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Published: 2014/09/30
by Brian Robbins

John Scofield Gets into the Juice with Medeski Martin & Wood

23 years ago, divine providence brought keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood together – obviously, the Great Spirits thought the world needed to dance more.

Getting the whole planet to shake its collective butt is no easy task; your music must know no beat borders or genre fences. What’s required is absolute free-range funk. World groove rooted in jazz. Multi-colored blues. Rhythms that come from the marrow. Musical exploration that can’t even begin until the map is thrown out the window.

Medeski Martin & Wood nailed all that from the beginning and have never looked back.

In the meantime, guitarist John Scofield has been on his own open-minded musical journey that dates back to the ‘70s. Conversant in everything from bebop to fusion; blues to funk; Saturday night roar to Sunday morning gospel, Scofield’s list of bandmates and collaborators over the years is beyond impressive – almost scary. There are jazz greats (including Chet Baker, Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis); there are funkmasters such as George Porter Jr., Avi Bortnick, Jon Cleary, and Adam Deitch; there have been tie-dyed tours of duty with Phil Lesh’s Friends and out-there Überjam safaris.

And, because the Great Spirits know their stuff, there have been the times when Scofield’s orbits have intersected with Medeski Martin & Wood.

The MSMW powerhouse is a unique thing. Since the quartet’s first recorded collaboration – 1998’s A Go Go – years might go by without them sharing stage or studio. When they do, however, the results are magical: instant world groove that the quartet summons up from a place that only their combined hearts, souls and talents can find.

Juice is the latest studio offering from MSMW, a bowlful of funkiness infused with global beats and slathered in right now jams, captured in the moment with the tape rolling. John Scofield was kind enough to share his thoughts about Juice, recipes for magic, and some warm memories of Miles.

BR: John, how does it affect your playing to join forces with Medeski Martin Wood? Are there things that you might not do – or be more likely to do?

JS: Well, for one thing, I think we take it out more, you know? Those guys are pretty fearless and they’re coming from what was the avant-garde. Their training ground was that Knitting Factory scene in the Nineties; they really get into all this sonic weirdness and very surreal kind of … impressionistic kind of stuff – and I love that. They bring that out of me.

Also, they’re one of the funkiest bands around, which has made them so popular. As a group, we really don’t play straight-ahead jazz – that’s something we don’t do. Although I always tell people that the music I play with MMW – or any funk jazz groups – wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for bebop, you know?

For sure. Your originals on Juice : “North London”, “Stovetop” and “I Know You” – which is my newest favorite Sunday morning song, by the way …

Oh, thanks … that’s beautiful to hear.

Well … it is. (laughter) Were those tunes written specifically for this album?

Yeah, they were. We’d decided we were going to make the record and I was on tour with my own band in Japan. We stayed in the same hotel for, like, five days – and during that time, I wrote those three tunes, thinking of John, Billy and Chris. I’d work on them every day before I’d go to the gig, composing them with MMW in mind.

If you’re going to be on the road, it’s nice to be someplace for five days, isn’t it? It’s cool to be able to leave your shave kit and toothbrush in the same place, day after day.

Oh, yeah! If we were doing one-nighters, I would’ve been stuck in a van or a plane or whatever.

So how do you approach writing when you’re holed up in a hotel room like that? I imagine you with your trusty Ibanez in your lap, unplugged.

Exactly – I just write on the guitar. One thing: I like to record myself improvising – I just do it on my iPhone, you know? Maybe I’ll have a phrase that I like; I’ll write it out so I don’t forget it, then take it wherever I can and record it. Afterwards, I go back and listen; I’ll get a clue as to how the tune should go, you know?

So, knowing you were writing for these guys, how did you approach it differently than you might have for your own Überjam setting, let’s say?

I think about the way they play – especially the rhythms. The way Billy plays, for instance; he’s really great at Brazilian as well as funk and stuff like that … he’s got a special groove. The tune “North London” is what I’ve been told is a Brazilian boogaloo. And I knew he could play a beautiful bossa nova, so that’s the “I Know You” tune.

It’s how they groove. That’s really the basis for a lot of this stuff: the rhythmic elements; the feel of the song. It’s not just the changes and the melody – it’s how it feels rhythmically.

Billy Martin’s “Louis The Shoplifter” is a magnificent groove, but it’s a sweet melody as well.

Yeah – the drummer came up with a melody, you know? (laughter) That’s Billy: he’s so musical. He just taps the tunes on the piano with one hand, but he always comes up with a nice melody.

That’s one of those songs where, of all the different sounds John Medeski is capable creating with his keyboard setup, I love it when he simply digs into the grand piano.

And he had a real concept on that tune – the way he was approaching playing these kind of off-beats with the chords … it’s beautiful.

Absolutely. I think Chris’ “Helium” is as loose as things get on the album.

Oh, yeah. (laughs)

I have a vision of you and John facing each other, batting that jam back and forth.

Yeah, we were trading. He’s so much fun to play with – and we both kind of thrive on the interplay, you know? After you’ve been playing awhile, you get sick of just doing your own thing, you know? The magic comes when we all play together.

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