with him for three years. I started in 1982; I was already 30 and I had been on the scene in New York for a few years already so I was somewhat developed.
RR: You had developed your own style and assimilated your influences so when you played with Miles was it a mixture of awe and compatibility?
JS: The awe was definitely in there. In a way, away from the music and now in retrospect, I realize there is nobody around who is a star like that. In a way, he was bigger than a rock star at the time. He was huge and I’m talking about this cultural icon thing. All the rock stars wanted to meet him so it was this big thing when you would join his band. You were in the inner circle. It was a real trip because everybody knew who he washe was still coming back from retirement so his profile was everywhere. He was touring again and it was sort of like working with Brando, Picasso and Beethoven all rolled up in one.
I was in awe with him and he made sure the world held him in awe. He didn’t like (laughs) make it easy. He was really a star. I learned so much about the music from him because I think he thought I had some insight into his style. He could tell from the way I played. That was sort of unspoken in a way. He would just talk about music all the time to me and to us and talk about the older jazz musicians. As a jazz fan and music historian, I really learned so much about his world and where he had come from.
RR: I’m glad you brought up the concept of presence in a room. When I was listening to This Meets That, I noticed the strength and confidence on the recording with your longtime collaborators, bassist Steve Swallow and Bill Stewart on drums. There is a mix of familiar and unpredictable geography covered on this new album.
JS: It’s true_This Meets That_ and that’s why it is the name of the record. There are more kinds of bags or styles on there than on any record I’ve ever done. I think it all works because everything has this, first of all, swinging feelrhythmically. All the tunes do and even the country tune [a cover of Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors”] and the tune “Heck of a Job,” which is kind of New Orleans-y and they all swing in a certain way and in the way that trio plays. For me, that is the unifying thing that brings it together. The other thing I wanted to say is that it is truethere are country grooves; there are funky, bluesy things; there are straight ahead jazz things; there’s free jazz in there and when I started playing when I was really young, when I first got interested in music, it was the 60s and this kind of hippie mentality really rubbed off on me. It was the era when the Fillmore would have Miles and Santana and B.B. King all on the same night.
RR: And a country band, too.
JS: And a country band. First of all, we were all guitar players; we recognized how great Merle Haggard’s and Buck Owens’s bands were as well as the other country bands. We were digging Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery; we were digging B.B. King and Albert Kingthose guys blew us away. All of that roots music along with all of the rock bands were taking those songs and making new stuff out of it. I guess at the root of it, the thing that allows me to feel O.K. about doing that is because of my background that way.
RR: That’s what is interesting to me because you chose some fairly recognizable cover songs to record and yet they don’t sound like the originals. I really liked what you did with Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors.”
JS: I always loved that tune. I always loved the tune back when it was on the radio. Everybody heard it; it was a Top 10 hit. It just came to me; I just ended up playing that for a couple years on my guitar. When I would be sitting down and riffing around, I would end up playing that tune just by myself because I liked the way it sounded. (laughs)
RR: And with the other two covers, I would imagine that you learned “House of the Rising Sun” and “Satisfaction” fairly early on in your musical education.
JS: They are from the first year I played guitar. They were hit songs that year . I learned them along with what seems like other kid in America just when they were learning how to play. Every little high school band played them. The interesting thing is that kids still learn them today when they first learn to play the guitar. (laughs) I don’t know whether their guitar teacher teaches them that or they learn it from hearing it on classic rock radio but they are still there as these beginning guitar songs. They are iconic guitar anthems is what they are and everybody knows them. That’s not the reason why I chose to play them. When I’m thinking of other stuff to play and jamming, those still are the tunes which sort of come up, they are just there that everybody knows. For “House of the Rising Sun,” Bill Frisell and I were on tour in Europe and we were playing with the band called Bass Desires.
RR: You recently got Bass Desires back together with Bill Frisell after a long hiatus.
JS: We just said, “Hey, let’s do some gigs.” We did some gigs last January and it was the first time I had played with Frisell in many years. I don’t know. I was thinking “What can we play?” and I thought of Bill playing that melody. I redid the chords and played the changes twice as slow as the original so we could blow on them, so we could improvise on them and came out with this little form and it worked so we started to play that.
RR: Any chance of future dates with Bill Frisell and Bass Desires in the States?
JS: You never know. We don’t have anything scheduled but I would like that. It’s hard to get everybody together because everybody has their projects. Bill has his projects.
RR: And you’ll be back in Europe in the next few months, right?
JS: I go all the time. I’ll be going in November and then in April with the trio plus horns.
RR: Speaking of the trio plus horns, I felt the quintessential John Scofield moments on This Meets That are the two jams “Shoe Dog” and “Memorette.” The songs have an intricate, tight melodic structure and yet, you can hear everyone breathing in the same room, playing their own parts.
JS: Thanks, man. You’re really insightful there. Yeah, thank you.
RR: You also captured a unique vibe on “Strangeness in the Night.”
JS: You know what? “Strangeness in the Night” is actually two songs. I had written the fast middle part and we were sort of playing that just as a jazz tune. Then, I started to write this other song and I wrote a whole tune. I said, “Wowafter we play this new song, what if we went into that other fast tune I wrote?” I figured out a way to put them together.
RR: How about the construction of “Shoe Dog?”
JS: “Shoe Dog” is almost like folk rock. We started playing that a couple of years ago. We captured a vibe and we play the shit out of that live. The ending can go on for hours.
RR: “The ending that can go on for hours” reminds me of Phil Lesh. You just played with Phil and Friends at the Mountain Jam in June in place of guitarist Larry Campbell. How did that go?
JS: Man, that was so much fun with Warren [Haynes]. That oneout of all of the Phil gigs we didmight be my favorite. It was really special.
RR: I saw you play with Phil Lesh and Friends back at the Warfield in San Francisco last year. I was curious about your experiences playing with Dylan’s old guitarist and Phil Lesh’s current band member, Larry Campbell.
JS: It is so much fun. He is unbelievable because of all the instruments that he plays. I’ve never played with anybody that could play all those instruments. It is madness, man. He plays mandolin, banjo, guitar, pedal steel and violin and all really well. I mean, shithe’s a phenomenon.
RR: Your playing sounded inspired. I hope you cross paths again, someday.
JS: I sure hope so, man.
RR: I’m sure that is what hooked Dylan, as well. You were talking about learning guitar in the mid-60s. What was Dylan’s impact on your world during that time?
JS: Bob Dylan was everywhere. He was huge because of the record Blonde on Blonde. In 1965 when I was buying my Telecaster, he was in the music store buying an electric guitar. I had that record Blonde on Blonde and I appreciated it in the way that everyone else appreciated it. I liked it for the music a lot and its phrasing and the whole thing but the songs and the lyrics were magic and it still is. What I do is pretty much instrumental and everything but Bob is special. I do love songs and songwriters and he changed the world with his stuff.
RR: You’ve just touched upon something that defines how I feel about “Strangeness in the Night,” “Shoe Dog,” and “Memorette.” When I think of Blonde on Blonde, I think of always listening to that record during the middle of the night.
JS: I know, man. I feel lucky to be from that era. It was an incredible time. The music nowyou hear so much of it that is similar, actually.
RR: What I want to point out is that I think you caught a little bit of that middle of the night’ vibe on This Meets That.
JS: Wow. Thanks, man. (laughs)
RR: And that elusive attribute seems similar to Medeski, Martin and Wood.
JS: It is something I wanted to do for a long time. We all wanted to record, againMMW and me. We played a few festivals over the years since we made A Go Go and it seemed like the right time mainly because we were all free from our existing record deals that prohibited us from doing that in the years before. In a way, it is good that we waited because we were renewed and ready to do something really different from A Go Go. I think they are a completely one-of-a-kind group. For me, they’ve got this musical depth that I haven’t really heard from anybody else in the jamband scene. For instrumental music, they play with a commitment to freedom but also, this depth that they can get into with that whole downtown New York type of scene. That really taught them a lot. They are funky as hell so it is a great combination. I think I fit in really well with them and I’m not even sure why except, you know, we hear music in the same way, I guess.
RR: Describe that freedom with MSMW.
JS: (laughs) To tell you the truthwe’ve had a whole lot of freedom making the record, too Out Louder. The thing is that people kind of want long tunes and they get it. The live difference is that you have an audience egging you on and it is wonderful because we have such great audiences for this group. They make you want to play and they’re into it.
RR: As far as audiences are concerned, I noticed that you played at the Jakarta Festival in Indonesia with the Uberjam Band. How did that turn out for you?
JS: Man, this wasfirst of all, we flew so far and we got there and we played and I think I was still halfway across the Pacific when we were playing. (laughter) I wasn’t quite there. The Philippines used to be Dutch, right? There were all of these Dutch promoters who organized this thing; I think it was pretty much the wealthier people that could afford to go to this festival but they were wonderful. I’ve never really been to Southeast Asia or anything and this is the closest I’ve been but the people are so nice. You just walk down the street and you see all of these smiling, beautiful faces. It was great. I don’t think they really knew quite what anybody was playing that much (laughs) or heard that many records but they were into it.
RR: In 2005, you released John Scofield Plays the Music of Ray Charles, which featured Dr. John, Aaron Neville, Warren Haynes and Mavis Staples among many others. Did you have any thought of a similar project for the future?
JS: I’d like to expand it and take a band and play some blues. On the road, a singer named Dean Bowman was playing with us. We just had one singer and we did a bunch of gigs and that was great with him. I’d like to do some blues/gospel stuff with a singer.
RR: Speaking of Mavis Staples
JS: We did some gigs with Mavis and it was incredible. I would love to work with her, againvery much so. Her latest record that Ry Cooder produced is one of my favorites.
RR: Yes, I agree. I saw her again last year.
JS: Where did you see her? At a gig?
RR: I saw her at an outdoor amphitheatre in Scottsdale, Arizonabeautiful evening and she came out and gave a great set with her band.
JS: She’s been touring with this guy from Scandanavia, Rick Holmstrom and his bandmaybe it is since then. Did she have that guy?
RR: Not that night.
JS: He’s really good. I saw this clip of the band with her on YouTube. He kind of plays like Ry did on the record. It’s happening. (laughs)
RR: What is happening with you in the next year?
JS: I’m touring with the trio plus horns in the U.S. in October and in Europe in November. We’ll be back in Europe next year, too. Then, I want to think about some sort of blues project. I’m not sure how I’m going to do it but I’m going to start getting ready for that and we’ll see how that shapes up. There is nothing happening right now with the Trio BeyondJack DeJohnette and Larry Goldingsbut we might schedule some stuff for that, too and record again. That’s pretty much it.
RR: You are currently focusing on the trio you share with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart. How has that relationship developed over the years?
JS: Some bands should stop playing together. (laughter) [Author’s Note: in a strange synchronicity, this statement echoes an opinion offered in the August site feature with Oteil Burbridge.] Other bands, it gets better. Luckily with us, I think it gets better. I just feel lucky to be with them because they are such individuals.
RR: Good luck with the rest of the tour.
JS: It was great talking with you. When you say that “middle of the night” feeling to the recordI know what you’re talking about and I’m honored that it affects you that way so thank you.
- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com.