A Cosmic Thing Happened with John Scofield
Photo by Jake Krolick
John Scofield returns with his first studio album since 2009’s Piety Street. Whereas that project focused on music familiar to gospel music lovers, the guitarist turns another corner on A Moment’s Peace and shifts his musical ear on the ballad. Neither too quiet, nor too rambunctious, Sco finds a sweet sonic balance between the notes that makes his original and cover tunes on the even dozen project a pure listening joy. The legendary axe man has been quite busy of late, playing in various configurations and featuring layers of collaborations in the “million bands” he has formed and focused in the past few years.
Jambands.com caught up with Scofield before he takes another variation of his group, a quartet, on the road in the United States for a one month trek which begins on October 18 after numerous international dates in South America and Europe with other outfits. The ballads album showcases another side of his playing while also offering yet another look at the artistic colors in the man’s myriad of stylistic choices. What is so refreshing is that whereas Scofield can play in everything from a Danish orchestra to the Allman Brothers Band to Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood, he never loses his consistently powerful voice on guitar. The instrument speaks loudly and softly within the textures of these many musical environments, and he does very well here, too, in our conversation.
RR: There is a very serene and magical quality to A Moment’s Peace —everything is in its right place. How did you choose the songs for this project?
JS: First of all, thanks, man. I think so much of it is a gut feeling when I sit down with my guitar. I have to love the song when I’m choosing songs. But there are a lot of songs that I really like that I don’t particularly play great on the guitar. It doesn’t quite translate. I can be a fan of the song, but it’s not quite right for me, so I just have to sit down with my guitar, and say, “Ah, this is happening.” And it is the same thing as when I write tunes; I write them on the guitar. If that can come alive, when we go to play it, then it works.
I’ve got to say that I picked the songs [on A Moment’s Peace ] thinking of how the musicians that I’m playing with will play it because this quartet is made up of great players that totally vibe people, that go with a feeling, and then, try and make that mood. So many of the arrangements that I came up with, I really did think, “Well, this is how Brian [Blade, drummer] would maybe do it on the drums, or Larry [Goldings, pianist/organist] would approach this on keyboards.” So, I’m thinking of them when I’m picking the tune, as well; first me, then them. (laughs)
RR: Let’s talk about some of those collaborators. This is Brian Blade’s first time on a record with you, but you’ve had Scott Colby on bass for a while, and Larry has played with you for quite some time.
JS: Larry has been with me for many years—on and off. He was in my band for a few years in the 90s, and we made Hand Jive and Groove Elation on Blue Note, so we were together back then and that’s when we really forged a musical relationship. Then, we did a record [ Saudades ] in a project called Trio Beyond with Jack DeJohnette where we toured and did a bunch of stuff and kept it going. I’ve played with him a lot. He’s my favorite. There’s so much we can do with him. He likes to play a little bit of funk and jazz, too, and he can even get into a country tune. He can do everything well. He’s not a Jack of All Trades and Master of None; he’s just a great player, and we happen to have the same stuff that we both like, so I just love him. He was perfect for the date.
Scott Colley, actually, I haven’t played with that much, but I’m a fan of his. He plays with Jim Hall a lot, and plays around New York with his own projects. I thought of a ballads-y kind of record—he can play anything—and he has that beautiful, sensitive thing, too, that everybody in the band was really right for that. Their antennas were up.
I’ve played with Brian a little bit. I’m a huge fan. This is the first recording we’d done, and I haven’t played with him a whole lot, but I’m a huge fan. He’s a magician, really.
RR: I love the contrast between Brian Blade on drums and the way you play with him, and Bill Stewart, who you’ve played with in your other collaborations.
JS: Yeah. Bill—I’ve been so lucky that I’ve gotten to play with all these great drummers. I think, in a way, that drums are the heart of a group. Rhythm is the key to the music. When you’re playing any instrument, you’re playing the drums on that instrument to a certain extent. And drums play melodically. These guys like Bill Stewart and Brian Blade color the music all the time with different sounds, as well as providing the rhythm.
RR: How do you determine who will play with you, for example, the fall tour you are playing that takes you through South America, the States, and Europe?
JS: Well, you know, I have about a million bands. (laughter) And this is cool for me, man. I really feel that I’m lucky to break it up and play a bunch of different projects because they get me excited and keep me fresh. I’m going with my jazz quartet, which is with Bill Stewart, a young piano player named Michael Eckroth, and another great bass player named Ben Street.
RR: Your crew on the 2010 DVD New Morning: The Paris Concert.
JS: Yeah, that’s the group from New Morning. They were with me in South America.
RR: And you went to Denmark, as well.
JS: Bill Stewart and I went to Denmark to play with a big band that is Danish musicians playing all my tunes for big band.
RR: A different band than your collaboration with Metropole Orkest.
JS: The band is called Klüvers Big Band. They just found me. It’s great. They’ve done a bunch of projects. Kurt Elling, the singer, just did a thing with them. They bring over soloists like the Metropole Orkest. I had Bill with me playing my tunes with big band. When I went back to Europe, I went with a completely different quartet, which has never recorded, but I call it the John Scofield R&B Quartet. You know Nige; he’s played with Warren [Haynes]. Nigel [Hall] sings and plays piano and Terence Higgins, who was playing with me in my Piety Street band, who has also played with Warren, plays drums, and Andy Hess on bass. So, it was a bunch of Warren Haynes alumni. We did some completely different music for a three-week Europe tour.
The tour of the States, which lasts a month [mid-October through mid-November], has the same quartet from the DVD [ New Morning: The Paris Concert ], except Bill Stewart can’t do it because he’s going out with [Pat] Metheny, so Greg Hutchinson is going to play drums. I’m lucky to get to play with all these great musicians. What can I say?
RR: Speaking of great musicians, A Moment’s Peace has Scofield originals that are real gems, but there are also inspired covers such as “I Will,” which was was written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Has that one been close to your heart?
JS: All the Beatles songs are really close to my heart. It’s funny. When I looked back, I actually looked at the timeline, and I was 11, almost 12 years old when I got my first guitar. My mother got me an acoustic guitar. I had my guitar for four or five months, and the Beatles came on television in America [January 1964]. This was this big thing where they came on the Ed Sullivan Show, and I had just turned 12 years old. So, that music for the next four years, that music took over the world, and took me over, too. And I learned to play music from learning to play those songs when they were new hits on the radio. I learned a D chord in order to play “Love Me Do,” or something. This is like some really little kid stuff, and when you’re that age, it’s actually the beginning of puberty, and that music stays with you for every generation, and everybody says the same thing. The Beatles—those songs, they are just so there that I don’t have to think about it.
This is funny, though. I have a story about “I Will.” My wife, Susan, years ago had said, “Why don’t you play that tune? It would work well as a tune for you to play on guitar.” I thought, “Oh, O.K., I’ll check it out.” And I actually transcribed it, and I wrote it down on a piece of music paper. I had been thinking when I was making this record that I wanted to have some kind of contemporary tune, not all just originals and jazz tunes. I actually listened to a whole bunch of stuff, stuff that I like like Elliot Smith and stuff by a bunch of real contemporary groups and, again, songs I love, but nothing that really just clicked with me just playing on a guitar. I thought, “What the hell; I just won’t have anything like that.” As I was leaving to the rehearsal with the band, that piece of music that I had written four years before appeared before me on the floor of my studio.