By Jeff Howard
As a guitarist whose influences have always been rooted in rock music, I depend on guitar player John Scofield to ease my transition as a listener into the jazz world. Jazz is a style of music I admire – the best of jazz musicians show undeniable musical command combined with a sense of fluidity and grace that I can only hope to attain as a musician. As much as jazz music draws me in with its awe-inspiring complexity, I can’t fight its power to make me recoil. Perhaps it’s because of my stubborn rock roots that I can’t disassociate jazz music from overly cerebral soloing and pretentious snobbery, all of which culminates in a sound that doesn’t move me. However, some jazz musicians help me forget about my notions – both rational and irrational – of the genre. Of this group, John Scofield is the guy I find myself returning to the most.
When I discuss John Scofield with my friends, we come up with a long list of reasons why we love him so much. His phrasing is so inventive. His tone is so raw and wonky. He can bust out the perfectly placed fiery hot lick amid a painstakingly deliberate and melodic solo. Really, all of this comes down to Scofield’s ability to invite listeners in with a sense of musical humor while moving them on a level that is absolutely earnest and direct. This past month I got to talk to Mr. Scofield over the phone, where we discussed his new album and his upcoming tour. Through our conversation I discovered a little bit about Scofield’s influences, his philosophy on what it means to sound “dirty”, and what happens during the making of a John Scofield album. It wasn’t long before I realized our discussion wasn’t between a “rock guy” and a “jazz guy” – but one musician to another aspiring musician.
First of all, thank you so much for doing this. It’s awesome to talk to you and it definitely is a privilege.
JS: Oh! No problem, are you kidding me? Thanks for giving the record some publicity and everything.
So why don’t we get started with your new album, “Uberjam Deux”. On this album, I know you embrace a dance driven sound similar to your 2002 album, “Uberjam”. So I’m wondering, what inspired you to return to the groove direction?
JS: Yeah, I wanted to groove, you know? That’s all. I keep looking for stuff that feels right. I love playing with that band also. We really have a thing that we can do and also use some electronics in there too. You know, some samples and stuff. And it seemed like the right thing to do for me.
When I was looking at the liner notes, I was interested because I saw that there are samples on the album. When you say “samples” does that mean you sampled works from other (artists)?
JS: This is how that works. It’s not really like that. It’s that mainly Avi Bortnick, our rhythm guitarist and sampler wizard… it’s more like loops, rhythm loops of percussion and sonic effects that are not from other songs, just from instrument samples that he has, and different weird shit. Electronic music effects and things like that. And sometimes instruments! That means we’re playing along to, you know, this group of stuff that’s going. It’s rhythmically based. There’ll be… it’s not a click track, but like a conga part or a cowbell part or something that we’re playing along with. And you can cue in different kinds of funny sounds, and sometimes little chord progressions. And he does that with a footpedal system. Where he’s actually playing that kind of stuff and he’s playing guitar at the same time.
That makes sense. I was hearing some of those electro drum loops –
JS: Yeah! That’s what I’m saying with the samples, it’s mainly the loops. But then there’s some keyboard effects things that he just programs in there and then steps on a button and all the sudden there’s this kind weird rooooooo sound or something. He has a bunch of stuff like that, too.
It gives the album a sort of playful and lighthearted energy, which is really cool. Now, you were talking about Avi Bortnick, and he plays rhythm guitar. How does playing with a rhythm guitar player change your approach as a guitar player?
JS: Well I don’t know if it changes my approach that much, but it’s fun to do because Avi plays the guitar… he plays rhythm guitar in a way I wish I could. I can’t do it. It’s this real precise kind of funk thing. I can do a kind of facsimile of it, but he’s the real deal. I really like the sound of two guitars, the second guitar filling out the sound. We have a lot of two guitar chords. I’ll play one voice and he’ll play another, and it makes this kind of orchestral sound, that’s one element. And then he plays his rhythm stuff and I play my lead stuff so we sort of offset each other and hopefully make for a bigger picture than just me playing the guitar, you know?
Yeah, that’s cool that both of you are very different types of guitar players, it definitely –
JS: Yeah, well it’s great because… I take endless single note jazz solos over his funky shit (laughs).
Now we’ll turn the topic to live shows for a little bit. On September 13th you’ll be returning to Norfolk CT’s Infinity Hall, and I believe this would be your second appearance at the venue.
JS: Uh huh. Yeah.
You’re looking forward to returning to Infinity?
JS: Man, I’m super looking forward to it. Last time I played there I was so knocked out by it, it’s such a great venue. As we were driving up I was thinking, “My God, this is really in the woods, what are they going to have up here.” And then we got there and I was like, “Oh, wow. This is a great place to play.” It’s a beautiful, beautiful theater. And it’s been redeveloped, as you know. It’s just about as nice a venue as you can have.
Absolutely. Very intimate, that’s its thing. Now on the other end of the spectrum, in Bridgeport CT’s “Gathering of the Vibes” (festival) this year you’ll be playing with your own group and then you’ll be playing with Phil Lesh. What do you get out of playing with Phil Lesh and Friends?
JS: Well… it’s a really good job (laughs). Phil is the only rockstar I know who’s interested in free improvisation. The only guy I’ve ever met, anyway. And I think this is just this incredible, noble cause where he wants to break that element to his music and to the (Grateful) Dead songs, and (there was) always a history of that going in the Dead songs, you know? So I guess that’s why I’m there. And I just have fun, I can do whatever I want. Phil wants it to go all kinds of different places, and we jam. I mean, we really jam. Completely unstructured stuff happens. I find that very refreshing.
Oh yeah, absolutely. In the Phil Lesh group are there any other guitar players?
JS: Well, it depends on… it changes all the time. Phil Lesh and Friends is like a movable thing. Usually there’s another guitar player. A lot of times it was Warren Haynes, when I’ve done it. I mean, I don’t do it all the time. Like I said, he has other friends that he calls sometimes. This time it’s this guy John (Kadlecik). I’ve never played with him. But he’s the guitarist in the Dark Star Orchestra, which does all Dead tunes. He’s really good, he plays a lot like Jerry Garcia from what I’ve heard. I’ve just heard him on YouTube, I’ve never met him yet. So for this tour, that’ll be new to be playing with him. And, let’s see… Larry Campbell was the guitarist, too… and he’s a great guitarist. It’s always fun, ‘cause there’s a lot of people up there. John Medeski’s going to play keyboards for this next tour, the one in Bridgeport and everything.
Nice. (John Medeski) also plays on your album, doesn’t he?
JS: Yes. He’s a guest on the “Uberjam” CD as well.
Speaking of the “Uberjam” CD, how will that album translate to the live stage?
JS: It won’t be the album, that’s for sure! It’ll be something different, because… you know, when I make an album I kind of do it the “old” way. In that we just go in and play, and there’s not a whole lot of overdubbing. Sure, there’ll be little fixes. But basically, what we play as a group is what goes on the CD, you know? It’s rather than layering. Some people make an album, and they go in and they do a drum track, and then everybody puts different parts over and they spend days working on the vocal. We just rehearse, play gigs, play songs, and then play in the studio. And they’re all kind of elastic songs. In other words, one section might happen three times on the record, but then the next time we play it live it only happens once. And then there’ll be these long jams in between… or short jams, or whatever. So it’s going to be different, but that’s okay. We let it be different every day, but I think our sound is always there because it’s those people playing in that group. Especially Avi Bortnick with his different stuff that he brings to it, it’s got that “Uberjam” sound.
I’m really excited, if I get to see this recent tour of you, to see Adam Deitch. I’ve listened to him on the Lettuce albums and he’s a fantastic drummer.
JS: Oh, he’s incredible. Unfortunately, he won’t be there when we play up in Connecticut. I’ve got another drummer, because Adam’s playing with his group so he can’t make my gigs a lot of times. I have another really great drummer, Tony Mason. Adam is going to make some of the ones in July and august, though. I’m trying to remember which ones. But he won’t be in either Bridgeport or Norfolk, unfortunately.
Being a guitar player myself, there are a few gear questions I can’t help but ask. On this new album do you stick to (using) your Ibanez signature (guitar), or do you use other guitars in the studio?
JS: I play my Ibanez, which is actually not the John Scofield model. The (model) you’re thinking is from 1981, and the John Scofield model was based on this Ibanez they made back in 1981. It’s called an AS-200. I play that on half the tunes, on the other half of the tunes I play a Strat.
That’s what I thought, I was hearing some very Strat-like sounds from (the album) but I never see you use the Strat in live shows.
JS: Yeah, my Ibanez is still my main guitar but I’ve been having a lot of fun playing my Fender Strat too.
Now also, on the album I heard… I think it was on the songs “Cracked Ice” and “Endless Summer”, I felt like I was hearing sequenced guitar riffs.
JS: You know what, that’s Avi. That’s not me. But he has that sequenced… I don’t even know what it is, it’s some sort of repeater type delay thing. When he plays, it comes out double notes. In other words he goes (sings four notes) and it goes (sings four notes, each note doubled). You know what I mean? Yeah, he’s doing that. It’s so cool.
Yeah, it was really cool. I really enjoyed the album’s trance-y sections.
JS: Yeah, trance out! I love trance. I find the whole trance thing is really similar to the kind of atmospheric jazz that I used to listen to in the ‘60s, like Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders and people like that. So I really relate to the trance element.
It’s awesome, I love it. Now, when I was listening to your playing on the album, it seems like you focus on playing very melodically.
JS: Yeah, I think I am. You know, I’m sick of hearing pyrotechnical shredders, although I’ve certainly got that in myself. I want to play fast – I want to play like a saxophone, you know? But I also want to play like Aretha Franklin sings – or somebody like that, not just Aretha Franklin. I like all the great singers. But I want to try to bring that to the music, and… I’ve been listening to guitar players, especially blues players, that play with that vocal element. And I want to do that too.
That’s interesting. I remember I was interviewing Jimmy Herring a while back and he was talking about the same thing: trying to emulate that vocal quality in the guitar playing and how that really reaches out to listeners.
JS: What I think it is, is the guitar can sing, you know? A violin can sing. We can do it. All of us guitar players get so hung up on playing a lot of notes. We’ve got to remember that the electric guitar can just sing.
On you’re album before this one, “A Moment’s Peace”, you did ballads. You’ve really covered a lot of styles. Any other musical styles you’re interested in pursuing in the future that maybe you haven’t investigated as much?
JS: You know, I don’t have anything that I’m dying to do. And I’ve got to say, it looks like I do a lot of styles, which I guess I do. But, for me it’s a lot like… just the stuff I came up with, either jazz or funk. When I was a kid, getting into guitar, I started with the blues, rhythm and blues and funk, and quickly got into jazz. But they all seemed kind of related, you know? They were just different rhythms. If I play on a reggae rhythm, I just hear that as a groove. I’ve studied rhythm all my life, and it’s very easy for me to play on that groove, and to “swing” on it, you know? “Swinging” means just playing stuff that feels good. When I’m playing in funk or jazz, I’m always trying to “swing”, which again just means playing things that fit in really smoothly and nicely, are in the groove. You’re in the rhythm. And that’s what I’m trying to do, and I know it looks like… “What are you, are you a reggae guy? Or trying to be a jazz guy?” It’s all the same world for me.
When it comes to the different styles and sounds I really liked your live album with Medeski, Martin and Wood. I think that was released a few years back, and it really went far out.
JS: Playing with them is really different from any of the other groups I play in. They are so developed as an improvising unit. It just happens that I can sit in with them easily; it’s just some sort of chemistry that’s there. I just love those guys. I think they bring me to another place, when I play with them, you know?
That album is out of this world. I loved not only how much they explore but they really do a lot of gritty and very dirty (textures).
JS: Yeah, you know what, those guys are going for it, man. They’re letting it come out. Letting it happen. Part of that “grit” we talk about – people say “grit” and “dirt” – I think a lot of that is just letting the instruments do what they do and go where they go; letting it happen and letting the power of the instruments happen.
I think that covers everything. Thank you so much!
JS: Hey man, it was great talking to you. Good luck with your guitar playing. If you’re around and I’m playing a gig come say hello and tell me that we did this.
Get John Scofield’s new album, Uberjam Deux, out now. John Scofield will be playing at Norfolk CT’s Infinity Hall on September 13th.
For more information, visit www.johnscofield.com, and www.infinityhall.com/events/john-scofield.