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Published: 2009/03/31
by Randy Ray

The Gospel According to John Scofield

John Scofield releases his 36th solo album, Piety Street on March 31, while his band hits the road in support of the work two days later. And oh what a band it is. The potent and seasoned quartet includes Scofield on guitar, George Porter, Jr. on bass, Jon Cleary on piano, keyboards and vocals, and Ricky Fataar on drumsall of whom played on the gospel album recorded in New Orleans with a jazz-blues twist. Indeed, as Scofield quipped from the stage at a recent gig: “we are pioneers in jazz-rock gospel. Is there anyone else that plays jazz-rock gospel?” The Piety Street live band all appeared on the 13-song dynamic work, which found its influences rooted in gospel music with a heavy foundation in soul music. caught up with the guitarist as he prepared for the spring tour with the Piety Street band. He was eager to discuss how the project began life, and also spoke about his great love of New Orleans musicians, as well as his early influences which helped frame the work throughout his nearly four-decade career as a true innovator.

RR: Piety Street, with its emphasis on gospel music, seems like a solid counterpoint, and the other side of the coin to your last album, This Meets That, which was more of a celebration of your rock n’ roll roots. When we last spoke, I said I really enjoyed that previous record because it had a great middle-of-the-night feel, whereas Piety Street appears to be a great daytime record.

JS: The instrumentation, the fact that there are a lot of vocals, and really, I tried to be really direct in my guitar playing, and really play some blues. I think that gave it a different thing, and I try to make each record a real project that has its own feel and vibe. I guess you could say it’s a daytime record, (laughs) as opposed to a nighttime record.

RR: There’s so many textures and colors on Piety Street: gospel, New Orleans jazz, blues, funk, sublayers of American jazz, classic rock n’ roll, and I’d love to talk about the musicians that you gathered together for this project. There is strong chemistry with these collaborators starting right off with George Porter, Jr. on bass.

JS: Well, you know, when I decided to go to New Orleans, and wanted to record with New Orleans musicians, and have my music reflect the New Orleans tradition, he was the first person that I thought of for electric bass, for sure, because he’s made so many great records, been on the Meters side, and, also, all of the Allen Toussaint productions, and music that I was a fan of music coming out of that city. He’s legendary, and he sure does a great job. Man, he’s totally a great musician, covers his stuff, and brings his groove to it, and we just had a wonderful time playing together.

RR: George will be playing with you for a little while, and then another bassist, Donald Ramsey takes over in late April.

JS: He’s another great bass player from New Orleans, too. He’s also in that tradition that George and everyone else is coming out of.

RR: Jon Cleary sure matches up quite well with your guitar playing.

JS: Oh, thanks. I’ve been a big fan of Cleary’s. I think I met him about 18 years ago. He blew me away then, and still does now. When I was thinking that we should do these gospel tunes, and really have vocals, I mean, I just love his vocal interpretationsthe way he can phrase. He’s one of the great soul singers of our day, really. His piano playing is phenomenal. I knew he would be perfect for this. I was really lucky to get him. I feel like he’s the star of the album.

RR: I could pull out numerous examples, but “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” comes to mind when I think of beautiful interplay between you and Jon.

JS: Thanks. His playing and vocals inspire me to play the guitar, to try and phrase, and to say something on the guitar.

RR: “Motherless Child” is an old traditional and has been covered by numerous artists, including Richie Havens. How did you choose the material for Piety Street, other than specific songs that capture a fundamental New Orleans attitude?

JS: I went to New Orleans because I really wanted to play soul music. As far as soul music is concerned, gospel music is soul musicthat’s where it came from. I’m a big fan of gospel music. I picked a bunch of songs that I liked from recordings that I had collected over the years, whether it was Mahalia Jackson or Dorothy Love Coates, or the Soul Stirrers, and these great gospel groups.

“(Sometimes I Feel Like a) Motherless Child” is a song that everybody kind of knows. It’s been recorded hundreds of times, and I just knew it as a folk song, almost, really, while most of the other songs were things that I knew from one or two recordings by maybe one or two artists.

I just picked the songs that I really wanted to do, and I went over it with the vocalists, with Cleary, and the other vocalist who sings lead on the record [on three tracks], John Bouttand I said, “Hey, you feel like singin’ this tune?” I sent them versions of the tunes so they could hear the ones that I had heard.

RR: Bouttas a great duet with Cleary on “Something’s Got a Hold on Me.”

JS: Yeah, that’s great when they both sing together. It sounds to me like Sam & Davea great R&B duo.

RR: You mentioned Dorothy Love Coates, and the band’s interpretation of her song, “That’s Enough” opens up the record.

JS: I always dug Dorothy Love Coates. I heard her years ago. I have this friend named
Paul Siegel, and he has turned me on to so many gospel records, and he turned me on to Dorothy Love Coates about 20 years ago, and I’ve been listening to her albums ever since. She’s fantastic. [Author’s Note: the band also covers Coates’ “99 and a Half.”]

RR: Speaking of fantastic, going back to “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” I’ve always loved Rev. James Cleveland myself, as well.

JS: Yeah. Yeah. I’ve heard some stuff of his, and then, you know, getting ready for the record, I got even more into it, and was getting a bunch of CDs, listening to all kinds of stuff, and I came across this tune and it just smoked so hardthat groove that they had on there. Yeah, James Cleveland is phenomenal.

RR: Tell me about Thomas A. Dorsey. You covered two of his tracks.

JS: Tommy Dorsey was an old big band leader. This guy’s name is Thomas A. Dorsey. He was a composer. It’s interesting because he was a guy named Georgia Tom. He was a blues singer in the 20s, and then he got religion, gave up the blues, and he, I think, became a minister, and he wrote all of these gospel tunes. He wrote one tune that became a real church standard called “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” that even Elvis recorded. He wrote all these great songs in the 30s and 40s, became gospel music classics, so I picked a couple of his that I really love.

RR: Your story about Dorsey giving up blues and embracing gospel music is similar to how I felt, as originally stated, when I went from This Meets That to Piety Street.

JS: (laughs) You know, one thing, though, I mean(laughs) I didn’tto tell you the truth, I come to this gospel thing from a pretty secular, non-religious place. I love the music. I like the message, too, you know? I don’t really think of it in religious terms. I just dig the songs.

RR: I’m glad that you said that because I was wondering.

JS: Yeah, a lot of people are wondering if I’ve been born again.

RR: Right.

JS: Yeah, and I haven’t. (laughter)

RR: Your birth was fine, and you want to say: “What are you trying to tell me?”

JS: Once is enough, bro.

RR: Exactly. Back to the band. Ricky Fataar on drumshow did you get him?

JS: It’s funny because I wanted to record with all New Orleans musicians, and there are a couple of drummers down there that I really love, but I couldn’t get them to do the tour. I wanted to have the same guys on the record, basically, that were going to be on the tour with me, and so I ended up importing Ricky. He really wanted to do the tours and play on the record and was available to do it all. He’s one of the great drummers, and he’s really best known from his work with Bonnie Raitt. He’s been in her band for 20 years. He was even in the Beach Boys, for a while, before that. He’s also a veteran studio drummer. He’s great. [Author’s Note: Shannon Powell also plays tambourine and drums on the traditional “Walk With Me” on Piety Street.]

RR: I want to ask you about your 2008 tour with one of your favorite collaborators, saxophonist Joe Lovano.

JS: He’s unbelievable, man. I love Lovano. We have played together a lot over the years. He was in my band in the 90s when I made a couple of records for Blue Note that he was on, and we toured tons then. It was great to get back together with him. I’ve actually known him since we were in college, and I think he’s just one of the best jazz musicians ever, and I love playing with him.

RR: This spring, you are touring the States, before heading to Europe this summer.

JS: Yes, we are doing a big tourall of Apriland we end up at JazzFest in New Orleans. We’re down for Mayno gigsand then we start up again, and do all of June and July in Europe. So we have a lot of gigs with the Piety Street band. Donald’s going to do the summer, too, because George has a lot of gigs with his own band.

RR: You’ve had some other choice gigs, lately, as wellon stage and in the studio. You were on a recent record with jazz pianist McCoy Tyner called Guitars.

JS: Right. First of all, McCoy is one of my real idols since I was a kid from his albums and his work with Coltrane. He’s one of the giants of jazz. I was lucky enough to meet him years agoI met him in the 80sand I played a gig with him. I was brought in for a jam session at the Montreux Jazz Festival. It was with him, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, and you know, at that point, I was so thrilled to even be in the same room, much less on stage with those guys because they were really my idols. McCoy was very nice to me. We’ve played together a couple of times over the years, and I actually played some duets with him on one of his Blue Note solo records where he did a couple of duets.

When he called me for Guitars, I said, “I’ll be there in a flash.” It was incredible. Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette were the bass and drum team, and you can’t get better than that, so the whole thing was that I was so excited to try and get to play that music because we’re really playingthe tunes we playedwere really McCoy’s sound, you know? We played “Mr. P.C.,” which was a tune that Coltrane played, and is a real standard, and another jazz tune, jazz-blues, really, called “On the Corner,” which was McCoy’s, and that I knew from the album.

When we got there, there was no written music or anything. McCoy said, “What do you want to play?” I just decided I wanted to play those tunes. We did one take. The whole thing lasted about 15 minutes, and there it wasthe two tracks that I did with him. It was an honor and a pleasure and a joy. I’m excited. I am going to get to play with McCoy, again, at the Tokyo Jazz Festival next fall.

RR: As well as more touring with your band in the States?

JS: We’re doing a tour with the Piety Street band next fall where we play at the Hollywood Bowl on Labor Day weekend, a couple weeks later at the Monterey Jazz Festival, both in California, and then we all go to the Tokyo Jazz Festival, and there I’ll play with McCoy, as well.

RR: You spoke about McCoy Tyner as an idol of yours from when you were a kid. Last time we spoke, we hit upon other areas in your background, but I’d like to go even further back, and look at how you began playing, what records turned you on, and what made you continue moving forward as a musician?

JS: The first thing that really turned me on more than anything were the Beatles. When I had my first guitar, I was 12 years old. I had my guitar for literally a few weeks when the Beatles came on television, and it was their first exposure in the United States. They were on once a week, over three or four weeks, on the Ed Sullivan Show. I started to learn those songs. I wanted to learn that music. That led me to rock n’ roll.

It wasn’t just me. It was the whole world that was really turned around by what happened in 1964 and 1965. That was my original thing. I got into the blues pretty early. Through the Beatles and rock n’ roll, I started to learn about where a lot of that music came from. I became a B.B. King fanatic, and still to this day, I love his sound. Through him, I learned about Albert King, Buddy Guy, and then I liked Clapton and Hendrix, too.

I was a real blues guy for a while, but then I got into jazz through a local guitar teacher. When I was about 14 or 15, I started to take guitar lessons at a local music store in Wilton, Connecticut where I grew up. This guy was a bebopper, and he turned me on to jazz guitarTal Farlow, Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel, Jim Hall, and all this music. I thought “this really makes me want to sit down and learn how to play this,” which, you know, was and is a big commitment. By the time I was 16 or so, I said “I’m going to try and learn about this music and study,” and I realized that it takes real study, and it really does, and I’m still doing it.

*RR: Musicians who got into music in the 1950s and 60s appeared to tap into the original sources, whether it was jazz, blues, or country. Later generations may sometimes appear to be a bit removed from that. How true is it that it is important
for musicians to have that connection with most of that original source material?*

JS: Well, you know what? I know what you mean, and it’s interesting that people that are into music now are listening to, in some cases, a lot of the same records that we were listening to in the 60s. (laughs) I think it’s just different, that’s all. I think it’s a testament to the musicthat it was really goodthat it still lives on. I think that, on one hand, it changes as gets kind of changed around, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think it’s a good thing. I think that the level of playing right now is higher than it was. Not that it’s better, a lot of the innovators came from this Golden Age in the older generations, but right now, there are more really, really good guitar players than ever.

It’s just different, that’s all. I’m not going to be one of those people that says, “Oh, the old days, let me tell you, when you had a direct connection to the source, it was better,” because, you know, I can’t remember. I remember what it felt like, but that’s part of me. Maybe, it is better, but I can’t tell because I’m just the same, and I’m excited by today and what’s going on now. I don’t yearn for the old days.

RR: Sure. I’m sometimes on the fence about this topic, but I wanted your take on it.

JS: Yeah, it’s an interesting thing, and I think about stuff that way, toothe differences in generations. I do, too. What we have to always remember is that recorded music is one thing, but to be around and hear people live, and feel it that way, is different.

RR: Right. Speaking of the live experience, I believe you captured that live-sounding presence on the studio recording of Piety Street quite well.

JS: Thanks. We really try to do that when we record, and I’m lucky to record with a great engineer, James Farber, who is very committed to capturing live playing, reproducing that, and presenting that. When we made the record, we were trying to do that, trying to really just have a live performance on there.

RR: We spoke of the importance of getting out to see live music for musicians and fans alike. What is your process on stageare you living in the moment, or is it something where you are so used to playing live that your decisions come automatically, and without much thought at this point?

JS: I think that is the case. I do get into the “in the moment” head every time I play just through training, through the training of doing it and realizing that you have to be in there. Some days are more focused than others. Every day is not the same. It’s just the way it is, but I keep trying.

RR: Are there particular songs that you are looking forward to playing in 2009?

JS: I love these songs. I still love it, and we’ve got some other ones that weren’t even on the record, and some of my older stuff. We do a song called “I Don’t Need No Doctor” that was on a record of Ray Charles music That’s What I Say: John Scofield Plays the Music of Ray Charles. We do a few gospel tunes that didn’t make it on the album that we tried out, but work well live.

RR: You’ve definitely selected projects with a variety of musical styles over the last several years. I was wondering how far you look into the future with your work?

JS: Right now, I don’t know what I’m going to do next. I really don’t know. I’ve got a couple of things that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and I’ll probably do one of those things, but I’m not even thinking about it right now. I’m not going to rush into anything.

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