Interview with John Scofield

Genre-busting career shifts

It’s not exactly a Clark Kent-into-Superman kind of thing, but the way guitarist John Scofield can shift between straight ahead jazz and jam-band inspired funk is impressive. How many funk players have the subtlety and finesse to play within the confines of a classic post-bop quintet? How many bop players can hang with the likes of Medeski Martin and Wood or the Sex Mob?

Scofield slides easily between the two sub-genres with ease. It wouldn’t be too hard to convince you that his latest CD, Works For Me, is a lost 1960s hard bop session unearthed from the Blue Note vaults, while his last, Bump, could keep a warehouse full of hippies noodle-dancing ’til dawn.

Such shifts would give lesser players whiplash at best, an embarrassing back catalog at worst. Scofield, who sounds like he’s answered questions on the subject dozens of times, said it’s no big thing to follow a funk workout with a classic slice of bop.

“It’s the kind of music I’ve always been into, straight ahead jazz,” he said from a tour stop in Boston. “I thought it would be nice to change the pace a little bit. I’ve gone back and forth between playing funky jazz and straight ahead jazz so much that I don’t have to think about it, I just do it.”

Is he fallible? Does he ever accidentally drop an ill-fitting heavy groove into a quintet piece, or come on too soft with his jam-band group? Nope. It’s automatic, he said. He plucks the strings and the resulting notes seem to fit perfectly.

“I’m just playing the music at hand and I hope it comes out right,” he said. “I might have had trouble with it when I was younger, but it’s not like that any more because I got better.”

Scofield, 49, got better because he plays so much. He first picked up a guitar at age 11, attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston to further hone his chops, and then began playing with a succession of musicians that reads like a who’s-who of “Artists Left Out of Ken Burns’ Jazz.” He backed George Duke, Gerry Mulligan and Gary Burton, to name a few. It was his stint backing Miles Davis, however, which made him a household name in jazz circles. He spent three years with Davis in the early 1980s, alternating between that work and his own as leader.

His evolutionary path is one that points onward and upward. His recent discs have shown a move toward the new sounds from way out, incorporating overt funk and samples into his signature guitar sound.

In that light, Works For Me is a detour. It’s not unique in Scofield’s catalog — discs like 1996’s Quiet hint at similar inspiration. But it is far from where he seemed to be headed.

Credit a fortuitous gig three years ago with saxophonist Charles for the change in direction. Scofield was called in at the last minute to replace an ailing guitarist at a Knitting Factory show with Lloyd. Billy Higgins was behind the drums for the booking, and Scofield was impressed by what he heard.

“I’d never gotten to play with him,” he said of Higgins. “I had one of the great experiences in jazz. It swung so hard, and I decided I wanted to make a straight ahead jazz record with Billy on drums.”

As his idea evolved, Scofield decided he wanted a quintet setting, with his guitar and a saxophone as the lead instruments. He recruited Kenny Garrett on sax, and then looked for rhythm players to round out the group.

“I wanted everybody to solo,” he said. “I was really influenced by all the great Blue Note records from the ’60s.”

He found his solo-capable players in pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist Christian McBride. Both lead their own bands, as does Garrett, so it was no trouble getting his group to solo.

“There were no ego problems at all,” he said. “The thing about jazz is, it’s a collaborative effort. In order for jazz music to work, it has to be a real group thing. All these guys know about the jazz process. I kind of knew it was going to click. Each tune just unfolded, and sometimes they went in different ways than I thought.”

Garrett, in particular, is hard to miss. His playing is commanding and strong, and his soloing is both bracing and supple. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say this is the best work he’s put on record.

Mehldau and McBride flesh out the sound, adding texture and tone to the proceedings, pushing Scofield and Garrett with their own flashes of solo brilliance.

And Higgins, the elder statesman in the group of young players, does truly swing, giving the record a classic feel as he keeps the band in line while driving it at the same time.

The disc’s lineup is impressive, a true supergroup. Yet, good as his accompaniment might be, this wouldn’t be the same record with anyone else’s name on the sleeve. Scofield is a bankable brand. Much as he was once “a guy who played with Miles,” his cohorts can now be said to be “the guys who play with Scofield.”

“It just happens when you get older,” he said. “You play with people who are younger than you. I don’t feel any different than I did back then. It surprises me that I’m the old guy. I talk to people who say ‘hey, you’re on a record that my dad used to play.'”

That cachet gives Scofield a bit of power. It’s no secret that his fan base of late has expanded to include people for whom jazz is not their first choice. He draws from the same set who devotedly follow Phish, Widespread Panic and Grateful Dead offshoots. Could his detour into bop lead them to the promised land of jazz?

“I’m hoping,” he said. “I don’t think every jam band kid will like this, but a lot will.”

Bringing new fans to jazz is never a bad thing, but Scofield wants to bring something else across the jam band-jazz divide. “There’s a lot of joy involved, a lot of overt happiness,” he said of jam music. “I hope to bring that to jazz.”

He’ll have the chance as he tours behind Works for Me. He hit the road in early March and will support the record through the spring. Don’t look for Mehldau, McBride or the others, however. They have their own groups to run. He’ll take a lean quartet on the road, a group that thus far has played much of the new record, as well as some tunes from 1998’s A Go Go and a few jazz standards. He even throws in a cover of the Simon and Garfunkel chestnut “Scarborough Fair.”

Then it’s back to the funk. He’ll take what has become known as his “Bump Band” back on the road this summer. He hopes to record that group for his next project. Sounds like another one of those shifts is in the offing.

“I’m so used to doing them that I look forward to the change. Each change just sets it up for me to go back to the other groove,” he said. “Every time you play with different people, the songs will take on a little different quality.”

He does know where to draw the line, however.

“The idea is to play stuff that sounds good,” he said. “There are some things that sound good on paper, like me playing with the London Symphony Orchestra. But that wouldn’t sound good.”