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Published: 2011/10/19
by Randy Ray

A Cosmic Thing Happened with John Scofield

RR: WOW. There’s your synchronicity.

JS: (laughter) I swear to God. It was like “Oh, what is this?” A cosmic thing happened. And, you know, you can get a little bit of a groove going on that tune. I always thought of it as a…you know the way Brian plays on that tune, when I first started to get into New Orleans music playing with guys from New Orleans, the first guy that I met was Johnny Vidacovich, the drummer. You know him.

RR: Yeah, I know him.

JS: Yeah. This was like 1980, and I went down and played with those guys. Vidacovich’s playing is and still is—I love it—and after I played this tune with Brian, I thought, “God, I hear some of the way like the way Johnny V. would play, and then Brian said, “I was his student.” Brian studied with him years ago in New Orleans because Brian was from down there in Louisiana, not New Orleans. That was cool on that tune.

RR: “I Will” is the second track on the new album, and it is interesting to swing all the way to the end and you frame the piece with Gershwin’s “I Love You Porgy.” It’s another example of how you put your own trademark on a track.

JS: Yeah. Yeah. I try to play them all personally. That’s what you have to do. I had to really learn these tunes to get into them. On that one, I did sort of a different sonic thing that just felt right. I’ve always loved that song. This is the music that when I grew up every old fart was telling me, “Yeah, those Beatles are good, but you should listen to George Gershwin.” I was like, “Whatever. Give me a break.”

And now that I’m an old fart, they were right. (laughter) George Gershwin’s songs…he just wrote incredible songs, and that’s one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.

RR: And then there is another interesting swing with “Lawns” by Carla Bley, which is great cover and, again, it fits in well with the overall texture of the album.

JS: Yeah. Well, thanks, man. My mentor, really, and great great friend is Steve Swallow, and his partner is Carla Bley, and they’ve been together for forever, and I’m a Carla Bley fan for as long as I can remember. Her tunes, her whole everything about her—I love her music. She’s a giant. I asked Steve, “Do you think Carla has any tunes that would work for me on a ballad record?” And Carla sent me over like ten pieces of music—songs that she had recorded and this one she had recorded in an electric period in the 80s. She was doing some records that have actually been overlooked because people confuse them with smooth jazz, but they are so much more than that genre.

I had the music, and I knew this was on an old record, but I didn’t listen to the original record of it. I just played the music from the page and decided to kind of swing it. It turns
out (laughs) she did it in a completely different way, but I hope she’s not mad at me for changing her tune around. I love that song, “Lawns.” It’s like a rock anthem. The actual song reminds me of something like “Layla.” It just has this anthemic quality to it. I love that song and Larry on organ on it. Jesus.

RR: “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You” by Andy Razaf and Don Redman.

JS: Hey, you know, that’s one of the hippest songs ever written. It’s a blues, but it’s in two keys at once. There’s just this weird musical relationship between the key of C and the key of E-flat. (laughs) It’s got a 4-bar bridge, instead of an 8-bar bridge; it’s just incredible. It’s 8, 8, 4, and 8, bar wise. I just love the song. It gives us a chance to play the blues, too. I tried to, as always, make the record have variety, so this was our little blues thing, and, man, I think we really hit it on this one.

RR: Let’s talk about that. When you wrote your original pieces, were they written for this particular work? How did you structure those tunes with these covers?

JS: The first tune, “Simply Put,” I wrote years ago, so I had that sittin’ around. Now, the other ones—“Johan,” “Mood Returns,” “Already September,” and “Plain Song”—I wrote those recently with the idea of making this record. So I had the idea of making this record a while back. “Johan” just started out and I actually realized after I started writing it that it was really similar in a certain way voicing-wise to this Bach guitar piece that I had learned, again, 40 years ago, and had forgotten. (laughs) And I still had forgotten it. There are certain voicings, so I dedicated it to him, and that just sort of had the feeling to me of classical music. It’s still my shit, and it’s a jazz tune, or whatever, but there are certain little things that remind me of Segovia or something, but very very abstract. So that was one time where there was a certain mood, a ballad that’s a certain flavor.

“Mood Returns” is more of…I called it “Mood Returns” because…it’s very hard to explain this, and I don’t even know what it is, but it’s just a mood that some of my songs used to have a long time ago and I got the feeling of when I used to write tunes 15, 20 years ago and I thought, “That’s back. That’s great” because I’ve written a lot of tunes, but I haven’t been writing that much lately. I haven’t thought that the tunes I had written in a while have been that good, so that’s kind of a…I don’t know…it’s not really a ballad, but it’s got a little bit of a groove to it just like a couple of the songs do because I wanted the record to be quietish, but not be all ballads so that everybody falls asleep.

“Already September”—that’s a jazz tune. I called it that because I wrote it in the fall, and that was a year ago, and I couldn’t believe it was already September, and summer was going away.

“Plain Song”—I wrote last year, too. It’s just so plain. (laughter) I also thought of the Great Plains. It’s got a little bit of “This Land is Your Land” in there—Woody Guthrie.

I just picked tunes that were all a little bit different. It turns out that every tune on every record has to have its own character, I think.

RR: I love what you said about it being quiet, but not enough where the listener is distracted, or, at worse, nodding off. There is movement in these pieces, and that can be a difficult balance for a musician, especially over an entire album.

JS: Yeah. I’m pretty much in a lot of ways a hot guitar player. I love ballads, and as I get older, I find myself really wanting to play that kind of music. I think the problem with playing a bunch in a row is that it can get sleepy. But what you get when it’s not sleepy, when it’s inspired, is ecstatic. (laughs) So, I don’t know what we achieved on this record. You don’t want it to [make people] fall asleep, but you, also, don’t want to overplay. The worst thing is to play a kind of ballad thing, but just play a bunch of notes. I hate that.

RR: Let’s talk about those notes in a live setting. We touched upon it earlier—last year’s DVD, New Morning: The Paris Concert. There were some rather slow and soft playing, and then the quartet would really pick it up, especially you on your guitar. The New Morning series has been around for a while, but your band seemed a perfect fit for the format—the setting, the group, the audience, the vibe, everything.

JS: Yeah, I’m glad that you know about it because I’m proud of that one. This is what I do really and I’ve been so lucky that I get to do this, tour with my band. Every year, I do two months of touring in Europe. Like I said, I have different projects, but I always go to Europe a lot, and there are gigs there that are so wonderful. We played this club in Paris. I played there more than I’ve played at any club in the United States, I would say. I’ve played there every year for 20-something years and it’s a good venue. When you’re on tour, you play a bunch of days in a row and you get warmed up in a way that you never are when you’re going in the recording studio. This Paris gig came and it was just another gig in probably a run that was 25 concerts. It was towards the end, so we had already done like 15 gigs or something, and we were tired and smelly, but it’s the real deal. That’s what I like—we were able to just capture that with all the mistakes or whatever. We just went and played our two sets in the club, and that’s what’s on the video, and I think the momentum just makes for better jazz.

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