Sunday, October 26, 2014
   
Text Size

“I wouldn’t be playing what I play if it wasn’t for Miles”: an interview with John Scofield

John Scofield is one of the most successful jazz guitarists around today, renowned for his unique and extremely expressive soulful and funky sound. He has played with a plethora of top jazz musicians, including Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, The Brecker Brothers, Medeski, Martin and Wood, Tony Williams, David Liebman and many more.

John Scofield played the main stage of the Ottawa Jazz Festival on June 20, 2003. photo ©Brett Delmage, 2003Scofield has a busy touring schedule. performing 200 days out of the year around the world. He has played at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, most recently with his New Orleans gospel style group, The Piety Street Band in 2010, and with his quartet in 2003.

On Wednesday, February 6, the John Scofield Trio began its tour of ‘la belle province’, organized by the Montreal Jazz Festival, with the first show of the tour at the Maison de la Culture de Gatineau here in the greater Ottawa/Gatineau region. See the OttawaJazzScene.ca review of that concert.

Justin Duhaime of OttawaJazzScene.ca had the pleasure of interviewing the friendly and down-to-earth Scofield on January 24 to ask him about this upcoming tour and more. Here is what they talked about.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Tell me about the people you will be playing with.

John Scofield: This time it’s two of my good buddies: Bill Stewart, drummer par excellence, who I’ve been playing with 20+ years on and off, but on a lot, and a great, great acoustic bass player named Scott Colley, who I’ve played with some. He was on my last record, A Moment’s Peace, that came out in 2011.

OJS: Your long-running trio usually has Steve Swallow in it. Could he not make the tour?

Scofield: Steve Swallow has a strange life. He lives in Tortola in the Caribbean between November and March, and won’t leave. He just stays down there and he just writes music. He and his wife Carla Bley don’t play gigs during that time of the year.

But I’ve been playing with Scott a lot, too. I’ve had a longer history with Steve, but Scott is no mere substitute for Steve Swallow. He’s his own man and a really remarkable musician.

OJS: So you’re doing a tour of Quebec.

Scofield: How about that, huh? We’re hitting towns that have never had a jazz group ever maybe.

OJS: How’s your French?

Scofield: It is non-existent [he said with a French accent]. I’m going to be going to places where there’s not that much English, right? Wow. It’s so hard to believe that it’s only a few hours driving from here. I go to Montreal all the time where everybody speaks English but it’s cool.

OJS: You’re adjunct professor of music at New York University.

Scofield: I don’t even consider myself a jazz teacher or a teacher, really, but NYU has set it up for me so I teach one course, which is just my music, and I do it seven times a semester with the jazz majors. And we play, we jam, and we talk about playing the guitar and also just playing music. It’s really loose and I love it.

I used to give guitar lessons back when I was a young guy when I needed the money, and then I didn’t like doing it cause I wanted to be playing, you know? So I made my students comp for me and then took endless solos. I don’t think I was a very good teacher, but now I really like doing it and try to impart information and enjoy the contact with the young musicians.

OJS: In the FAQ section on your website, it states that taping your shows is cool if the other band members are cool with it and if the venue is cool with it as long as people aren’t disruptive and don’t make bootleg CDs. What’s the taping policy for this tour?

Scofield: Sure, I’m cool with it. I think the other guys will be cool with it. You know, a long time ago now it became stupid, I think, to not allow that. And because I’ve been involved in the jam-band world, we let people know it’s cool to tape because there are some people who really like doing that.

OJS: What kind of material will you be playing on this tour?

Scofield: All kinds of stuff. My tunes, my kind-of more jazz tunes, but also some kind of funky type stuff which I always try to get into. It’s not gonna be like an Überjam type electronica dance night like this one band I have. It’s going to be more on the jazz side, but we kind of stretch out. We even play a Country-western ballad, and we do some free kind of stuff and explore a lot of different areas.

OJS: Any new material?

Scofield: We always do new material. There might be old stuff. I’ve got a bunch of new songs that I’ve been playing with them that have never been recorded, and we find old songs that we feel like playing – cause you know me and Scott both know a lot of tunes. So you never know. That’s a nice thing about playing a lot is that we get to have a sound check and try different stuff. Sometimes we just do off-the-cuff versions of tunes.

OJS: You have a lot of material. You’ve been releasing about an album or two every year since 1977. Do you have a composition ritual?

Scofield: No, I just flog it. I get down to the basement. I get coffee’d up. If I have a project that I know I need to write for, I just write a little bit each day, in the morning and then half of it’s no good, and half of it develops into other tunes. Luckily, this is jazz music and the songs have to be vehicles for improvisation, so I try to write simple stuff that’ll make us all want to keep playing.

That’s sort of the thing that defines for me whether it’s successful or not: if you get that feeling when you’re playing this song that. 'Wow I want to expand on this!', and not just me but the whole band. It’s taken a while for me to realize that that’s the most important thing about these songs. Not just the song itself.

OJS: Is that perhaps why your music has been more groove-based in the latter part of your career?

Scofield: Well I just love groove. I love the physicality of music and the African tradition of getting a thing going that’s dance-oriented in a loose sense of the word, not in the sense of necessarily current disco or whatever. Although disco’s not current. Just stuff that makes you want to move.

OJS: Tell me about Miles Davis.

Scofield: Miles Davis. He played trumpet right? Well here’s what I think about Miles. I wouldn’t be playing what I play if it wasn’t for Miles, and I still think about him because I learned so much from him.

John Scofield  ©Brett Delmage, 2003OJS: Do you ever go back and listen to the stuff you did with him?

Scofield: No, I don’t go back and listen to my own stuff. Occasionally I will and I’ll say 'Oh, it sounds OK' or I’ll say 'Oh shit, I couldn’t play that or I blew it'. 50/50 but I don’t think there’s much to be learned from listening to one’s old music. You know, it's like just the past period. The more we think about the past, the less we are in the present time. The past for other people we learn from, but our own past we’re just dwelling on things that are over. But I can check out Miles’ records with other people and really love that. He’s one of the greats, one of the greatest, and I feel like maybe he’s at the very top of the great musicians that have really made my life what it is – the wonderful musicians that I get to play with and got to play with over the years.

OJS: Tell me about David Liebman. You did a record with him and Terumasa Hino that I really like. What was your experience like with him?

Scofield: Hino really, really helped me. In 1977, I was still a young guy on the scene. It was before I played with Miles. I was playing around in New York and he heard me and decided to take me to Japan with his group. He is a star in Japan, almost like a matinée idol, and was the Miles Davis of Japan in a way. I went to Japan with him and I played in a quartet with him and his brother and a great bassist. We went all over Japan, and we made a record with Tony Williams and Ron Carter, the great rhythm section that used to play with Miles. It’s called May Dance.

Then, David Liebman who in the 70s was really an established great, he had already played with Miles, we got to play in his band. Liebman showed me so much about the post-Coltrane or the Coltrane 60s style that McCoy Tyner and Coltrane [played]. That was a really big thing, and I started to get into that language which I was trying to do. He helped me so much.

OJS: I found a video of you with Jaco Pastorius playing "The Chicken", on YouTube. How did you get to play with him?

Scofield: Well. we were the same age. I first heard about Jaco from Pat Metheny before Pat Metheny was famous. He said. 'Man, there’s this guy in Florida who’s unbelievable.' Then when I heard Jaco, I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t just like 'Oh, he does stuff on the bass that nobody’s done before.' It was the soul and fluidity of his lines and his funk and the Latin thing: you know it was all there. It was like, everything I ever wanted to do on the guitar, he could do on the bass.

Getting to play with him, I really only did that one thing that they used “The Chicken” from, and a couple of times that I played with him [and] got to know him a little bit. I heard about him when everybody was starting to hear about him, and he went right to the top, became huge, changed the way music was played – and the bass certainly – and then self-destructed. And it was over before we even had a chance to know it, and had a chance to really appreciate him in a way. So he was a flash in the pan, but what an incredible musician!

OJS: Are there any of those younger guitar players out there who have caught your attention? Like, what do you think of Ben Monder?

Scofield: Beautiful guitar player. He’s great. There’s a bunch of really, really good players. I don’t even want to start listing them and forget somebody else. You know Peter Bernstein’s the same age as Ben Monder and that generation, Kurt Rosenwinkel. There’s a guy in Holland named Jesse van Ruller who’s really great. There’s a bunch, man, that just play the shit out of the guitar. 

OJS: Do you find yourself listening to a lot of these younger guys. or do you usually go back and listen to the older stuff?

Scofield: Well, I don’t listen to music like I used to. I don’t listen to guitar and say, 'Oh I got to learn what that is.' But I appreciate and people like that I have to listen to, when it comes up, I’ll say 'Oh shit, what’s that?'. You know, with YouTube now, we all check each other out, but I don’t analyze.

I think I do listen to a lot of older music because it’s so available, man, and the history is so great. I mean: anybody would be stupid to limit themselves to artists that are currently around. If you’re going to be listening to recorded music, shit. There’s so much stuff out there of people that aren’t around that are really great, so that’s a wonderful thing.

OJS: What do you like to do other than music?

Scofield: Do phone interviews, I love that. I read, I go to the movies, I hang out with my family who I love dearly and my kids, my wife and my friends, and I like to eat and I like to observe and appreciate culture in many forms. I’m lucky I get to travel all over the place as a jazz musician. I’m gone half the year, and a lot of it is in Europe and Asia and stuff so it’s pretty cool.

OJS: Would you like to close with anything?

Scofield: I got a new record that I just did with these Überjam guys that I used to play with. We made a record called Überjam, but that same band with this other guitar player. He does samples and stuff – it’s kind of more funky type stuff. We finished making the record last night.

OJS: When is that coming out?

Scofield: May. Called Überjam Deux. Which is my little nod to the French language that I’m learning. Now I know the numbers, the first two numbers: un and deux.

OJS: Then it’s trois.

Scofield: Well, thank you. You’ve made me advance one more step into French.

The John Scofield Trio plays Odyssée Hall in the Maison de la Culture de Gatineau on Wednesday, February 6
and L'Astral in Montréal on Saturday February 16 as part of their Quebec tour.

Updated February 15 to include link to concert review.