John Scofield: A Guitar Hero for Jazz and Beyond

John Scofield's new recording, Past Present, is a revival of his very best jazz group and an affirmation that pop joy can live inside of jazz.
John Scofield
Past Present

Jazz has relatively few “stars” these days, musicians who might be described the way actors sometimes are: as bankable, as the ones who can “open” a film with some guaranteed box office. Even famous jazz musicians such as legend Sonny Rollins or Wynton Marsalis aren’t moving many discs these days.

Jon Scofield, a guitarist who at the age of 63 isn’t exactly a matinee idol, would probably laugh at being compared to a movie star. In conversation Scofield is unassuming and genial, every bit the polite kid raised in Wilton, Connecticut who happened to discover a passion for music. And who, despite being a “jazz” musician, finds himself a guitar hero in 2015.

Truth be told, when a record company wants to start a new imprint to put out jazz, John Scofield is the go-to musician. He’ll get them off on the right foot.

With Past Present, Scofield is making his first appearance on the new/old Impulse! label, which is the latest of Universal Music’s jazz brands. Impulse, of course, was the home in the 1960s to John Coltrane and other firebrands of the avant-garde, even though it was started by producer Creed Taylor and found early success putting out Ray Charles’s Genius+Soul=Jazz. This mixture of the daring and the soulful fits Scofield beautifully.

And it makes sense that in helping with reviving Impulse!, Scofield has gone back to his own past to revive a band that is arguably one of the most important of the last 25 years: his quartet with Joe Lovano on saxophone. Past Present features Lovano, drummer Bill Stewart (also from the previous configuration), and Larry Grenadier on bass, who replaces the late Dennis Irwin.

We talked to Scofield about the new record, the band, and his status as soft-spoken jazz hero.

On Being a “Major Label” Jazz Artist

“I’ve been lucky enough to be on the major labels,” Scofield tells us. “They started as independents but then the big companies bought them up in the ’70s and they became the jazz departments of the big labels. Verve and Emarcy and Impulse!, and now Blue Note too, are all part of Universal. Man, it oughta be an anti-trust violation!”

Does recording for a major hamper Scofield’s style? “If you have your shit together, they let you do your thing. I had one ‘produced’ record where I did all Ray Charles music [That’s What I Say: John Scofield Plays the Music of Ray Charles (Verve, 2005), featuring vocals by Dr. John, Mavis Staples, Aaron Neville, and John Mayer]. But I still like it. Verve said, ‘We want you to do something different; not your tunes, but something that might sell.’ They got Steve Jordan, the incredible musician and drummer and a friend of mine, to produce it, and that was cool. I had a blast and it was something different. On my other records, the labels let me do it myself or bring in a friend to produce.”

Scofield notes that this latest revival of Impulse! (as the label had a reanimation in the 1980s as well but ultimately the artists it signed were taken in by Verve when both became owned by Universal) is under the supervision of Jean-Philippe Allard, who has a spectacular resume of work with serious jazz artists.

“He worked for Polylgram in France and produced Charlie Haden, Abbey Lincoln, Randy Weston, Kenny Barron, and some really good Hank Jones records,” Scofield continues. “He always had a day gig in publishing at Universal France, but his passion is jazz. So he’s a guy, much like Brice Lundvall from Blue Note, who can use the publicity arm of Universal to make these amazing records.”

Scofield notes that the major labels are releasing relatively little jazz but are particularly limited when it comes to supporting instrumental jazz. “Somebody said that Blue Note will make only six releases this year. Verve doesn’t make instrumental jazz anymore, at least not that I know of.”

So, having guitar music released on a “major”, he notes, is a rare and lucky plus, particularly because he has been allowed to make the music his way. “Musicians who are working independently, recording for independent labels, they are still trying to sell records, but it’s up to you. You don’t have the suits complaining about it because there’s no money in it on the independent level.

“I’m really glad I haven’t had to do the business end – it’s a lot of work. I’ve been lucky that I’ve had these record companies that have publicists and distribution. So I don’t have to worry about it.”

Creating Uncompromised Jazz That Still Has a Pop Hook

Perhaps Scofield has been able to work in this sweet spot — supported by the majors but still “independent” in most of the relevant ways–because he has a knack for writing tunes and playing in a style that is simultaneously sophisticated and catchy, harmonically complex and yet not forbidding. It can’t be an easy accomplishment or more jazz musicians would do it. What’s his secret?

“The thing is, I’ve never hated pop music,” he tells us. “I mean, sure, most shitty bands I don’t like. But I’ve always liked ‘songs’. All the way back to Stephen Foster, up through Tin Pan Alley: I like those songs. Most jazz guys don’t get that. But the great ones, the ones we all admire and my role models — Monk and Coltrane, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter and Ornette Coleman — they wrote for themselves or had to find the songs that would work for them. I think there was a golden era of songwriting, guys like George Gershwin, Richard Rogers, and so on, that really fit with jazz. It’s not the same now, so you have to write for yourself.

“But I like songs. Even when I first started out, listening to the more challenging things that Ornette Coleman and Paul Bley would play, it was the compositions that intrigued me.”

Cool, but what is the secret to writing those great songs, the Scofield themes that contain irresistible hooks, little repeated figures that worm into your ear, the melodies that are “jazz” but that you also want to whistle or hum as you walk down the street?

“Composing is a mystery to me. When I write complex stuff, I tend to throw it out. When I improvise, some of that gets a little bit ‘notey’, and I don’t want the ‘head’ of the tune to be the same. I like the songs that are ‘songs’. But I’m always weighing: is this too simple? Is it inane? Is it too complicated? So I throw stuff out.”

Scofield also credits his favorite musicians with being able to make his songs jump alive with interest. “Drummer Bill Stewart has this ability to play certain grooves that no one else can play. There are very few drummers on the scene who can get those grooves but still be a jazz drummer. There are other guys that play in an interactive style, but you think, Man, I wish this guy would just stay out of my way. Not with Bill. Bill can just do it.”

Of course, Scofield’s partnership with Joe Lovano is a thing of legend. “Joe Lovano can play my tunes the first time down and somehow get the essence, and add some of his essence to it.”

The revival of this particular band, which made a series records in the early 1990s that stand today as harbingers of where jazz was going at its best, is centered on the Lovano/Scofield alliance.

Lovano and Scofield: More Mature and Complex Than Ever While Still an Example of Jazz Beyond Boundaries

While the rhythm section of Bill Stewart and Larry Grenadier is just as funky and grooving as the duo from the older records, Past Present boasts a more intimate, personal sound from the front line of guitar and saxophone. Listening to Scofield’s guitar, as recorded here, you feel like you’re nestled up against his amp, warm and cozy, with the slight buzz of distortion never overwhelming the guitar tone or a sense of his fingers at play on the strings. Lovano, amazingly, achieves the same thing, with his tenor saxophone buzzing and earthy, creating subtle multi-phonic effects on many of the songs.

“Lovano has just matured and gotten these little sonic elements in his playing,” explains Scofield. “And we’ve all learned how to record. For my guitar sound, I used to use a lot more processing in the early ’90s, but now it’s just me through an amp. That gives it an intimacy. In the ’80s and ’90s when I got into music, that’s when the pedals like the chorus were invented. Later I decided that maybe that stuff was clouding the issue. It was just adding some ‘faux depth’.

“It took me a long time to find my own sound — it’s been a work in progress. My sound has changed a lot. I can’t listen to the shit I made before the mid-’80s!”

The band on Past Present is, however, still riding a knife edge between easy-to-love tunefulness and jazz adventure. Today, that balance is all over jazz, with the traditional and the more progressive sounds having essentially lost any meaningful boundary. There’s a strong argument to be made that the early-’90s edition of the Scofield/Lovano band was a superb exponent of that combination 25 years ago, and probably the only one on a major label. It was, simply put, an important band. Were Scofield and his bandmates thinking about that at the time?

“Those first records with Joe showed me getting away from the electric sound and back to my jazz roots.

“I started with straight ahead jazz from the beginning, but by the time I got jazz gigs in the ’70s,” he continues, “fusion was popular, and people would call me for fusion sessions and gigs. I did a lot of that. I’d been trying to put that aside and work on really trying to learn ‘All the Things You Are, when I got the gig with Miles Davis. He said, ‘Don’t you play that “All the Things You Are” bullshit around me — I’m tired of it. I’m doing something new!’ That got me excited because Miles was my idol. Then I made my own fusion records, like Blue Matter and Loud Jazz that really came out of my playing with Miles. I felt like that’s what we had to do to extend the music, but that was in the 1980s, around the same time that Wynton Marsalis came along and started with the idea that you had to ‘keep the tradition’.

“So in 1990 with Joe I was getting back to jazz yes, but I was also trying to find a niche that was a little different. I always felt that the blues and jazz live together. I started by listening to B.B. King, and I still consider that music to be a kind of jazz, rhythmically. The blues is the blues, and Bird and Miles and Ornette played the blues. I wanted those things to work together.

That band, revived now on Past Present, managed to take the groove of fusion and the challenge of the jazz tradition and blend them organically, creating a model for the bands of today. “At the time, none of the regular jazz writers saw that or wrote about it. But I always thought that was the case, yes.”

In a More and More Atomized Music Scene, Scofield Crosses Over

It makes sense that Scofield would be an early example of a boundary-less jazz musician. He has been moving from one world to another all along, and in recent years he has about equal appeal with jazz fans and Deadheads, with Bill Frisell fans and traditionalists.

“It’s nice. I guess that comes from being a guitar player. These guys who play these big archtop guitars, bless them. But how can you play the instrument without checking out bluegrass, the blues, flamenco, classical guitar, and Brazilian music? When I started, I wasn’t hanging around with jazz people. My parents weren’t into jazz. I was just checking out what guitar music was around in the suburban New York scene in the ’60s. Some of it was jazz, and I was slowly learning about it. I knew that jazz was the master, but how could you avoid the rest of it?”

Scofield grew up at a time when there was jazz on the radio that was neither pure bebop nor purely commercial. He recalls organist Charles Earland’s version of the pop hit “I Love You More Today Than Yesterday”, which got play alongside Charlie Parker on New York’s WRVR. “That was soulful music being made by jazz musicians, pop music that was deeply connected to the black music scene.”

In short, it was another example of Scofield’s formulation: jazz and blues, side by side.

Regarding the Loss of Bassist Dennis Irwin, from the 1990s Quartet

Larry Grenadier is outstanding on Past Present, standing in for bassist Dennis Irwin, who died of cancer a while back. Scofield remembers Irwin with a kind of joy.

“Dennis was this wonderful person as well as a great player. I met Dennis when I first moved to New York. He invited us to jam at his house, and I brought Joe Lovano, Billy Drewes, and Steve Slagle. We were friends in the early ’70s, and then he went to play with Art Blakey. He taught me so much about music: he went to North Texas State as a classical clarinetist, he was an expert on Mahler and how that music related to jazz harmony, he learned Portuguese so he could know more about Brazilian music.

“He lived music 24 hours a day. But that’s all he did, and he would never go to the doctor. I remember that he had a little spot on his head and one time my wife Susan told him he should have it looked at. It turned out to be cancer, it metastasized, and he had no insurance. The Jazz Foundation of New York and Englewood Hospital started a program with Dizzy Gillespie that helped Dennis out. But we lost him.”

The Band on the Road — and to the Greener Pastures of Europe

The band will head out on the road to The Blue Note in New York for a week in October, to Boston’s Regatta Bar, to the Detroit Jazz Festival, then for a month in Europe (with Ben Street on bass). “Our European tour is fully booked but not what it was a few years ago because of the economic downturn.”

Scofield worries some about jazz musicians losing Europe as a place to play. “There’s an incredible music audience there. They’re okay to sit and listen to instrumental music in a concert hall for hours. Doing that is kind of strange for Americans. Here, the idea of going out to hear a man play his instrument just isn’t grounded in the culture. Instead you have to be entertained more completely. In Europe, it’s not just the hoi polloi who might go out to Lincoln Center.”

Scofield sees the current jazz scene as diffuse, a struggle for musicians perhaps, but full of opportunity. “I hope the way it is now doesn’t kill music as we know it.” He believes in the tradition but also in having an audience. Popularity isn’t all bad. “There’s that bullshit meter that we all have. You can tell when something is crap. But there’s a lot of music that communicates that I’ve always liked.

“I don’t care who you are. If you don’t have an audience, you don’t exist. If you have the gig that that nobody comes to, well, the next thing is that there’s no gig at all. That’s rough. Even Cecil Taylor and those guys needed an audience, though I’m not sure they’d cop to it. Those guys were artists in the Ayn Rand sense: I don’t give a shit, I’ve got my vision, and this is what I do. But all those guys have responded to people liking their music. It’s a physical and mental response you have to people liking your art. You can’t not respond to that.

“When you’re a jazz musician, you have to learn to not play to the bleachers. As soon as you start playing gigs, you learn: Man, I could go crazy, play as many notes as I can, and a lot of people will applaud. But that sucks. You realize that gig where everybody loved you was not the way you want to play at all. And then you have to learn.”

With Past Present John Scofield is neither playing for the crowds nor turning then away. As ever, he remains a natural exponent of how jazz could be both more accessible and more challenging: the balancing act of art in a nutshell.